Australia is renowned for its Songlines. Lines of music criss-cross the land making invisible paths which Aboriginal people can travel along. To me, the idea of the Songlines is one of the most exquisite concepts I’ve ever come across and arguably there have been versions of it around the world.
The songs tell of the ways the Ancestors took in the Dreamtime: here Caterpillar crawled round this rock, there Possum pissed by the creek. These paths are memorized in the form of songs which describe the land, providing a map in music so you can find your way for hundreds of miles. The line of the story will describe the lie of the land precisely, and people can even travel across country they’ve never seen, provided they know the song, for it will guide them like a map. Thus wild land is negotiated by song.
The Songlines are a reciprocal enchantment, the singer sings or chants the land, and is also enchanted by it in turn. Partly, this is a literal en-chantment because the land acts as a mnemonic, reminding the singer of the next part of the song. There is subtlety here: the Songlines not only tell of melody, map and land, and hence survival, but also of belonging, language, memory, nomadism, law, knowledge, medicine, meaning – and guidance for the heart as well as the feet.
Possibly the idea of Songlines is as deep within the human psyche as the impulse to nomadism itself. Our eyes are alive to paths on the land and we find them visually irresistible. Similarly with stories, which make paths in the mind to which all humans instinctively respond. All cultures have a long nomadic shadow; our feet were made for walking, our uprightness gave us height to see into the distance. New horizons for the eyes liberate the mind, and to be a nomad in the mind is still within our gift, to move and learn, to be a student always, to discover new lands and leave behind some rock of certainty. And whether it is literal nomadism or the curious, questioning nomadic mind, there is a depth of thinking behind them both: the enchantment of the Songlines, singing the path you take, learning the right song for the way.
In mass tourism, modernity has manufactured its own kind of nomadism in the movement of people from one place to another, identikit, place. The travels undertaken for tourism are an inverse opposite of Songlines. Whereas Songlines celebrate specificity – that exact rock which Caterpillar crawled around – tourism celebrates monoculture, wanting exactly the same burgers and the same beers on the same beach. Songlines can only be sung in one particular place. Tourism delights in universal pop songs, songs of no particular abode, transported on i-pod to Thailand or Kenya, melody applicable anywhere. Although tourists get everywhere (“like ants”) say Aboriginal Australians, they perversely get nowhere, as they shuttle from same to same, a journey without significance, a road without its own specific song.
Anthropologist Steven Feld describes the Songlines of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. “ Tok means ‘path’, ‘road’, or ‘gate’, but as it is used in song, the sense is more that of ‘map.’ The device refers to the way that a song, from start to finish, projects not merely a description of places, but a journey. The song is successful when listeners are totally suspended into a journeying mood, experiencing the passage of song and poetic time as the passage of a journey…”
West Papua is resonant with song. The country was invaded by Indonesia in the early sixties and since then there has been a genocide, probably the most under-reported genocide in the world. I went there to research a chapter of my book, and I spent weeks crossing part of the Highlands. The guides with me sang day and night, they sang “to the mountain,” they sang the paths across the hills, and they sang the stories of how people originally came to be there. They also improvised songs of that day, describing people falling over, funny remarks and good big fires. (“Our destination was very hard but we made it, over mountains and swamps, with the girls in grass skirts.”) Song in West Papua can be political. In 1978, the musician Arnold Ap formed a band called Mambesak, which played wildly popular songs of freedom. In 1983, Ap was seized by the Indonesian military, imprisoned without charge, taken to a beach and machine-gunned to death.
The Kogi people of Colombia also have a version of Songlines, subtle songs of the spirit world. Alan Ereira, maker of the stunning documentary film about the Kogi, writes: “The song leads along a path in ‘aluna’ – the spiritual world – in the maze of memory and possibility to a point in the real world.”
For the Saami people of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the yoik was a kind of Songline – a way of singing the land which to an initiate could evoke a landscape or people, animals or moods. The song was part evocation and part intercession, for Saami people, believing as they traditionally did that nature had “soul”, would sing a yoik , asking mountain-passes or lake-ice to be kind to a traveller. But when the missionaries came, they said yoik was of the devil, and these good Christians killed people for it. Saami poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää writes: “Even an old man of more than eighty years of age was executed because he was irresponsible enough to yoik .”
In Australia, I met Jackie Margoungoun, who described a song he could follow from Doomadjee to Mataranka, a distance of about 385 miles, and also one he could follow from Katherine to Borraloola, and from Borraloola to the Queensland border. “Only three people left can follow that song,” he said. “The Church stopped the ceremonies so people couldn’t practise them and they were forgotten. Four or five songs are gone now and no one can ever find them again.”
Some birds and mammals have their kind of Songline. The migratory marsh warbler, bird of passage, is a singer of passages of other birds’ songs. With an exquisite capacity for mimicry, it learns and repeats the songs of birds whose lands it passes through. Thus in its song it tells the story of its journey, an avian Songline, where music makes the map of the bird’s path. Whales navigate through sound, they express themselves in sound, they think with musical meaning and remember in song: it seems to me more likely than not that their maps are nothing less than Songlines which they can follow from the Arctic to the Galápagos Islands.
For Aboriginal Australians, Songlines are Law. “The Law is in the ground,” I was told. Both law and song, so different to the Western mind, provide order and harmony. The idea of a universal Law or Way of nature – the Dreaming for Aboriginal people, Wouncage for the Oglala Lakota, Dharma for Buddhists and Hindus – are all expressions of a profound law in nature, a way of being, and a way of thinking. The purpose of indigenous law throughout the world is essentially to ensure that the natural world remains the same. In contemporary Euro-American law, however, exterminating life on earth is legal. Genocide may be officially outlawed (though in West Papua, both Britain and the US condone it by supplying Indonesia with the weapons for it) but acts which destroy the very climate of the earth are not considered crimes at all. If Songlines are lines of invisible enchantment, the vapour trails of planes scar the sky in visible destructiveness.
For Aboriginal Australians, the Songlines, and the story they contain, illustrate morality, and thus they are like parables knitted into the land itself, telling people how they should act. There is something similar among the Western Apache: stories are frequently moral, detailing a wrongdoing and a comeuppance, and each story is tied very precisely to one place – a hill, for example – so whenever you look at that hill, you remember the story which took place there, and its moral. One young woman commented that the site of one story “stalked” her every day. Morality is permanent here because it is located in the land.
Tourism has an omnivorous immorality; always moving on to the next pristine beach, a new “unspoilt” tribe to be chewed up and spat out. Whereas Songlines are associated with belonging, language, tribal memory, law, knowledge and meaning, tourism is characterised by the opposite: a contrived unbelonging, visitors relentlessly unable to speak a word of the local language, a wilful ignorance of the significance of the places they visit. In order to foster its illusions of carefree and simplistic irresponsibility (sun, sea, sex,) tourism must discourage a true relationship to place; complex, profound, demanding. The current American Airlines in-flight magazine runs an article panting about reasons for tourists to visit West Papua. And – ooops – quite forgetting to mention the genocide. Papuans don’t need tourists. They do need concerned individuals committed to true discovery, finding out and telling others about the vicious human rights abuses being carried out there.
The Amazon has its Songlines too, sung by shamans. Each plant, say shamans, has its own song, and to learn about and use that plant for healing you must learn its song. The songs come to you in dreams or in trances induced by certain drugs, shamans told me. The songs are a guide, a map; not a map of land but a map of knowledge. Joseph Conrad did the world’s forests a terrible disfavour with his insistence on how they can confound the mind, and confuse comprehension. Indigenous people know how to “think” the forests, know that the paths can be songs, making a thread of light, a path of the mind. Each song may tell of a plant’s relationship to other plants, and may distinguish between the uses of a stem or leaf or root. There is practical doctoring wisdom here but also psychological wisdom: you find your way and learn how to live unlost, not through the wild forest but within it. The Songlines harmonize people and environment.
I went to the Amazon suffering from deep depression. I went to see shamans who use ayahuasca, a strong hallucinogenic drug which shamans use to treat a wide variety of things including depression. (Ayahuasca is one of the plants which they say can “teach” them the songs and uses of different plants.) I felt the healing power of both the songs and la medicina , as they call ayahuasca, and, together, the experience was an unforgettable en-chantment. The shamans used chants and songs called icaros , an ethereal, wild music. Quiet, occasionally almost inaudible, they are sometimes whistled, sometimes voiced, music half-heard from a source unknown, where melody is more like scent, a sweet resin in the air from an unseen tree, wakeningly strange, dreamingly familiar, airs of music, soft as smoke, curling and rising in the air. A shaman in trance often draws on a reefer of pure tobacco and whistles out the smoke, so you can almost see the shape of the melody in the smoke he breathes. They say that the songs themselves can heal, consoling the mind and creating harmony in the psyche and in the body.
The icaros which the shaman sang were of his locale, the particular stream, particular hills and particular plants he knew. In singing them, he made his land literally en-chanted. The Kuna people of Panama similarly have songs which describe real places in the jungle and they also have “curing chants” which contain their most secret and most profound knowledge. But the younger generation are no longer learning the songs. They have little knowledge of the forests, so the chants are almost meaningless. And without the songs, the land in turn has little meaning. Wastelands are places where there are no Songlines, devastated places unpathed with song, unenchanted, the wastelands of missionary activity silencing earth wisdom, the devastated land whose meaning is destroyed by tourism and other extractive industries.
In wild land, by contrast, Songlines offer meaning not only to locale but also to mind, an inherent reminder that humanity’s highest purpose is to be fluent in the streaming cadences of all our world’s languages, making our earth more vivid and realizing it in song. For that is how the spirit deep within all life leaves the unforgeable signature of its wild authenticity, in the Songlines of this wild world.