If I were inventing epithets for Australia, in the manner of a vernacular Homer, I might call it “the star-strewn country.”
There are the desert stories of the Minyma Tjuta, the seven sisters who fled across the continent from the licentious embraces of an old Tjakamarra until they flew up into the sky where we now see them as the constellation we in the West call the Pleiades, still pursued by that old wati, that hunter.
On Too Much Humbug, the Warumpi Band’s third and final album, Neil Murray sang about his journeys across the world and his inevitable, longed-for return to Australia. If you’ve ever spent a night in the Central Desert, you’ll know what he means.
You can have America
And all of Europe too
I’ll be in Australia
A million stars in my room
On my first trip to Broome, Emily Rohr picked us up from our hotel in the late afternoon for a barbie on the beach. With the good company, the tales of the day’s fishing (the fishermen’s boat was nearly swamped by a passing whale), the plentiful food, the bright, warm fire, I barely noticed how deep the dark was until it was nearly midnight and time for us to return to the hotel. Only once the fire was extinguished and we began to cross the beach to where the troopie was parked did I realize that I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. All I could see was the Milky Way, and I stopped dead in my tracks (probably causing someone to bump into me in the terrestrial darkness), immobilized with awe at its brilliance, its blackness, its vastness, its undulating depths: these were all things I’d never seen before.
One of my favorite star stories from the Dreaming repositories comes from the Manggalili clan at Djarrakpi, the home of the great painter Narritjin Maymuru and his family. It tells of two brothers who established the homeland there around a lake bordered on one side by hills and on the other by dunes and the sea. One day the brothers went out to sea in a canoe. A giant turtle, coming ashore to lay her eggs, created a great wave which swamped the brothers’ canoe. As they fought through the current, many creatures offered assistance, including the log Milkamirri, Ngoykal the ancestral King fish, Dhala the sea creature (perhaps a whale), and the rock cod. But the brothers had determined that their destiny was to die and travel up into the sky to become stars. The tides swept sand and sea grass over them. Their sister, Nyapililngu, buried them in the sand, creating the yingapungapu, an ovoid-shaped grave that is still today a central sculptural feature of mortuary rites among the Yolngu.
The story tells us that the brothers knew that, having created a home for their people on earth, their work here was done. But they still needed to find a home for the spirits of the departed, and in dying, they went up into the sky to prepare that place. Today when we look up into the sky at night, we see the millions of camp fires that form what we call the Milky Way. These are the stars that adorn the magnificent funerary poles for which Naminapu Maymuru-White, Narritjin’s daughter, is famous.
But there are other famous Yolngu stars, Gumatj stars, and like Neil Murray, well-travelled across the world. A bridge of stars, they link the heavens and the earth as they link all people on all lands around the world. No matter who we are, we share these stars; they are part of our common humanity, our experience of the world we all know, and all the world we know. They shine down tonight on Nhulunbuy, where a great painter died this week, and on Paris, where she lives on. They light us all. They tell us we are not different, one to another. All one, all the same. For all time.
I will leave you with three things: past, present, and future. That’s all I can say.
May we all rest in peace beneath those stars.