The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin


Another book chosen for its revelations of Australia.  The Songlines, published in the US in 1987, is a fictionalized account of a journey in the area northeast of Alice Springs with ruminations on the nomadic life.  Chatwin is taken with the idea of wandering as a spiritual path and touches on various nomadic people he has encountered all over the world, as well as references to the nomadic life by a wide range of writers.

But of course he is focused on the wanderers of Australia who travel along their songlines or dreaming tracks, a difficult and complicated topic for us.  These pathways stretch great distances across the continent and have countless rules about who may sing various songs.  The songlines govern interactions among strangers who may know the same song; each song is connected to a species, a wallaby, for example.  Those who sing the wallaby dreaming memorize the points along the wallaby songlines even though they may never travel the full distance.  If they met another wallaby singer, they would know soon they are brothers.  The points or locations along the lines are sacred sites resulting in virtually the whole of Australia being sacred to them.  You can see the inevitable conflict with Europeans.

Bruce travels in the company of an Australian whose father was a Russian; Arcady's job was to interpret the Land Rights Act passed in 1976 which gave Aboriginal owners' the land that was unoccupied.  On this journey he was looking for a path for a railway to Alice Springs which did not disturb any sacred sites.

They visit Enid Lacey, the fictionalized name for Iris Harvey (according to this mention in Slate) who owned a museum and gallery in Alice Springs for Aboriginal art and was one of the first to see the merit in their paintings.  She gave painters supplies, bossed them about, and sold their paintings. 

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