Aboriginal peoples of Australia possess complex systems of mythology, law, and story-telling whose name (poorly) translates into “Dreamtime” or “the Dreaming.” Dreaming stories tell of how things came to be, but also how things are and should be. These stories find salience in place and sound; they are told through songs linked to sites, which together constitute tracks across the desert – songlines or dreamlines. Amazingly, Aboriginal peoples could traverse the entire continent by following these lines, although they may pass through different language zones. Researchers suspect that the melodic pattern of the songs describe natural land features, providing a “soundmap” of country, independent of the lyrics.
Individuals “own” certain dreamings – emu dreamings, honey ant dreamings, water dreaming. That is, they possess the exclusive right to know and share traditional stories associated with the land. Intricate kinship structures determine who may know which dreamings. Individual deaths sometimes result in gaps in knowledge that can last for years.
Aboriginal peoples believe that to sing country is to sing it to life. Song takes a form of caring. Knowledge must be preserved so that the land – and thus the people – can be preserved. When you look after country, they say, it looks after you.
Solvitur Ambulando: it will be solved by walking. The Aboriginal could follow the songlines to look for water, walking, walking, walking, surviving together in small bands.
Deep in the heart of urban Darwin, I think: the whitefella forgot this, forgot his country. He did not care for country, so country could not care for him. Not cared for himself, he forgot to care for others. The whitefella engineered himself out of the land, and engineered the land out of cities. We engineered our own two feet into obsolescence; wheels usurped the bipedal solving, the physical journey across space that once brought us closer to each other. Our anthem became Solvitur Petrolando: the problem will be solved by the combustion engine. We traverse the city by car, by bus, erecting mobile barriers between ourselves and others. We became passengers, people who “bear little or no responsibility for the tasks required for a vehicle to arrive at its destination.”
As I walked through Darwin, I felt like a lone wanderer in another’s country, deciphering the contours of a landscape that sang out an unfamiliar song. “How far would it take me to walk to the center?” I asked a museum attendant. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” she said. “Can I walk from here to the CBD?” I asked a police officer. “Oh, you could, I guess. But take the bus instead.”
I wanted to solve this city by walking, to see the sights and meet the people tucked away in places I was told not to go. But I became a passenger and I took the bus instead.
* * *
Let me tell you this dreaming, my dreaming. My dreaming that isn’t so much a dreaming as a lack of a dreaming. It is the space left when something pushes into the sand. It is a cautionary description of the impression left behind, a recognition that the negative space will never betray the positive object.
It is an aspirational dreaming.
Let me tell you my Darwin public bus dreaming. It came from the North, that dreaming. Bus Line number four announced its path with screeching brakes, revving engines and the constant opening and closing of doors. It came North, that number four. Came from Causurina and sang its passengers South to the center. The center sang us to it with beer classes clinking, nearby ocean waves crashing in repeated stanzas calling us to rest. Or to forget. This country is good at forgetting.
An Aboriginal man boarded the number four bus to Causurina. I was immersed in Chatwin’s book The Songlines, although I obscured the cover with my purse, feeling silly — another white woman reading a white man’s romanticized account of blackfella life. The Aboriginal sat at the back of the bus not long before the pot-bellied bus driver evacuated his plexiglass-lined transit throne, his face contorted into a determined scowl. I still do not know exactly what happened when the man boarded the bus.
As the driver passed me, I felt the anger orbiting around his spheroidal waist, its gravity pulling passengers in.
He commanded the man pay up or get off the bus. The Aboriginal passenger stated that his three-hour ticket was still valid. The bus driver raised his voice over the Aboriginal man’s low, confused drone.
A young Aussie girl jolted to her feet and braced her skateboard — I waited to see if it was a defensive statement, a weapon, or both. Half of her head was shaven bare as a winter plain. The springtime side sprouted chunky blond locks and stylish side-bangs.
Out bush, when the Spinifex bushes become too thick, traditional owners burn the landscape to wipe it clean. The girl was one-half destruction, one-half regrowth.
She yelled at the driver, bending at the waist, craning her neck to force the words closer to his face. The worlds surged out of her slim lips like a dam somewhere deep in her throat had burst with the building pressure.
“Plenty of people on the bus don’t pay every day. Like me! And you don’t do a thing. I used an expired ticket and you didn’t say a thing!
“You’re a racist, is what you are.”
The word dropped, stillborn, on the bus floor. The floor seemed to shake with the sudden contractions of its birth. The other passengers lowered their heads, deflecting responsibility or feigning disinterest. I buried my head further in my book, as if on cue; I had been waiting for this word, tonguing its possibility in my mouth.
Racist. Racist. Racist. The word cried out, waiting for someone to claim it. The bus responded in silence.
The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner coined the phrase “The Great Australian Silence” to describe a strategic forgetting (most egregiously by historians) about Aboriginal people after European contact. It cannot be dismissed as accidental. It is, he says,
…a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
Is it that kind of silence I heard on Darwin pubic bus number four? Or another one altogether? Can you hear a silence?
A pudgy middle-aged woman sitting across from me breaks the still, letting forth a piercing series of expletives at the skater girl. “Get off the bus! Get off the bus, you #&$^@&, he’s doing his job you #(*#($!” She didn’t bother to turn around and face the girl she addressed, barking blindly toward the front of the bus. Her double, triple, quadruple chins shook as if nodding in furious agreement. She clutched her white plastic shopping bags as if her groceries were threatened by the environment of escalating hostility.
Is this bus number four or the four-letter bus? I wanted to ask her. Ah, no difference.
I imagined the woman’s name was Gretta, Suzanne, Maurine. I imagined she was not always so angry, so…repugnant. I stared at her fingers: each suffered the grip of a gold ring, sometimes two. White flesh bulged around cubic zirconium and imitation emeralds as if attempting a Cartesian escape: body disowning an unpleasant mind. I wondered if she put the rings on long ago, when she was more beautiful, less angry, when she could hold the world in her hands without contempt. This bus could not hold her hatred. A zaftig woman. Profanity did not look good on her. Her shirt was made of that synthetic shiny material, all magnified leopard print and sequins. A facial tick made its debut alongside her explosive temper.
“You bitch!” Twitch. “Get off the damn bus!” Twitch.
The skater girl redirected her attention to her new nemesis, a woman who time would undoubtedly soon forget. History has too many unpleasant things to contend with.
The confrontation was short-lived, but intense. A chorus of yelling, slurs, confusion – a confrontation that became more about the two women than the original man in question. The Aboriginal man and his new skater ally exited the bus together. The Spinifex girl stood curbside and scanned about for the bus’s number. She thrust her pinky and thumb to her ear, signaling. She will call the transit authority to complain.
The bus driver, shaken, returned to his seat behind protective plexiglass walls. He reached for the overhead speaker, gasping, “That girl is going to report me. So I hope you all stand behind me.”
“Hell yea we will!” Screamed Frau Zaftig.
A moment passed.
“I am not a racist,” he added.
Three stops later, the bus driver will call the transit police on a group of young Aboriginal boys listening to music on their cell phones after they do not comply with his request to turn the music off. We all arrived home very late.
The next day I played a game and used an expired ticket to ride bus number four. Twice.
* * *
So many travelers share this dreaming: a meek Taiwanese girl, when hearing I will move to an Aboriginal community advises, “Oh, well, be careful maybe.” I say nothing. “Don’t walk around alone at night,” a tourist tells me. “The abos, you know, they’re dangerous when they drink.” She keeps three bottles of wine for herself in our hostel fridge, finishes two in one night. I say nothing. Silence here is catching.
* * *
Solvitur Ambulando. Thoreau called us to walk so that we could return to wilderness. After riding the public bus in Darwin, I wonder if a return to walking, a democratic physical pace of understanding, could return us to each other. It sounds silly, I know, but this dreaming is about more than walking. It is about humanity, it is about the mutual human respect for which much of Australia is long overdue.
This is my dreaming, a dreaming that passes through Alawa, Nightcliff, Fannie Bay, Parap. Passes every day, that bus dreaming. My dreaming has no resolution, no moral. My dreaming only has the timid song of hope that inhabits the space of silence, waiting to break it. Its lines sing songs of people, our destinations and the things we do to each other to get there. It has deep roots, this dreaming, but most people try to forget.