Inga Clendinnen

Australia’s original people had been dealt a lean ecological hand — no domesticatable fauna beyond the dingo, no domesticatable flora beyond the macadamia nut — so they developed a form of firestick farming and expertise in exploiting even the most ephemeral seasonal resources. They also developed steepling thought-structures — intellectual edifices so comprehensive that every creature and plant had its place within it. They travelled light, but they were walking atlases, and walking encyclopedias of natural history. They were Scheherazades, too, because this complicated knowledge was not written down but allocated between human minds in song, dance and story. Detailed observations of nature were elevated into drama by the development of multiple and multi-level narratives: narratives which made the intricate relationships between these observed phenomena memorable.
These dramatic narratives identified the recurrent and therefore the timeless and the significant within the fleeting and the idiosyncratic. They were also very human, charged with moral significance but with pathos, and with humour, too – after all, the Dreamtime creatures were not austere divinities, but fallible beings who happened to make the world and everything in it while going about their creaturely business. Traditional Aboriginal culture effortlessly fuses areas of understanding which Europeans ‘naturally’ keep separate: ecology, cosmology, theology, social morality, art, comedy, tragedy – the observed and the richly imagined fused into a seamless whole.

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