The Desert God, the City God
There's got to be a reason that all the big religions began in deserts.
by Terry Monagle
Thousands of Australian Christians and others make what is becoming a pilgrimage to the centre for healing, for presence.
Before I go I am curious whether this notion of pilgrimage is just religious mush. But within hours of being on the red sand, of stroking the foliage, of spying birds, I am wondering why I too am enraptured by this mandala of a continent, by the infinities at its heart, the infinities washing its coasts, and teeming life forms which connect those infinities.
We see the Rock at dawn and dusk; we do the ten k walk around the water holes and sacred sites at its bottom. We walk in the canyon at Kata Tjuta, over coruscations of conglomerate rock. We visit a small desert community of Anangu people at a place called Cave Hill 230 ks from the rock, down amidst the Musgrave ranges in South Australia. I play with Anangu boys and marvel at their bubbly ancient language. It sounds as if they are juggling marbles in their mouths. In their bare feet they float over rock and sand. No wonder many indigenous are footballing geniuses. We sit in a 20 metre deep cave beneath paintings and hear them tell the story of their land and sky. This cave and hillside were set for the antics of the seven sisters and a sexually aggressive shape changing hunter. The sisters ended up as a constellation known to the Greeks as the Pleiades.
It seems that in the Centre we experience infinity of time, the cave paintings are estimated to be 22,000 years old; the Rock seemingly is 400 million years old; the words rolling like in the throats of the Anangu boys maybe 30,000 years; and the creation stories, there pictured on the rock, gesture towards the beginning of time. In the rocks are no fossils of plant and animals because the rock was earlier. The desert oaks take 20 years to grow to two metres. In the face of this sense of time, as an individual human, I feel as permanent as the yelled `hello' which echos back off the rock face.
There is also sense of infinity of space. We see hundreds of miles of red sand hills and swales, the ridges receding; endless mulga forests; and the vast blue sky. In cool desert evenings we see the crisp gleaming Milky Way. Galaxies upon galaxies, all swirling, roaming and colliding. 'Ooo', go the people around us, 'did you see that shooting star?'
From the plane, coming and going, we see anonymous salt lake after salt lake, all barren, all beautiful. Some are vast lunettes, others perfect circles. Their silver meets the dunes' ochre red and the ranges' burgundy. From ten thousand feet the landscape is a dot painting.
We can almost touch a paradisal ecology of the landscape; the delicate interrelationship of landforms, of flora and fauna, of climate, and the economy of the desert people. Ghost gums are growing only at water holes where the water collected in pools at the foot of the rocks; the witchetty bushes with their narrow range; the feet and scuff marks on the red sand of the beetles, skinks, goannas, and serpents. From two feet, a dot painting.
Gingerly we touch the round, flat, spikey spinifex grass which is said to hold 70% of the continent from blowing away. It also provides hibernation quarters for creeping things. We learn of the skills of the Anangu, of knowing when and where the bush plum, the bush fig, the quondongs, the witchetty grubs, the water would be available. The resin from the spinifex providing them with ointment and glues. Above the red sand is a family of black wedge tail eagles after quarry and carrion. Tying space and time, land and creatures into coherent meanings and teachings are the religious stories, the lore of the people, the Tjukurpa.
The flight home is three hours and it is not till the last 40 minutes before Melbourne that we can see signs of western farming's manipulation and dominance of the environment. It looks greener, more fertile, but there is no eco system left down there. It is more sterile than the desert.
The airport is chockers with Australians travelling on a Sunday night all thinking what they are doing is important. The streets are full of aggressive cars and trucks. What is this place? I am reluctant to leave the sense of desert life for this. But we must resume the cycle of our own lives, the washing, the mail, the trips to work and inevitably the desert experience is pushed to the back of our minds. First day back I drive my wife to work. I wonder if I can resume my normal Christian prayer. I find myself wondering how the god of the desert equates to the anthropocentric city god.
My wife seems to understand my questions and she searches for a cd. She says she was singing this hymn to herself on our ten k walk around the rock.
The words bring a peace. The most fundamental inclination of the human heart and mind, must be gratitude, worship. But worship leads to politics. Shouldn't we buy out the pastoral leases existing in this fragile ecology? Shouldn't we attempt to protect the traditional way of life, the languages of our first Australians? We must husband this land so carefully. Infinities induce reverence.
Terry Monagle is a writer.