This is an excerpt from a letter sent to my supervisors from the field. I generally sent one ‘letter from the field’ every month.
It’s cold! The sun is still yet to rise and its cold. We’ve had such strange weather this month: fine, hot sunny days where the humidity creeps back in and we sweat under the noisy fans on the veranda, followed by overcast days where a cold wind blows us back onto the veranda again. The only consistent thing has been the chill of dawn.
All the flowers are in bloom by now, which tells us (mel lakarama-mirri – literally ‘eye’ + ‘has the quality of telling, talking’) that ‘guku’ (native-bee hive honey) is plentiful. The mixture of pollen, honey and ultra-fine eucalypt bark shavings is to die for. We haven’t collected many ourselves but have been spoilt by my sister-in-exile who has had fresh guku to gift to us every time we visit. The Namura (black lip oysters) are plentiful and fat now also. We’ve been footwalking to our Mother’s country every while to gather them off the rocks (chipping away with any piece of metal one can find) and throw them in the fire under a Casuarina tree (‘Djumala’). I particularly love those days ambling over the rocks, cooking fresh oysters, drinking tea and falling asleep in the white sand without even realising.
The rest of the month has been painting. Painting, painting, painting. I’m finally getting used to using the marwat (hair) brush, which means I am able to use it without slopping the ground, wet ochre all over the bark (much to my sister’s relief). She is a masterful painter and I have felt lucky to ‘sit beside her and watch’ (i.e. learn from her). I have almost finished a portrait I’m painting of her – a portrait of her teaching me how to paint actually. It’s half Balanda (‘white’, European) style with Yolŋu cross-hatching. She gave me a wonderful compliment the other day when she threw the marwat at me while painting one of our Clan ceremonial designs so that I could pick up the work at the other end of the bark. It is difficult to express how flattered (and nervous) I was.
I am continually surprised actually by the way painting is such a non-exclusive enterprise. Often one person paints the general outline of the painting (usually the most skilled and ‘knowledgeable’ person) and then the person whose painting it is will continue with the line work. But even if it is only one person who does the painting other people will regularly come to ‘check up’ on the design and comment on things that don’t look right. Sometimes there will be a brief exchange and the area in question will be painted over and started again. This is done without any criticism or ill feeling. Indeed, if it is one of our waku, one of our sons who suggests a correction yapa will often repeat the comment-correction aloud once they are out of ear-shot and laugh proudly about their being and behaving like good ‘Djungayi’ (relationship between M/C clan groups).
People are hyper-sensitive (in an amenable way) to the comments of others when it comes to painting – so much so that I’ve come to avoid saying anything about things that might be mistaken for a comment on the painting! My granddaughter was recently painting the rough outline of a bark painting when we were all sitting around under the mango tree by the fire drinking tea. She was painted ‘Dhonyin’ (file snake) and my son commented that the design belonged to the G* clan group. I asked if it was the same snake that he had speared and killed when it surprised me from behind near the creek. He explained that it was different; it was another type of snake. I said I hadn’t seen a file snake before – ‘Dhonyin ŋayi nyumukunin bäpi wo nhä?’ (‘are Dhonyin small snakes or – ?’). My granddaughter heard this and gave a shy and embarrassed laugh and my brother not helping things, repeated what I’d said – grinning. Before my language competency allowed me to explain that I was asking about real File snakes in general not her painting (bumbling about with my language), she started painting over the entire design, thinking I’d suggested her design was too small. Oh, I felt terrible!
Other than the aforementioned, we’ve been staving off violence as one of the waku, our sons continues to struggle with psychological torment of some kind (continues to be unpredictable, volatile and physically violent). In a quiet moment between my sister and I, when we were clambering through the mangroves looking for mud-crab, I asked ‘what people do’ to help people like waku who is clearly suffering – “rrambaŋi-kuma ŋilimurru yurru -” (“we will all make him [be/feel] together, level, the same”).
Anyhow… onto thesis things I’ve been thinking this month:
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I miss NE Arnhem some many days.