He was a tireless bushwalker. He thought nothing of setting out, with a water-flask and a few bites of food, for a hundred-mile walk along the Ranges. Then he would come home, out of the heat and light, and draw the curtains, and play the music of Buxtehude and Bach on the harpsichord. The orderly progressions, he said, conformed to the contours of the Central Australian landscape.

Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path–birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes–and so singing the world into existence.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1987)

2 thoughts on “Songline

  1. I read this book years ago and found it very interesting and insightful. There was, coincidentally, a copy on the bookshelves in the house I was staying in in Perth recently and I was tempted to re-read it, but there was no time.

    The songlines can be used as maps of routes across the outback told in stories. As one goes on walkabout and sings the song the landscape is manifested around him as in the Dreamtime. So, when the government wants to build a road or something, they have to consult with the local Aboriginals to find out if it will disturb the route of one of their sacred stories.

    I once read a sci-fi novel in which there was a space mission and an Aborigine came along to compose a new songline for the new place that was being traveled by humans for the first time. Otherwise it could not exist.

    Whenever there is a public program at the university, someone always acknowledges that they are on Noongar traditional land and that they respect the traditions, rights, and beliefs of the Noongar people. This is apparently, at least in part, an acknowledgement of traditional legal title to much of southwestern Australia.

    • It’s a great book so far. I love the “commonplace book” section of quotes and notes on why we feel the urge to wander as humans. Thanks for sharing your insight on the Dreamtime. I’m still trying to grasp the concept but the little I know has always fascinated me with the focus on song. I suppose plenty of early histories were sung (like the Illiad), though I do like aboriginal idea that if the music stops the world ceases to exist in some sense.

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