Monday, May 26, 2014

Canoes by Bruce Pascoe

When I think about it, I realise my last three books, Bloke, Fog, a Dox and Dark Emu, have been in honour of Muns Hammond. He’s the hero behind all of them.

Magabala Books, 2014

Dark Emu is about the things our education fails to tell us. That Aboriginal people built houses, sewed clothes, sowed crops, tilled the land, irrigated young plants …and made canoes.

It was usually women who skippered these slight craft and many of them took their children with them to work. Imagine being the baby drifting between sleep and wakefulness, the singing of his mother and mouthfuls of sweet roasted whiting flesh. Imagine being the woman, working at the lines and paddles, her children snug about her and the sound of her own voice singing a fish catching song 60,000 years old.

This is the world’s most ancient industry and Muns Hammond was my link to that ancestry.

I had a farm on the Maramingo Creek, near Genore, in the 1970’s. It raised a few steers but much more wildness and, in this wildness, Muns Hammond still lit his campfires.

Only three sticks were used as their foundation and they mesmerised me. Who was this abstemious man? I saw the fires but never saw the man, even though, sometimes, the coals were still warm.

Magabala Books, 2013

When I wrote Fog, a Dox, which won the Prime Minister’s Award in 2013 (don’t clap, throw money) it was Muns who was behind the whole story, him and his modest fires.

Uncle Muns was the Yuin man responsible for upholding the lore from Narooma to Bairnsdale. He had a pushbike but rarely rode it, preferring to walk beside it with his little swag tied to the handlebars. He had three dingoes. One walked in front of him, one behind and one by his side.

Uncle Herb Patten told me stories about Muns and in the process managed to talk about every Aboriginal family from Narooma to Bairnsdale. I listened attentively to all the stories about Muns and tried to remember all the Gippsland families but, in my heart, I wondered if Uncle Herb was talking to the wrong man.

As a pale Aborigine I had resigned myself to being on the absolute fringe of Aboriginal life, having descended from a family that had denied its heritage. But for many Aboriginal people in 1806 there was only one way to get a job, and that was to deny Aboriginality. And I live because they survived. Who could condemn?

Penguin Books, 2009

Anyway, out of the blue, I was invited to participate in a sacred ceremony lead by the man who was the last to be initiated by Muns Hammond. No wonder that when I was writing my novel, Bloke, I dedicated it to Muns and his canoes and fires.

The fire smoked. Munt and the dogs were gone but I heard what had woken me, an old man’s voice murmuring in song. ‘Narroong, narroong Tamboorna.’ Something like that. The air was still, his voice crept across the water, seeming to slip in stealth on the gauzy path of moonbeam.

That’s it, the moon, the old man is singing the moon, the country. Tamboon. The clearing beside the beach was bright, ablaze with moonlight, any chip of quartz leapt into light at its touch.

Banksia cones, grizzled and spent, remembered their youth as the horny lips and shaggy hair were fluxed, silvered with the moon.

‘Narroong towurrna,’ the feeble voice called from across the estuary and I sat up and peered between the gouty limbs of the banksia forest and there he was standing on a curled raft of bark, poling in silence across the water.

Narroong, towuur. The moon and fish. Munt was singing their song. Occasionally the moon lit a filament dangling from his hand. Fishing and singing in the silver light.

I saw the profiles of the three dogs sitting on the beach, seeming to listen in educated audience to the recital, versed in the nuance, the theatre. And like the dogs, I watched enthralled by the stillness and silence until an eruption appeared behind the bark and the old man hauled the fish, hand over hand into the craft and I saw him extend a foot and secure the silver quiver.

‘Towurr, towurr, Tamboorna.’

I pretended to sleep when he beached the bark and later smelt the scorch of fish flesh. I’d seen their profile dangling from his hand. Tamboorn, the estuary perch. I felt sure the old man heard my indrawn breath as I savoured the aroma of cooked fine white flesh.

The moon doused itself on the dark edge of the horizon and I slipped from wakefulness into sleep, wearied by my vigil.

At dawn I sat up and searched the beach for the bark canoe but of course it was gone. I stood and followed the dingo prints to the beach but that’s where they disappeared. The dingoes must have stepped in the retreating tide. Old habits. Secrecy, care. Treading in the world like wraiths. Now you see them, now you don’t.

But at the far end of the beach I saw the lean brush stroke of a man and three daubs beside him searching the littoral. I idled along the shore inspecting the bleached and abraded remnants disgorged by the sea, the single thong, the plastic net float, the Harpic bottle, the knot of faded cray line, the broken wing of a nautilus, a toothbrush.

I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I don’t watch My Kitchen Rules and, being so removed from the modern consciousness, I wonder if I should be allowed to write books for young Australians.

I’m just an old fisherman and beach rambler and I can only write the stories that keep me awake at night. But in that midnight wakefulness I never dreamt that I would end up initiated by the man who was initiated by Muns Hammond. Life is a peculiar and terrible delight, no fantasy comes within a spirit dog’s whisker.

About the Author 

Bruce Pascoe is an award-winning Australian writer, editor and anthologist. 

His books include Shark, Ruby-eyed Coucal, Ocean, Earth and Nightjar. Bruce has also written a number of non-fiction works, the latest include Convincing Ground, a Wathaurong language dictionary and The Little Red, Yellow, Black Book

Bruce's novel, Bloke, was published in 2009. The children’s novel, The Chainsaw File, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Fog, a Dox was published in 2012 by Magabala Books and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Young Adult Literature in 2013. Dark Emu was published by Magabala Books in February 2014.  You can see Bruce at these upcoming writers festivals:

Sydney Writers Festival, 23 - 25 May
Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature, London UK, 27 May - 4 June
Mildura Writers Festival, 17-20 July 

Bruce's favourite books when he was a boy were those by Jack London and John Steinbeck because they were often about animals.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Bruce for contributing this lyrical and atmospheric piece to Reading for Australia, reminding us of the significant (but often unrecognised) contribution Indigenous Australians have made to the landscape of this country.

    There are many things to like about this post but my favourite part is your description of Muns Hammond walking with his dogs through his country - a wonderfully evocative image. Powerful and peaceful - just lovely!