Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fein Walkabout - Sorted

I named my blog 'A Fein Walkabout' as a flippant reference to a significant ritual that used to mark the coming of age of males in the Aboriginal culture of Australia. I like to think my time here has been proof of my ability to withstand pain and survive in new lands - if not exactly in the way of the ancient people - but I know very little about exactly what a true Walkabout entails.

So I signed up for a spot on the Blue Mountains Walkabout to see what more I could learn. The email directed us to meet on the train platform at Faulconbrigde at 10:50am, a very precise time that aligned with the train schedule, but not our guide's arrival time.

The four of us: myself (the American), a male Austrian backbacker on a multi-month Asia Pacific tour, and a mother/daughter pair from Paris visiting Sydney for 10 days, had gathered at the station and waited patiently for the tour to begin. Within 10 minutes, Evan came walking up the road, wide brimmed hat and backpack - looking like a proper outdoorsy Australian. As we walked together he explained that the Aboriginal gene for dark skin is recessive, which is why he looks the same as the British settlers rather than the original peoples of Australia. The last of his full-blood people died in the 1800's.

Evan did his best to keep the day focused on positive things, but there is always a tinge of sadness to contemplate the end of an ancient civilization. The Aboriginal people lived on Australia for over 60,000 according to Evan. I'd heard statements from other sources that "Aboriginals were the oldest continuous culture, surviving for over 40,000 years", but I'm sure it is hard to date things of that age especially given Aboriginals did not have a written language. It is also a bit fuzzy to speak of Aboriginals as a single entity since there were so many tribes and languages (250 language groups and 500 dialects). Evan represents the bloodline of the "Darug" (yam eaters) people, a collection of clans spread from Botany Bay in Sydney to the Blue Mountains (1.5 hour train ride away). There are few remaining speakers of the original language and he is not one of them, but Evan shared some terms with us. Note that there is no standadized spelling for these terms (since writing is only something that has been adopted with recent generations) and this is poorly documented in general. As someone who is used to having all information at my fingertips, it was interesting to spend a day learning through stories in the way that all humans used to acquire information. It requires patience, attention, focus and practice to absorb information in this way.

New ways must be practiced for a moon before they have an impact on your life. This was the first wisdom of the tour, dispensed at the turn off from the sealed road onto a dirt "road".

The road less travelled
This tour was not just a history lesson about how people used to live, it was a chance to learn about things Aboriginals used to do that could apply to modern life to counter modern maladies that they did not suffer. Evan calmly challenged us to absorb these lessons or "challenges" today and practice them for 28 days. He was soft spoken, and at first I felt the pace was a bit slow, but as he wove his spell througout the day I came to appreciate the way he slowed our minds by pacing his words so we could be present with his words and focused on the challenges.

We had walked away from the train station, where there are modern bathroom facilities, before he asked us about needing a toilet break. He pointed the women in one direction and the men in the other, putting a hand up to me as I attempted to move down the trail, which was in the "male" direction. I can only assume it was intentional that he made the first bathroom break in the bush. Welcome to the Walkabout; there are no toilets here.

Can you spot the green beetle?
I had my camera with me so I was happily snapping shots early in the tour, until it became clear that this tour was about being present, not documenting for those who are not there. I snapped this green beetle early on and then later we ate the fruit of this type of tree as "bush tucker".

Almost immediately after we stepped off the dirt "road" onto an unmarked path into the bush, we stopped for another lesson. Evan was here to help us connect with the "Dreaming", which is a way of being connected to the spirit of everything in the past, present and future. This is what Catholics achieve in their awe inspiring cathedrals, Southern Baptists achieve with Gospel song and dance, Yogis with Asanas and chants (Evan didn't tell us that, but I extrapolated). And that day in the Blue Mountains we achieved it by feeling our body's energy through the experience of the natural world around us. Evan encouraged us to touch everything (rocks, trees, plants and water), walk softly and dance! 

The sap is good for wounds, and also for fueling fires
The tree in the photo above is a Sydney Red Gum, similar to Eucalyptus. The sap oozes out as a red, gummy substance and can be used as an antiseptic. This sap is what makes these trees burn so well, which is why bush fires are a big problem for communities near the forests. Despite being aware of the dangers and the need for these forests to burn for their reproduction and health, modern Australians still struggle to find a balance. It is known that Aboriginals did controlled burns to make sure the plants that needed fire to seed would flourish. I don't know whether they also suffered from out of control blazes, but it seems possible. Perhaps that is why they didn't create permanent settlements like other long lived ancient cultures. "Lightning brother" is one of the forms of the Rainbow serpent, the source of creativity in the Dreaming. Clearly they respected the power of lightning to bring change to their world. 

Note: filter used to bring out red color in the scene and contrast with the forest, the red is the actual color, but all other color has been removed.
Evan pointed to another tree, where the bark peels off like paper and called it the "bandaid" tree, because the bark was antiseptic and antifungal. Now that we have antibiotic resistent super bugs perhaps we'll need this knowledge again soon.

We came to a sacred place and Evan suggested we remove our shoes to feel more grounded on the rock. A few of us did so and it was nice to feel the ground as he told his stories about this sacred place where people carved their symbols into the rock a long time ago and then held their initiation ceremonies. Evan did not know the exact age of the carvings present, but they are likely to be thousands of years old. It was awe inspiring to come across this site so close to the train station, yet unmarked and unnoticed by so many.

Female Rainbow Serpent, the eyes are at the top and the body is wide and then tapers to a tail. This hole was natural, giving the site its sacred status. There is a male version of the rainbow serpent that is more snakelike in form.
The female refers to the earth and the male to the spirit (or sky).
Swamp Wallaby (looks like a mini Kangaroo) carved into the rock along the Song line where rituals were performed over thousands of years. There was also a joey (baby wallaby) and other symbols nearby.

We walked further into the bush, stopping for stories, to sample bush tucker (food) and to feel the ground, trees and plants. After about an hour, I was starting to feel the pace and settle into the rhythm of Evan's stories and lessons. The Aboriginal society was very segmented by gender: men's business and women's business. Evan often used the word "sorted" to describe Aboriginal life. It seemed to be highly disciplined and ritualized. Life progressed through phases and you were led through the right phases for your gender using initiations and rituals. Women had 5 major initiations and men had around 10. The women's initiations centered around their natural cycles: menstration, child birth and menopause. Men had more initiations because they were tasked with the spiritual aspects of clan life  (which required more practice) and because women were busy with the children. 

That kind of comment would have once inflamed my feminist side, but these days I recognize the reality of how hard raising children is, and that it is an important role that should be more respected in our modern age than it is. I do not know for sure how "respected" Aboriginal women were by our standards, but I'm guessing they were respected for their proscribed roles, and veering from those roles was not as respected. Evan emphasized that their world was "sorted", meaning both "figured out" as well as "organized into logical groups". There was work that women did and work that men did. One of his take home points of wisdom was to arrange your own life in a way that had clear lines of responsibility - a truism they also teach in management courses, yet so often ignored. Many of us have thrown off the traditional separation of duties, but not everyone has a comfortable replacement that balances responsibilities in a way that both people respect. While I can see the appeal of sorting on gender lines, I like to think as modern people we have the capacity to make finer distinctions and still have clear lines of responsibility.

One of the rites of passage for men he described included knocking out one of the man's front tooth. I commented that this seemed a bit impractical, and Evan retorted that you couldn't fake it. Today we often struggle with building "trust" and "identity" in the online world, because it is easier to fake pretty much everything. In the clan, there was no faking it - either you made it through the initiations and became a man or you didn't - and everyone could tell at a glance; effective if a bit brutal by our standards.

Cave ceiling with intricate natural patterns.
Rainbow in the rock makes this a sacred place
For lunch, we sat in the shade of a large open cave. I could have stared up at the rock formations for hours, but sadly the wind whipped the sand up and we had to move on. The pictures only capture a glimpse of the feeling of being in that space, I would recommend the tour just to visit this cave.

While we ate the lunches we brought with us (not bush tucker), Evan drew some symbols for us and gave us material to paint. At first I was put off by the black charcoal I was given when Evan explained it symbolized death, but then he added that it also symbolizes change. Since I'm happily in the midst of a lot of change I decided to draw a meeting circle in black and then used the reddish brown coloring to paint a female rainbow serpent on my arm to represent the earth mother that Evan spoke of often as we walked through her realm.

Samples of symbols used in aboriginal painting: emu, kangaroo, male rainbow serpent on the left, female on the right
Meeting place on the hand, female rainbow serpent on my arm

We walked along the song line (literally a path that would have been walked while singing) which was also a ravine. The path was not straightforward, but I loved that it felt like we had gone off a typical trail and felt very much a part of the bush. I was so engrossed that I didn't take any pictures; Evan would approve.

We ended our tour with more stories which I will not spoil for those who will take this tour some day. As a closing ritual Evan used the Bullroare, a device that makes an interesting noise and was used to communicate across distances by men only. Out of respect, I closed my eyes so as not to observe the man's business, but I listened and enjoyed the meditative whirring sound as an appropriate end to the lessons of the day.

We were returned on schedule to the train station and I made my train back to Wentworth Falls. I took the long way back to my B&B via the Charles Darwin Walk, a lovely track cut through the town along a little stream. It was quite well maintained and there were houses just up the hill; a stark contrast to the bush trail I had just been on. Yet I still saw a big lizard lounging in the late day sun and encountered more spring flowers - including the Waratah, a flowering shrub unique to Australia, this variety is the state emblem of New South Whales (where the Blue Mountains are).

Waratah flower in full bloom
As I walked, I did my best to feel grounded and touch the trees and plants as Evan had taught us. It was an exquisite day and I am grateful for the time to appreciate and be present in the company of someone who had many stories to share from the Dreaming.

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