A new José Stevens Article
The Australian Song Lines – Ancient Warnings of the Dragons
In October 1998, I had the unique opportunity to go to the Australian Outback to visit a group of Australian Aborigines from the Pitjantjatjara tribe. These are people who have been particularly willing to dialogue with white folks and share their culture and stories to a degree.
Since my return, I have been barraged with requests to tell all about my adventures there. This then is a narration of the main events of the journey and what I learned in that magical and powerful land. Some of it you will find entertaining while other parts of it are unsettling and deeply revealing about human nature and how the seven dragons operate under stress. I have deliberately changed names of both the people and the characters in the stories out of respect for the aboriginal people’s desire to keep certain aspects secret.
The trip was designed to be a meeting of cultures, twelve business consultants to fortune five hundred companies and departments of government, keynote speakers and heavyweights in their fields, meeting with aborigines, singers and keepers of the dreamtime songs in central Australia. Six women and six men convene at Ayers Rock in the deep red desert of the outback to meet each other, the guides, and watch the crimson sunset from the comfort of a balcony in the resort hotel. Included in the group is an internationally recognized economist, six authors, nationally known speakers, two Jungian analysts, an educational specialist, and various consultants to business—an artisan, a priest, seven scholars, a sage, and two warriors. Joining us are specialists on Pitjantjatjara culture, a translator, and guides, drivers, and cooks. We are warned that where we are going there will be primitive facilities, dangerous snakes, and an aboriginal culture so different from our own that we will have to leave behind all expectations and beliefs systems to enter into dialogue with these indigenous people of the outback.
Exhausted from international travel and suffering from jet lag the elite group slips off to bed after brief introductions.
Early the next morning, members of our group, some outfitted with sparkling new and clean desert attire and makeup, climb aboard two large Desert Tracks four wheel drive trucks that look like they meant serious off-road business. For hours we bounce over the rutted desert roads leading to the deep outback, horizons stretching away in every direction, the flat landscape dotted with shrubs, gum trees, and the occasional rock outcropping. A brief stop for lunch reveals the first dawning reality of what we are in for—a gum tree forest with flies so thick in the heat of October that we have to eat the sandwiches, flies and all. Nervous laughter and fly jokes sputter among the august group and with much relief we board the truck for the onward journey. The landscape begins to transform into low rocky mountain ranges and a harsh but colorful desert dotted with wildflowers of spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Large lizards continually cross the road ahead and the occasional feral camels can be spotted among the low trees. The sophisticated travelers get a chance to converse and get to know one another a bit during the dusty ride.
Tired and gritty from a days travel, the new clothes have an even newer layer of red dust and wrinkles. Sweat stains the armpits, hat brims, and collars of many. The neat fabric of our western sophistication is already beginning to fray.
Here for the first time we meet our hosts, the aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribal members who have gathered to meet us at a special place in the dreaming, the songline that this particular “mob” are responsible for keeping alive. With bright smiles, warm eyes filled with vitality, they shake our hands, a dark skinned people in filthy rags and hair that looks like it has never been washed. Their bare leathered feet pad about the red earth like gnarled tree roots, making no sound. Here we are, twelve western professionals standing awkwardly gaping at a ragged disheveled and filthy appearing band of aborigines whose trash litters the ground all around. What are we going to do here anyway? How can we possibly bridge the overwhelming chasm between our cultures? One part of me is appalled by these people squatting in the dirt, wondering what I am doing here, and the other part of me knows instinctively that these dark people possess a knowledge so deep, so basic, so natural that comparatively our group might as well be a test tube abstraction in some laboratory of left brained Western science creation.
After dinner, we sit as a group and discuss how we can bridge the gap between us and them. As a group of professional facilitators we are good at faux sharing our feelings and covertly sliding in our brilliant observations and insights to impress one another and make points western style. The indigenous people just stare at us out of the darkness, watching our council meeting with inscrutable intent.
That night we sleep in swags, Australian outback canvas sleeping bags, out under the phenomenal southern cross, Magellanic clouds, and the Milky Way of the southern hemisphere that I have never seen before. A powerful cold wind whips up the dust and disturbs our sleep creating fitful dreams and bringing in the sounds of distant baying dingoes.
The next day we gather for morning news, an aboriginal tradition focusing on dreams of the night before. We are going to see if our individual dreams might also be collective and speak of our groups relationship to this place. The first dreams shared are disturbing and indicate conflict and lack of integration. Then we meet with a few aboriginal elders who speak of their difficulties, the alcoholism, the drug abuse, the petrel sniffing, the violence that has all but destroyed aboriginal culture in recent years. As we look about we see no one between fifteen years of age and fifty. The middle generations are all dead, jailed, or living in the slums of the big coastal cities. Young children are being raised by their great grand parents not unlike the ghetto communities of the United States, yet there is hope. These children will have the possibility of becoming men and women of high degree, carriers of the ancient knowledgeššor maybe not, if they elect the course followed by their parents.
Later that day we walk to a spring in the rocky ridge above camp, a hole in the rock where a solitary pool of water rests overlooking the dry surrounding outback. Lester, an old warrior and aboriginal shaman responsible for this site on the songline tells us the story as the old women sing fragments of the story accompanied by click sticks. This is the site where a great lizard, Kilanta, lay crouched in the time of the ancestors while he contemplated stealing the wonderful grinding stone used by the people in the nearby village for grinding their grain to make bread. He could tell by the sound of it that it was a very fine one and would serve him well if he could just snatch it while they were not looking. Being a shape-changer he began devising ways he could trick the people in order to steal their grinding stone. Now, this episode is only a tiny fragment of a much greater story line about Kilantra and his adventures that stretch along a songline for thousands of miles across Australia. The many adventures of Kilantra are written in the rock, the outcroppings, and the caves across the land. These adventures must be told and retold, sung and re-sung, and in this way they remain alive to teach ongoing generations of people how to live and how not to live. They were originally sung by the ancestors embedded in the land, then sung through the voices of countless generations of aboriginal people bringing them together across time and space. These are the creation stories sung by the land through the voice of the people.
Back in counsel the fabric of our little group begins to rip apart. Members of our group complain that they want more contact, more discussion with the indigenous people but express frustration that they don’t know how. The translator tells us that we will have to wait, that they need us to live with the land for a time before we will understand anything about them. Members of the group are impatient; there are grumblings. One prima donna, an impatient warrior woman who consults with large corporations can be overheard complaining to others that to sit and wait is not what she came for. She begins to show signs of stress and starts to carve out familiar territory, to grumble among the women complaining that the men are more vocal, running the show and that they, the women are somehow getting a raw deal. Some women are caught in the middle, wanting to be on her good side but not quite agreeing. Their makeup is beginning to look smudged and out of place in this raw land of termite mounds, red dirt, and spinifexša sharp desert grass.
The dreams recounted at the morning news session are worrisome. Rain spatters on us as one by one members of the group tell about headless bodies, decapitations, and other uncomfortable motifs springing up in the night time dreams of the Westerners. We discover from our Australian guides that decapitation is a major theme in the outback. Many white explorers have lost their heads both figuratively and actually over the centuries. Some have been rendered stark raving mad after attempting to cross the outback and others have been found literally without their heads, their lifeless bodies sprawled headless among the carnage of their expedition gear. Are we losing ours in some way too?
One day the women set off to do women’s business with the aboriginal women and children. We men remain at camp to pursue men’s business. Since our translator is a woman we are left with our male hosts without translation for the day. We might have taken part in a kangaroo hunt but the women take all the vehicles to look for good places to dig honey ants in the bush. After the women leave, we men gather with the old ones and we notice that all of us men come alive upon being alone together. The old ones immediately begin to fashion for us red headbands out of woolen yarn to match their own. These headbands signify men’s initiation work and we discover that these aboriginal elders have taken time out from their important initiations—ceremonies with their young men—to spend some time with us. They want us to feel included so they create headbands for each of us. We are beginning to feel like kin.
The elders teach us to dance the dances of emu, the powerful dance of the eagle. Over and over we swoop and dive to the sound of the clicking sticks and then with a mighty pounce each of us in turn swoops up a rabbit in our talons. We dance, we laugh, we bond through elation out there in the smoke of the fire in the middle of a vast land that is beginning to feel strangely like home. The old men’s eyes glitter and they speak in broken English with great warmth. We sit in the dirt in the rain and watch the elders make ceremonial objects.
One man in our group, a scholar, has an illness. He has not been helped by western medicine and has nearly died during the past year. He requests help from one of the elders, a man of high degree who we have been informed is a healer. Together we sit on the earth amidst the rubbish of their camp. Frank, an old artisan with a gray beard, a tattered cowboy hat, and greasy shirt and pants bids Kevin to take off his shirt so he can examine the problem area. We try to explain to him that Kevin has had problems with hemorrhaging in the head. I wonder what he knows. He is not my picture of a healing shaman but then when have my Hollywood expectations ever been accurate? Scattered raindrops smack on our faces and upon Kevin‰s shirtless white body. Frank begins to massage Kevin‰s neck deeply penetrating with gnarled black callused fingers. His hands expertly massage the left side of the neck on down the left arm. He says that here is where the problem is and he indicates in sign language that he wants to know what happened to Kevin’s left shoulder and arm. Kevin thinks for awhile and then with a look of surprise reveals that as a small child he was left handed. But his schoolteacher caned his left hand so hard that he couldn’t use it anymore forcing him to become right handed. Out here in the outback, down under, an old black man unravels the pain and insanity of a barbaric twentieth century Western custom. Frank pulls out something bad from the shoulder with his hands, leaves the circle and castes it out into the bush. Then he says there is no bad spirit left in there and that it just needs some more healing. He returns to massage Kevin’s neck and shoulder once more. He says he will do more tomorrow and the session is ended. Kevin is beaming. He says excitedly, “I’ve made contact, I’ve made contact” and truly he has. I feel the same.
At the end of the day, the women return in a swirl of dust. They have been involved in women’s business. They seem tired and not too happy. They are dirty and there is not much makeup left. Truth is beginning to reveal the inside. They see the men’s beaming faces and several of them demand to know what we have been doing. We try to tell them and some of them seem put out. Later we find out they spent the day with screaming children, digging three foot deep holes looking for a few honey ants without much success. The honey ants are a treat with large abdomens filled with a sweet nectar that can be sucked out. These corporate women have been faced with aboriginal women’s work and some of them did not like it at all. They are sure that the men were experiencing something much better, much more important. The warrior woman with personality characteristics of dominance and powerššdemands to see the headman so that she can get equal time with him. He is gracious enough to oblige her and spends some time just talking to her and several of the women.
At sunset, we men are led into the bush. A cold wind is blowing but we are asked to take off our shirts and one by one the old men paint our bodies with white stripes and dots. Leaves are put into our red headbands and prayers are chanted as we are transformed into eagles. We emerge from the bush in a long line and begin to dance the dances we have been taught in front of the women and children who are assembled around a roaring campfire. We become emus, we become eagles. I have never felt so much like an animal. The prayers, dances, the ceremony of painting is all working. We feel like men and yet we feel like animals of the land and sky. The dances are sacred and we are in awe. That night around the campfire the men speak warmly and openly about their feeling for the land, its magic, and ourselves.
The morning news continues to reveal fragments of dreams that are unsettling. The dreams speak of trouble in our band. This day we travel by truck along the songline stopping at sacred spots to hear the story of lizard man and his ancient travels across this part of central Australia. At each site, the Pitjantjatjara sing the song to us and to the land. We see how the lizard man hid in a cave to avoid detection from the villagers he has stolen from. We hear how he cleaned his beard on the cliff face and how he vomited up boulders after greedily eating too much in celebration of his theft. I begin to realize that these dreamtime stories are tales of chief features, warnings about what happens to you if you are greedy, arrogant, or impatient. This story is about these three dragons and how lizard man acts them out and comes to his demise because of them.
Finally we crawl into lizard man’s belly, a sacred cave perched high up on a cliff face, decorated with art left by generations of people over thousands of years. From the cave, the plain spread out before us to the horizon, a beautiful land inviting us to walk out into it.
The songlines and the sacred sites along it evoke powerful emotions and reactions. I feel a strange sadness at the cave and at our lunch stop I intuitively walk out into the bush where kangaroo, dingo, camel, and emu tracks criss-cross the baked mud like a mosaic among the termite mounds. I find a huge gum tree and stand under it looking up at its thick fragrant branches. I ask it to help me feel more at peace, to feel joyful and connected. Hearing voices I wander over to where Mary, a vivacious, emotionally centered artisan aboriginal woman is digging furiously into the earth searching for honey ants. Her small niece is observing her and several of our group are standing nearby taking pictures of her. After a few minutes, she hands me a shovel and points for me to dig. I labor in the hot sun for a time and then she indicates for me to stop. She reaches carefully down with a twig and begins to pull out dozens of fat honey ants. Again she digs furiously burrowing deep into the earth, dirt flying every direction until stopping suddenly again she repeats her pattern and pulls out more honey ants. How she knows where they are and when to stop digging I cannot fathom. The honey ants pile up in my handkerchief like a mound of gold. We indulge ourselves with a few and then carry the rest triumphantly back to where everyone is just finishing lunch just in time for desert. The aboriginal people grin broadly at me at me as I distribute Mary’s honey ants and the rest of our crew share in the treasure laughing and slurping. I feel wonderfully connected and then remember my prayer at the big gum tree and am dumb struck at the sequence of events. I realize the magic and sacredness of this land. Honored land that is sung to responds quickly and powerfully. I realize that generosity and giving is the antidote to greed, the tale told by the songline. Having been affected by the songline I asked for help to be free and now I feel connected and elated.
In the evening some of us share our experiences of the day around the campfire. I relate my story and Kevin speaks eloquently about the power he feels in the land, its great beauty, and his awe of it. We have long moments of pregnant silence that we savor in each other‰s company. I sleep under the stars this night understanding why I have come so far to be here.
But all is not well with the group at large. Deep disturbing currents are flowing through elements of our group. The disturbing dreams of decapitation are revealing a rift in our band. A chasm is growing between some of the participants. At the morning news, it erupts. Kevin questions why we must keep processing the dynamics of our group so much and talking so much. He wants to be more silent and experience the land and its people more. In a torrent of venom, one woman viciously attacks him as representing male domination and insensitivity. With much anger she states that the land is sad, used up, and violated and that there is nothing here. She does not share the joy and the connection of the night before and she is furious and unwilling to participate with the group any longer. She goes on to attack Kevin’s character in a way that leaves the group stunned and horrified. Here, someone well respected in the business world, an author and speaker has behaved in an uncivilized and atrocious way. We have experienced the verbal rape of one of our members and all of us feel abused. The fragile coalition is torn asunder as various men and women in turn stomp and limp away to lick wounds. This group of savvy professional Westerners espousing the latest theories of cooperation and communication, facilitators of the largest and most powerful corporations on earth, have come apart in conflict and hate. A pall settles over the camp as small knots of fragmented group members whisper together about what has happened and whether there is any way to mend the rip in our community. The Jungians among us propose that perhaps we are being affected by the dreamlines and the storyline at this particular place. They suggest that powerful forces are exerting their influences and that we will not be able to explain these events as reactions to simple personal differences. The Australian guides are appalled at the rift between males and females among the Americans and cannot understand the depth of rage in the vociferous woman and her supporters. They say they have never seen such venom over such little provocation.
The next day it is time for the women to learn dances and present for the men. Only three of the Western Women participate because of the painful and awkward conflict that has arisen. It is necessary for the women to bare their breasts for the honey ant dance and the three spend the afternoon with elder women ceremonially preparing their bodies for the dance. They are accepted into the womb of a canvas tent where they are anointed and fussed over by the elder women. Later these women say it is like coming home to family.
When the men assemble by the fire for the dance, the women, accompanied by an elder, line up facing the men. They are so painted and decorated that they have lost their individual identities and are totally transformed into honey ants. The other women of the group not participating in the dance were nowhere to be seen. The dance is so gentle, so poignant, so beautiful that we men are moved to tears. These women made themselves vulnerable in a way that begins to heal some of the wounds of the morning.
Early the next morning we bid our farewell to the Pitjantjatjara, exchanging gifts and smiles. We had connected with them but at a price. They had suffered out here in this rough land and so had we. They felt the pain of our group but could not heal it. We could not heal it either. Our expectations for talks were not met but we had learned something else, something deeper about ourselves through this land and its people. I look around at our sunburned faces, our dirty clothes, our disheveled appearance. In a few days, we had begun to look more like our hosts. Gone was the polish, the professional veneer, the pride of false personality. To replace it had come a soberness, a more reality based look.
The truck carries us several hours away to a new encampment; a different songline and we meet the tribal keepers of this land. We walk the land, watch the sunrises and sunsets, listen to the parakeets chirping and watch them as they fly in great flocks around the rare water holes in the rocks. Parrots and spinfex doves wheel about the stunning landscape creating an ever-changing panorama in the sky. Once again, we listen to the songs and tales of the land and we are stunned, for here is the site of the seven sisters songline, the story of the Pleiades. It is the story of a big dark ugly man who is hopelessly attracted to seven beautiful sisters. He follows them over the land hoping to catch them and have intercourse with them. Being a shape shifter, he is able to disguise himself as a rock or a plant in order to sneak up on them. However, the oldest sister is so perceptive that she always spots him and leads her sisters to safety in the nick of time. This big ugly dark man has a regular penis and, in addition, he has a huge long penis that he wraps around his waist many times. This long penis has a mind of its own and can unravel at will darting out to penetrate one of the seven sisters unexpectedly even when he is not planning to. He tries to get rid of it because of its unruly nature and because it scares the sisters away but all to no avail. Eventually the wayward penis attacks the youngest sister, rapes her, and kills her to the horror of everyone. Her six sisters accompany her to the sky where they become the seven stars of the Pleiades. According to the story, the long penis in pursuit of the sisters becomes Orion‰s belt still following them.
We visit an ancient sacred cave filled with paintings depicting the story just told. The women reveal pain at hearing the story and seeing the images while the men are fascinated with the story and the cave. In the evening, several women reveal that they have been raped earlier in their lives.
We ponder whether visiting this songline has helped to exacerbate the deep conflict in our group and the intense unprovoked anger toward the men. Perhaps we were entering the story written in the land and beginning to play it out in some unconscious way. Whatever the case, our rift could not be healed. We met as a group during a fiery Australian sunset and tried hard to make peace with the angry women, to try to look at the anger and understand it but all to no avail. The attempt failed utterly and the warrior author and public speaker, the human development specialist remained grimly silent, unable or unwilling to engage in any kind of healing dialogue. Although this saddened the rest of our group we were able to look at one another, dirty, ragged, smoke stained, and wind burned and see more depth than before. We looked better than when we had first met, eyes glittering, vitality exuding, mouths smiling. We were about to go home having been transformed. We had been through hardship, emotional strain, had old wounds opened by this land and its people. We were sobered and humbled and the emperors clothes were strewn across the landscape. These thought leaders or perhaps thoughtless leaders had arrived competitive and prideful, filed with silly expectations and we had utterly failed our mission. What we gained was immeasurably more valuable. We were humbled and we were taught by these ragged unwashed peoples. They would not fix us and we could not fix them. They have terrible problems to overcome if they are to step into the next century. Yet, their problems, difficult as they are not more challenging than the ones we are faced with. We were unable to make it through a week without social meltdown. That, in a nutshell, is the state of the planet today. Our small group was a microcosm of the world, a mix of young souls and older souls; some resisting the lessons, others acknowledging what must be done. Behind the male/female conflict is simply dragon activity and it is as old as the songlines, at least 40,000 years old. These songlines provide the time-honored solutions; that dragons never pay out; that there are always heavy consequences for letting them dictate our behavior.
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