Skirts, sea snakes and sharks

Have you ever seen a sea-snake? Black with brilliant red or yellow stripes, tumbling sinuously through the ocean? The sea-snake’s body makes the keel of a yacht look crude and awkward. Imagine being that creature, moving with lightness and ease through the salt water that holds you, without resisting. The other ocean creatures learn to avoid your bright colours and rapid flicking motion.

Or imagine you were a shark. Your body much bigger and covered in unbreakable, abrasive skin. Imagine having the ability to move as fast almost as fast you can look. Perhaps there was a time when the many rows of perfect teeth felt painful as they grew and made you thrash and look for things to bite. Every creature of the planet fears seeing your streamlined shape – almost none harass you.

 Nudibranches (c) Claudia Jocher 1994

Nudibranches (c) Claudia Jocher 1994

What grace there is in physicality! Do you think the sea-snakes worry if their stripes hue is more orange than yellow? Or if their fin is shorter than another snake’s? Does a shark feel shame about the scars she carries or a battle notch in her dorsal fin?

How would it be, to be a human and move through your world with such grace, ease and thoughtless confidence? This is the illusion athletes and dancers, acrobats and actors work so hard to achieve and maintain, but for them it comes at the price of physical and psychological torment.

By being-in-themselves, animals inhabit the liminal world between the physical and ethereal without trying. Most humans do not allow themselves to exist in that world. The more “modern” we are, the further we are from it. Many of the most poised and nimble humans I’ve seen have come from poorer parts of the planet, what I have heard called The Majority World. I don’t wish to romanticise deprivation. There is no beauty in the diseases of poverty, even if there may be nobility in some of those who endure them. Perhaps it’s only that it’s easier to see the beauty in people when you’re truly an outsider: an Occidentalist in Shanghai or an Aborigine in New Mexico.

In some of the remote Aboriginal communities in Australia, often called the Homelands, people retain an unaffected grace. When I first arrived at a desert community which became my home for several years, my major physical goal was to be able to sit cross-legged on the ground. A posture that was carelessly easy for me as a child had become a challenge beyond the limits of my flexibility after decades misspent on chairs under florescent lights. Indigenous people in the desert spend a lot of time on or near the ground. Even people made obese by the white man’s sugar and flour can get up nonchalantly after sitting on the ground playing cards.

I also appreciate the fashions of the desert women. The women of the APY Lands almost always wear skirts for practical, as well as aesthetic, reasons. When you are several miles from the nearest lavatory, it can be a useful skill -- making water while standing, without getting your skirt wet. Skirts maintain modesty too, in a culture where the thighs are a very private part of a woman’s body. Women perform bare-breasted at inma: the traditional storytelling dance ritual. They celebrate the beauty of breasts of all shapes and sizes by painting them up in ochre. The patterns are ancient ones, or new variations on ancient themes, and they are connected to the history and vibration of the land. They can only be painted by other women who know the dance, the story, the land.

This deeply engraved respect for women’s breasts can be seen in the landscape. Mountains that look like breasts feature in the Tjukurpa and their stories and meaning are danced at inma. We see some of them in the landscape we travel through between Uluru and Alice Springs. At the level of the mundane, Aboriginal women of this region have the prerogative of living much of their lives without bras or any other corsetry. They let their bodies grow as they will, although you can tell a woman is going to town because she might be plucking at her little bush beard with tweezers absent-mindedly while talking to you. So pendulous breasts, a vividly coloured, elastic-waisted skirt and tweezing with no mirror are de rigueur in the desert lands. The world, my world at least, is a better place for it.

The gorgeous diversity of human fashion reflects places and stories and cultures. The differences in our bodies and how we present them to the world are as natural as the movements of the shark and the snake. Why should we judge them when we do not judge the trunks of trees, for the way they are shaped by storm, salt and soil? Yet, intelligent as we are, our discriminative sense, part of our precious facility for critical thought, can make us dumber than sea cucumbers when we use it to attack ourselves or each other for differences in appearance.

Here, in the middle of continental Australia, I’m a long way from the sea. The nearest sharks and sea-snakes are figures drawn in the red dust to make fantastical stories for local children. But luckily, I get to sit cross-legged on the ground to tell my own stories.