This is the place where the ancestral hero, Kiki, came down from the east, a falling star. Landed in the water and created seeds, grapes, bandicoot, and blue-tongued lizard.
This is the place where geographer Jim Bowler uncovered a 50,000 year-old quartzite core, the earliest evidence of tool-making in the deserts of Australia.
This is the place where the two Dingoes, white and black, followed up emus, feasting upon them before going into two caves, which are seen now as hills to the east.
This is the place where the foremost research on desert wetland ecology takes place.
This is the place where Kalbaardoo, the ancestral snakes, continue to live in the water.
This is the place where the Walmajarri have returned, where the community of Mulan, west of Balgo, provides a home from which the people can continue to exercise custodianship of their country. Where they are joined by kartiya and together study natural history, paint, and draw maps, tell stories, count fish, monitor changes in local meteorology.
All of this and much more is detailed in a surprising, engrossing new publication, Desert Lake: art, science, and stories from Paruku (CSIRO Publishing, 2013), edited by the team of Steve Morton, Mandy Martin, Kim Mahood, and John Carty. Artist, elder, and ranger Hanson Pye tells much of the story, as do Veronica Lulu, Shirley Yoomarie, Launa Yoomarie, and a dozen other Walmajarri. Desert Lake is a triumph of cross-cultural work, both in the activities that it describes and in the making of the book itself. And it is a work of remarkable beauty in its lavish photography of the region’s natural wonders, and in the reproductions of masterful artworks created by the Walmajarri, by kartiya artists, and by the two groups working on often astonishing collaborations that combine aesthetic excellence, narrative, poetry, and scientific observation.
The book opens with a suite of photographs and paintings interspersed with short versions of the major Dreaming narratives of the country, those of the falling star, the two dingoes, the ancient snakes, and Jinyjil, the fertility stone that lies on the lake’s edge. The focus then shifts to the story told by Jim Bowler of his archaeological excavations, conducted in concert and with the approval of the Walmajarri, that uncovered the evidence of ancient human habitation of this oasis of fecundity in the midst of the Great Sandy Desert. Starting from these two narratives of creation and early occupation of the country, Desert Lake goes on to describe in depth the perspectives of its countrymen, the investigations of the white scientists and artists drawn to the land, and the ways in which those complementary frames of reference have come to inform one another over years of working together, creating multiple histories of Paruku.
The core of the book is a series of chapters exploring “recent times.” The story of Mulan in the twentieth century is recounted by the late Rex Johns, son of a stockman who worked the Canning Stock Route. Johns himself worked as a stockman before leading the land claim that eventually returned the country to the Walmajarri and establishing the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) where rangers today continue the intercultural exercises described here. An extensive chapter records the life stories of many of the Walmajarri elders in their own words and in their paintings, a mixture of traditional designs and “historical” styles that depict mission houses and windmills as well as scientists with computers working alongside Walmajarri on the lakeshore.
Artists, too, have come from far away to take part in this work. Mandy Martin, from the Australian National University, combines painting and scientific observation in her ecological studies, and has produced a series of stunning studies and paintings entitled Falling Star that record the landscape around the lake and suggest the timeless stories that inhabit it. Kim Mahood, whose father briefly managed Billiluna Station in the 1960s, where many of the Walmajarri worked, has long associations with the people and was one of the facilitators on the Canning Stock Route Project. She has for years been producing painted maps in concert with people of the region; they combine cartography with Dreaming narratives, overlay ecological histories in dots on maps of the country. William L. Fox, an American poet and environmentalist, has inserted words into other paintings and screenprints created with the Walmajarri elders. His Paruku Suite, a sequence of five short poems begins this way
gray skies gray smoke red sun setting red moon rising every night the falling stars two dingoes watching
In counterpoint, Hanson Pye led a group of rangers from the IPA in the creation of a five-panel painting that tells the story of the Two Dingoes who came chasing emus along the course of Parnkupirti (Sturt Creek). After feasting on the emus, the female dingo said to the male
‘Old man, we have to go now we’ve finished eating.’ That dingo got upset being called an old man. ‘Ohh you’ve called me an old man … you should have called me young fella, but in return now I will call you old woman, I won’t call you young girl anymore.’
That is why we get old and die. That’s why we get grey hair too, because of our Dreaming.
… As they travelled on they just went into the ground. Because it was raining they got inside the cave and they never came back. They are still there today.
In addition to the painting, printmaking (with Basil Hall), storytelling, mapping, and poetry, the project partners created a set of exquisite sculptures from wire and raffia, woven forms of goannas and snakes, and amazing floral displays. The children of the community were enlisted as well, each taking a panel from a large map of the country prepared by Kim Mahood on which they inscribed fish and pelicans, dingoes and bush turkeys. Caring for the future.
Much of this work was carried out in 2011, building upon years of cooperation, in a two-week project that, like the earlier Canning Stock Route Project, aimed to bring together Indigenous and kartiya ways of seeing and working to construct new histories of country, new understandings of the stories that inform life in and around Paruku. The result is this book, a captivating collaboration, a work of art and science, of old and new ways infusing each other with understanding and adding depth one to the other.
Finally, Mandy Martin produced this short video that captures the essentials of the stories told in Desert Lake. It is well worth watching, but I hope it only serves to whet the appetite for the full experience recorded in the book: this is a story that demands subtlety, that is filled with nuance, that invites reflection. It is a journey to another country that will fill you with wonder.