Black and white birds— the currawongs, magpies and peewees – are my totem. For readers from distant places, in Aboriginal life (and many Indigenous cultures), a person’s totem is a creature that they have a special, life-long connection to. That animal or bird visits you, speaks to you, looks out for you. My grandfather also used to call a totem your flesh or your “meat”, the latter a strange word because you would never eat your totem. This taboo on eating part of the animal world helped maintain the ecological balance. In the old days, when everybody else was feasting on black and white birds as if they were chickens, my sisters and I, protectors of our totem, would withdraw.
Two nights ago, it rained here in the Central Australian desert, bringing me joy in my sleep. The peewees and magpies came around, chasing the insects that followed the rain, their songs reconnecting me to the world around me. After a day’s work at the clinic yesterday evening, the ragged storm clouds in the west inspired us to drive out to Kata Tjuta.
In the local language ‘Kata’ means head, ‘tjuta’ many. It is an extremely sacred place for men’s ceremonies. Most of Kata Tjuta is forbidden to outsiders, many parts forbidden to women. Walpa Gorge — one of the places in Kata Tjuta that visitors are allowed in — is a strangely beautiful and mysterious place, whose smooth paths and walls seem to have been touched by eternity itself. The gorge is a valley, a deep V, leading to one of the few water sources on the ground in the desert here. C and I took a young friend to this majestic gorge between two of the steep, rounded domes — two of the ‘heads’ of Kata Tjuta.
The flies were out in strength after the rain. Small female flies desperately seeking the protein they need to grow and breed tried to crawl into our ears or ride on our backs in a grey swarm, hoping for a bead of sweat. Constantly swishing and swatting our arms as we walked made the experience somewhat bearable. I found a spot to sit where the evening breeze helped dispel the flies. The others walked further into the gorge to experience its magnificent weirdness; hopeful of leaving the flies behind. Long after I had lost sight of them on the dipping, curving path, I could hear their voices and laughter reverberating up and down the valley. From my seat on one of the curved stone hills of the valley floor I had a view of the surrounding plains. In the west, a range of mountains stood black against the orange sunset, beneath sweeping clouds. Some of the clouds formed a body of deep grey, full of rain. Others were very high, icy white. Trails of verga dragged beneath the storm clouds. It was raining on part of the plain.
I felt at peace, even though I was still twitching and cursing at the flies – a gesture that a nurse friend calls Summer Tourettes. We had the gorge to ourselves. The evening breeze carried the sound of wings as birds flew into the gorge for water. Below me a copse of brilliant green bushes and trees made a satisfying contrast to the hot red stone surrounding it. There was a tree near the entrance of the gorge where a bird often sat and called. The position of the tree meant that the bird’s call echoed through the domes of Kata Tjuta in an ongoing, labyrinthine warble. The bird sat there and called for twenty minutes or so, perhaps out of sheer joy at finding this unique sound mirror or imagined companionship.
I’ve been at Kata Tjuta in the middle of winter, when the chill black shadows of the domes encroach on the gorge, starting in mid-afternoon. You leave as soon as the sun sets. The cold and the eeriness of the landscape create an aura of danger. But then the place has almost no flies, much like Australiabefore the Europeans came.
In those days, the animals here — kangaroos, echidnas, koalas and lizards, for example — didn’t produce dung conducive to large numbers of flies breeding. It was the cattle that came with the convict ships that changed that.
Aboriginal people in Central Australia used to walk from one waterhole to the next, their ancient knowledge of the environment guiding them also in the search for nourishment in the delicate desert eco-system. They were confronted with this cattle industry only about a century ago. The last of the fully nomadic Aboriginal peoplecame out of the desert as late as the 1980’s. I’ve met some of them. Their precious and sparse waterholes had been fouled by cattle. Hooved animals had trampled the centuries-old soil crust, thereby eliminating certain types of insects and vegetation. And then, there must have been the flies. Flies in their millions sprouting from the huge wet cow pats, crawling into eyes, genitals, noses and mouths; constantly generating their loud, stressful buzz. The frustration with flies yesterday drove my companions and me to retreat into our machines — first our airconditioned car, then our airconditioned homes. Early last century when the flies exploded into a plague in Central Australia, people must have understood why the British needed houses and churches: to retreat from the hell they had created outside.
The last time such a massive disruption took place was five or six thousand years ago, at the end of the last ice age. The Aboriginal peoples of Central Australia still hold that memory in themselves.
Long before I came to Central Australia, I met a woman from the region at a conference. (Perhaps she will read this post). When we introduced ourselves, she told me she was from the Western Desert and her totem was ice. “Ice? Really? In the desert? Wow, that’s wonderful,” I said.
“It gets cold enough to see it come a few times a year,” she said, “I love the patterns you know, with the winter frosts. My totem has stories going back to the melting of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age,” she continued.
“That was five thousand years ago,” I said.
“Yes,” she said and smiled.
More recently, I heard about an Aboriginal man in Central Australia whose totem was the fly. That, too, gave me pause. I have friends who have the crocodile as their totem, a fierce and unpleasant creature, but undeniably powerful. I felt sorry for the man whose totem was a fly. It was such a pest. How could you make a relationship with that insect? I thought about this a lot. I understood that a fly could try to tell you something, just as a bird, my totem, did. The relationship between a human and a domesticated animal was not so different. Anyone who has had a horse or a dog has felt the animal communicate with them. The difference is that the Aboriginal totem is connected to the earth, and a body of knowledge shaped and created over the millennia of human existence.
The man whose totem was a fly was forced, I thought, to be humble. He’d been made to contemplate the role of insects in maintaining and expressing the life force. He had to listen to them, and try to understand his intrusive and annoying insect family. Anyone who thinks that Aboriginal people have a romanticised view of nature should think about that kind of connectedness. He wouldn’t be able to kill the flies, his relations. I thought about how this gentleman must have grown through his experience: being given his totem as a child, feeling pleased to see them almost everywhere he went, then realising that almost everyone hated his relations and having to continue to respect and listen to them despite their sometimes obnoxious behaviour.
I am grateful for my totem, the black and white birds that pop up to guide me and talk to me almost anywhere I am in the world, city, forest, beach or desert. All of the women of my clan have that totem. The men of my clan have the elegant, clever preying mantis, as well as individual totems they may have been given by powerful people in their families. As a younger person I sometimes felt a bit diminished in my pride because my totem was not an eagle or a crocodile.
As we left Kata Tjuta in the deepening purple evening last night, a willy wagtail — the cheeky black and white wren known as a bringer of news, teller of secrets — hopped by our path. All’s well with the world, he said. In the quiet space between the leaving of the flies and the coming of the mosquitoes, I acknowledged my kinsman.