Tuesday, 16 September 2014

On Dreaming

After posting last week I found that I wanted go a little deeper into what I think is meant by Ursula K. Le Guin's reference to 'the Dream Time' in her book Always Coming Home. It's the kind of short, pithy phrase, rich in meaning, that stays with us whether we recognize the specific reference or not. Like a pebble dropped into deep water, a good writer can drop images like these into our minds, images whose ripples spread slowly but surely outward.

Always Coming Home is a work of speculative fiction, but the Dream Time, or the Dreaming, is a real thing in the real world. Nevertheless it escapes easy definition, since it doesn't originate in a way of thinking framed by the English language, or even in any recognizably Western way of thinking. The Dreaming is a central fact of life for the Warlpiri people of central Australia, and as the daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin likely came by her understanding of it honestly. Most of what I've learned about the Dreaming comes from an excellent ethnography by the anthropologist Michael Jackson, At Home in the World, and it's going to be a challenge for me to do justice to such a deep and complex phenomenon in so short a post. But I think it's an idea worth exploring and honouring beyond the passing reference I made last week.

To begin with, At Home in the World is an ethnography that challenged the way ethnographies were written. Published in 1995, it uses elements of personal narrative, travel stories, conversations with Warlpiri people Jackson met during his three years visiting and travelling with them, poetry, and critical reflection on Jackson's own culture. He went to Australia to find a new perspective on the idea of home by living among people who don't build permanent houses, preferring instead to build temporary shelters out on the land. His exposure to a way of life and perception so completely unlike ours challenged him to write in a way that would convey the jarring sense of newness he experienced constantly during those three years. It's not a scientific, observational style, but one that reflects the messiness and ambiguity of the people and situations he encountered.

It takes a bit of a leap of faith to read like this, not knowing at all times what is going on, but by coming at his account obliquely, Jackson is true to his subject matter. Anthropological fieldwork must involve a great deal of not knowing what is going on. Nothing is explained completely, except in snatches. The Dreaming, one of the essential elements of Warlpiri society, is talked about not in absolute terms, but in terms of how individuals relate to it. In this way individual contributions to the bigger picture of Warlpiri life accrue meaning as we journey with Jackson deeper into the desert.

Early in the narrative Jackson goes to a place called Lajamanu, called Hooker Creek by whites, and becomes acquainted with a Warlpiri man named Pincher Jampijinpa. Later, Pincher asks Jackson to buy him some paints at the store: red, yellow, and white, and when Jackson returns, Pincher unfolds a few old canvases painted in the same colours. To white eyes they appear to be covered in abstract designs, large circles and sinuous lines, but as Pincher explains, they tell the story of the land his father came from. A narrative unfolds which sounds mythical to our ears, but which conveys precise physical details of the land across which the characters journey. The lines are tracks across the outback, while the circles are campsites. This is a songline, or a Dreaming, which belongs to Pincher and his kin, because it belongs to the land that they in turn belong to.

Songlines tell the story of journeys, and they imply an imperative to re-enact those journeys. Singing or chanting the story as one walks the same route one's ancestors walked, through the same landscape, is one way that Warlpiri people make themselves deeply 'at home in the world', in Jackson's words. Their practice of walking hundreds of miles through the desert, finding food and water and such shelter as they need along the way, runs counter to white Australians' demands that they settle down, build permanent houses, and contribute to the economy. When asked how far away the sites mentioned in his particular Dreaming are, Pincher is vague, but even sitting indoors he gestures unerringly in the direction his ancestors came from, because he's made such journeys himself. "We don't use maps," comments Zack Jakamarra, an older Warlpiri man. "We got the country in our heads."

Interactions like these give plenty of food for thought on differences between Warlpiri and white conceptions of land. Jackson was born in New Zealand, so like me he's a white man native to a land he can never truly call his own. Of course, that's putting a sympathetic spin on centuries of murder and forced assimilation, as took place in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The white narratives that insist on whites' rights to lands we inherited from thieving ancestors can never be made true, but where does that leave us? If people like the Warlpiri are at home in the world, are we permanently homeless, always to be known as 'settlers' in the only lands we've ever known? For my own part, I accept and affirm the label 'settler', which signifies to me that in many ways my people and I will always be immigrants to Canada. But like Jackson, I'm looking outside my own culture for ways of mending or unmaking the parts of that culture that have caused so much misery across such vast swathes of time and space.

Looming in the background of all his interactions with the Warlpiri is the feeling of alienation and exile many Warlpiri have experienced as a result of settler encroachment and misuse of sacred lands. A sloppy bulldozer operator accidentally destroys a certain tree that has great importance to several families' Dreamings, and the whole community is outraged. Another time, Jackson and several Warlpiri friends decide to try camping at a white-owned campground midway through a journey by land rover, rather than in the bush as they normally would. By this point I had become so accustomed to Jackson’s vivid descriptions of the landscape, the stars, and the smoke from the fires that I too was shocked by the strangeness of white people’s camping: neat little coloured tents set out in rows, grass watered by sprinklers, and store-bought food being cooked over a miniature gas stove.

Although Jackson repeats again and again that his words cannot capture the experience of the Warlpiri world, his words do point us toward a newness of vision. From the window of the land rover, Zack Jakamarra points out landmarks Jackson has read about in the archived journals of white explorers, each hill, rock, or tableland noted briefly and then left behind. But in Zack's eyes each undulation of the land glows with meaning, a crucial element in the story of who he is and where he belongs. As I began to see it, through the distant lens of Jackson's eyes following Zack's gaze, the Dreaming is the dimension of reality that gives it meaning, the source from which life springs and to which life returns. It is ever-present, and yet one must be taught to see it through ceremony and initiatory journeys.

Although it's impossible to really know what someone means through words alone, even leaving aside the question of whether vastly different cultures can ever truly understand one another, I think Ursula K. Le Guin is on the right track. She's read widely and tried to see through the eyes of others, but then she's returned to the land she calls home and tried to imagine a way forward for her own culture. The key to this kind of imagination is a respect for what is yours to take up and refashion, on the one hand, and what belongs to others, on the other hand. The Dreaming belongs to the Warlpiri as they belong to the Dreaming, but I think Le Guin's 'Dream time' points to something different, a newness of her own making that borrows resonance from her journeys into other ways of seeing. It's the ability to see other possible worlds within the world we take for granted, and to believe that those possibilities are ever-present, glowing in the landscape.

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