If Zeus and Moses Lived in Your Backyard

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The people of the Arrernte Corkwood Dreaming in central Australia have a story about the first time man discovered he had urges beyond his ever-present struggle for survival.

This tale of dreamtime law—or altyerre, as it in known in the Arrernte language—begins in the days of the first happenings, when catlike marsupials called achilpe transformed into men. Delighting in their new form, like butterflies loosed from their chrysalises, these men thrived amid a land where corkwood nectar dripped in abundance, until finally the nectar flowed so fast that the land flooded, and most of the men were drowned. The survivors regrouped and learned how to hunt for survival.

One day, a lone man—a chilba, or hunter—was stalking a bush turkey when he heard an amazing sound coming from beyond a grove of trees. It was a noise that no animal had ever made before, and he was entranced by its haunting rhythm. Gathering up his nerve, the hunter crept closer and closer to the sound, and soon he spied the most beautiful beings he’d ever seen. Sitting in a circle, these creatures resembled his fellow hunters, but with lovely curves and more delicate limbs. Mesmerized by the songs and the brightly painted bodies of these strange beings—these women—the chilba man touched himself. Then, ever so gently, he took his spear and touched the women, one by one. When he saw that they did not fear him, he seized the singing damsels and ran off with them to a distant waterfall.

When the man did not return to the camp that evening, his fellow hunters set off to find him. In the fading light, they tracked his footprints until they heard the singing of the women. Following this song to the waterfall, they saw the chilba man cavorting with the women—and neglecting his hunting duties—so they dragged him off and punished him severely.

How exactly they punished him I can’t say, since Magdalene Lynch is too embarrassed to go into details. “I’d prefer not to talk about that section of the story,” she tells me.

Magdalene, a heavy-set Arrernte grandmother, is the traditional landowner of her ancestral homeland—a flat, dusty stretch of outback colloquially known as Black Tank, one hour north of Alice Springs. Unlike the trash-strewn settlements of Utopia, Black Tank is a neatly maintained homestead; a sign at the front gate proudly announces that it won the “Territory Tidy Town” award in 2004.

Dressed in running shoes and a maroon polo shirt, Magdalene has been walking me along the dreaming trails of her property, which she is developing into an indigenous cultural camp for tourists and school groups. Her hope, she tells me, is that the camp will generate income and keep her grandchildren close to the land. Since her dot-painting classrooms and shaded rest-pavilions are still under construction, she has primarily been telling me the local creation stories. “We never believed our territory existed within borders,” she tells me. “We belong to altyerre, our dreamtime law, which stretches over the land like lines. We may live here, but our dreamtime stories go as far south as Port Augusta, 1,000 miles away. If we went there and did our ceremonial dances, we would be welcomed like next-door neighbors. Their elders know our songs, as we know theirs.”

I look out across the landscape and try to imagine how this physically unremarkable stretch of countryside could be so full of mythic history. As with all aboriginal territory, the Black Tank property is densely strung with landmarks of deep religious significance—Arrernte Meccas, Delphis, and Golgothas spread out amid the dust and the mulga trees. For someone like Magdalene, a three-mile stroll from the backyard to a neighboring settlement might be a de facto pilgrimage across territory distinguished by epic feats of a local Zeus or Moses.

On an intellectualized level, these aboriginal dreamtime tales played a practical role in nomadic survival, using their rich details to teach lessons about sharing resources or avoiding dangers. Given the stories I’ve just learned (and which I rephrased here in an admittedly impressionistic and Western manner), one might conclude that the tale of the corkwood-nectar flood is an admonition against complacency in the face of abundance, or the story of the chilba a cautionary tale about getting your freak on when you should be out hunting.

Magdalene, however, is not so scientific in speaking about her heritage: When she tells me about the mythic kangaroos that crossed her land bearing ceremonial shields, leaving watering holes in their giant footprints, she speaks in an offhand manner, as if it happened yesterday. “We teach our children to be aware of the spirit world,” she says, “and not be frightened. If they listen to the spirits, and respect the laws of the land, the spirits will give them what they need from life.”

As a tour guide, Magdalene is charmingly prone to distraction—interrupting the kangaroo story, for example, to brandish a stick and thrash a tree for 10 minutes until a single bush banana falls out (as it turns out, the fruit is too fibrous and overripe for us to eat). Since she had a Catholic education in Alice Springs and speaks prim, precise English, I ask Magdalene if she plans to add a modern perspective when she shares her culture with students and tourists. “Of course,” she says. “People can only understand our culture if they can relate parts of their life to ours. The stories of the altyerre were never separate from day-to-day life; I often describe them in terms of education. On a given day, mathematics might have involved finding the right mulga stick for a spear and straightening it in the fire; social studies could have been learning the dreamtime song to a place you would never visit.”

“And you can still live by these traditions, even when you drive a car and live in a house?”

“Traditions were always meant to serve the present,” she says. “We may not be fully nomadic, as we were in the past, but we still travel to visit family, or pay respects, or attend initiation ceremonies. Hunting is still hunting, even if our men use rifles and Land Cruisers. Our culture doesn’t teach us to hide from new things, and in many ways modern life is easier and less violent than our old ways. But that doesn’t mean the altyerre is any less important or sacred to us.”

As I listen to Magdalene, I have a small epiphany that puts my entire journey here into perspective: As much as my visit to indigenous Australia has been an implicit quest for cultural novelty, true aboriginal authenticity was never mine to discover. This is because authenticity anywhere is an internal dialogue within a culture as it synthesizes its past with the present, hoping to better navigate a changing world. The job of the traveler, I reckon, is to slow down and listen so that he can hear snippets of that conversation.

Before I can do this in earnest, however, I have one matter of clarification for Magdalene. “About the chilba man,” I say. “How did the other hunters punish him?”

“I’ll just say that they did something that suited his crime. Something that made him unable to do it again.”

“You mean they chopped his penis off?”

Magdalene purses her lips, her eyes wavering just slightly before she turns to continue my tour of her homeland.

Taking this as a “yes,” I follow behind, trying to envision singing maidens and lakes of nectar where I might previously have seen just scrub grass.