Singing up country

The centrality of stories in human experience.

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On April 4, I visited my 98-year-old uncle in his retirement village in Auckland. It was morning-tea time, so I joined him and his companions in the dining room for a cuppa.

“Does anyone happen to know what anniversary is being commemorated today?” I asked the group.

No one did. “I’ll give you a clue,” I said.

“Something happened on this day 50 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee.”

“Elvis?” one woman suggested.

“Think civil rights,” I said.

“Rosa Parks?” suggested another.


“I know—the black man!” declared another.
“Yes, the black man—Martin Luther King Jr,” I replied. “Assassinated 50 years ago today on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.”

I wasn’t too surprised that King’s death wasn’t on their radar, nor that the anniversary was barely reported in local media. Events touch people differently. For me, it felt necessary to reflect on the life and words of King, a trumpet of conscience for the poor and racially oppressed.

Anniversaries and commemorations often have this effect on me. Last year, I wrote on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth. Before that, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s momentous book Silent Spring. On the 100th anniversary of Douglas Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica. And many more such moments of memory, including—increasingly—the deaths of people whose lives have left significant traces on my own.

Why do these arbitrary fragments in time’s ceaseless flow call to me? I think it is about story. It is about wanting to catch and weave fleeting moments into frameworks of meaning.

This kind of storytelling, I believe, is a response to the unfolding of being that is encoded in the world’s DNA. An interweaving of self and world.

As it happens, I am writing these words on a rust-red sandhill, gazing across a plain of spinifex and desert oak to Uluru, the sacred centre of Australia, a living library of remembered dreams and an incubator of dreams to come.

Aboriginal people are supreme story-weavers. Since arriving here, I have heard stories of totem pythons, shape-shifting devil dogs, wallaby people and giant marsupial moles.

Aboriginal stories are as vast as the continent they occupy, and know no terrestrial boundaries. The stars of the night sky are the campfires of their Dreamtime ancestors.

These stories bind people to nature, place and time with “a multitude of invisible threads of connection”, writes Melbourne anthropologist John Bradley. The people are part of a matrix in which all animate and inanimate things are kin, a matrix they call “country”.

“Country is spoken about in the same way that people talk about their living human relatives,” writes Bradley. “People cry about country, they worry about country, they listen to country, and they visit country, and long to visit country. In return, country can feel, hear, and as close relatives bring to that relationship all of their past experience, their present and their future.”

When Aboriginal people engage with this matrix, they call it “singing up country”. As they sing, “country in all its wealth and vitality opens up in the singers’ minds”, writes Bradley. “They are seeing the land anew as it once was and they hope it will always be. A distillation of the power and sentience of the country is being revealed once more… The singing of country is about love and the lifting up of space and place, of the only home that people have ever known.”

There is a sobering flipside to this engagement. If there is no one to sing the songs of country, the land suffers. It loses its life force—its mauri, as Māori would call it. It goes wild. Country needs humans to sing its song—the everlasting call-and-response of the living world, which is the pathway to belonging.

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