The night is dark, lit by truck headlights, stars, torches and fires. The dancers are preparing behind the bushy mulga trees. Trained hands trace ancient patterns of ochres on their bodies.
Claudia and I are in the audience. Local people are making fires around us. Kids drag pieces of wood together. Under the starry skies, the fires spring up tall and narrow, about as high as a body is wide (so you can lie on your side and the fire covers you). The fires burn roughly two metres apart from each other, creating a layer of warm air over the ground, where people are sitting or lying to watch the dancers perform. When the dancers come out the white clay patterns on their skin glow bright in the firelight.
The long night of traditional singing and dancing by Anangu, the people of the western desert, is called inma. It’s all about the music, the singing and clapping that unwinds across the plains, flowing between the sandhills and along the dry riverbeds. It’s all about the dancing, bare feet making smoke out of the fine red dust, flexible shoulders leaping high, a sudden grin when a dance comes off well. It’s all about the fire, the constant companion of the desert people, nourishing the spirit the way salt water nourishes those on the coast.
Where I live, the Aboriginal people know fire well. A few years ago, when I lived in the small, impoverished, but (mainly very) peaceful Aboriginal community near here, my neighbour made a fire every morning. Up before sunrise in the winter, drinking tea, doing a bit of yoga, I would hear him quietly putting the wood together. I could smell the smoke as he began the day. He told me once that his parents used to employ that quiet still time before sunrise to teach the children. They’d talk quietly to the children about the tasks of the day ahead and what their expectations were. The kids could visualize the goodness of the day before it began and they became absorbed by its busyness.
People at that community and at other remote Aboriginal communities I’ve stayed at use fire to care for the land around them as well as the people. In the National Park near us, traditional owners of the land work together with the Parks people to burn patches of the land, in different places in different years—like alternating squares on a quilt. This way, the animals have a refuge in the unburnt areas, the fires burn low and steady and the fuel does not build up into a catastrophe. Much of the Australian bush has adapted to fire. The seeds of many plants are hard-cased and need fire and then water to germinate. That’s because the Aboriginal people have shaped the landscape that way. Regularly burning the land cleared undergrowth, kept the environment clean and safe and made hunting and travel easier.
The true story of how Aboriginal people cared for this continent before the British came 230 years ago is still emerging slowly. It was the Indigenous people who cultivated the park-like spaces, that made hunting easy. The British propagated the myth that the land was empty. Terra Nullius, they called it. This idea was enshrined in the Australian legal system until 1993. It’s no surprise then, that the Indigenous people’s biological, cultural and social understanding ofland is still largely unknown in non-Aboriginal Australia.
My father works with Landcare, a band of dedicated volunteers who spend hours each week clearing feral weeds to give native species of flora and fauna a chance to survive. Two-thirds of the weeds that invade our native environments have escaped from people’s gardens. Many are still being sold in nurseries.
The cost of not looking after the environment properly is writ large in the spectacular and terrible fires that wreak murder and havoc through the countryside here. Claudia and I were in this area when walls of fire travelled across the horizon for days in the summer of 2012. Fires have come much closer here in other years, with significant damage (and terror for residents) in 2003.
This past weekend was a weekend-long holiday in celebration of the English queen’s birthday. (She does still rule Australia, the officials say). When I was a child we celebrated the Queen’s birthday with firecrackers — dangerous, spectacular, thrilling. Most years a child in the school lost the tip of a finger or perforated an eardrum. It’s probably not a bad thing that in most states the fireworks are big public displays now, every bit as thrilling and paradoxically (because professionally) safer.
The other feature of the Queen’s birthday celebration was the bonfire. In the car-park of the local football oval, a pyre was built of construction off cuts, tyres and all sorts of flammable rubbish. I remember bonfires twice as tall as my Dad, who stands a good 2 metres. The bonfire seemed as big as a house. It was warm, awe-inspiring and beautiful. There are probably places in the country where people still have bonfires, but I haven’t seen one for many years.
We have a fireplace in our yard here though and the spinifex is green so the danger of a bushfire is low. I’m not as good at fire building as the Anangu, but I do enjoy practising. My homely little fires and the memory of all those other great fires, keep me warm these winter evenings.