A fresh new irony in my life is that I have become fascinated with Aboriginal rock engravings, 20 years after leaving Sydney where they are present in magnificent abundance, 25 years after graduating from the Department of Archaeology where John Clegg taught and a year after John Clegg’s death. I never could see the precious things that were right in front of my face.
This one’s a little hard to make out, but it’s a whale shark, its nose pointing to the left, two eyes on the white patch of rock, and a fish inside it, its nose pointing down. It’s on the cliffs above Tamarama, on the spectacular walking path from Bondi to Coogee. We walked up there one late afternoon as the sun set behind the city and set the sky on fire.
The next two turned out beautifully – we found them at blazing high noon – but the shaming part is, they are part of an incredibly rich field that is walking distance from my childhood home, on a track I regularly wandered down, but I didn’t even notice that they were there until shortly before I left the country for good. They weren’t signposted as they are now, but also, I just wasn’t paying attention.
I remember a visitor from England saying very snottily that he couldn’t live in Australia because there wasn’t enough history here, compared with where he grew up. I wish I’d known enough to drag him to this place and point out that the people who made this art lived peacefully on this land for 40,000 years before there even was an England.
Murri stockman Herb Wharton wrote:
The old tribal elder who had spoken before said that he did not trust people who could leave the place where they had been born, to go to another country. For him, for all of them, their land was their mother, a sacred place. No matter what injustices they had suffered, nothing could ever break that tie with their own land and with the Dreamtime. Yet every one of this boat mob had left his own land.
I am boat mob twice over – my English mother, my exile self.
This site was the hardest to find and the most beautiful. Again, it was a few metres off a bush track I knew well, where I used to let my Arab horse Alfie stretch out and gallop; almost exactly halfway between my godmother’s house and that of Jeremy’s Aunty Jan. The kids were incredibly patient as I searched and searched for the obscured beginning of the footpath, and uncomplaining about the spiky grass and prickles they endured along its length. When we finally found the site it was as obviously holy a place as any church.
It’s believed to celebrate a successful hunt; that’s a spear between the kangaroo’s shoulder blades. I think your family of choice includes ancestors of choice as well. You choose which writers and painters and musicians and activists you want to emulate, and which you don’t. I recognize the people who made these images and the people who work to protect them. I acknowledge them as parts of myself, debts to ancestors I never knew, a motherland that will not leave me no matter how often I leave it.