About twenty years ago, while foolishly attempting to write a general theory of migration, I first heard of the labyrinth of invisible pathways that meander across Australia, serving as trade routes and bush telegraphs to link the most far-flung tribes. To Westerners, they are known as “Songlines” or “Dreaming-tracks”: to Aboriginals as “The Footprints of the Ancestors” or “Way of the Law.”
Aboriginal myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered across the country in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence. Their songs are thought to lie over the land in a continuous chain of couplets: one for each pair of the Ancestor’s footfalls. Every Aboriginal child inherits a number of these couplets as his birthright. In fact, the ownership of a stretch of song confirms his right to the territory described by the song. When a man’s own verses give out, there lies the frontier.
Yet no Aboriginal could conceive of territory as a fixed block of land: rather he saw it as a series of “interlocking lines” or “ways through” along which he could travel in times of emergency, or in order to acquire “fresh blood.” His ability to sing a song was a kind of passport which enabled him to find his way across country, and to receive the hospitality of people who shared his Songline.
There is hardly a feature of the Australian landscape that is not an “event” on one or other of the Songlines: the land itself may be read as a musical score. I felt, while studying it, that this concept of delineating territory through song might have certain implications for the evolutionary origins of language, for musical theory, and for the whole vexed question whether Man has, or has not, an instinctive sense of territory.
The Songlines, the book I finally came up with, was an imaginary dialogue between a narrator (myself) and a companion, Arkady, with whom I traveled in Australia. He was an Australian-born Russian who worked as an adviser on Aboriginal land claims. One of his projects was to ensure that the proposed Alice-to-Darwin railway would not cut through, and so destroy, the sites which were sacred to Aboriginals. One night, Arkady and I were camped beside a rocky hill which is also the eternal resting place of the Lizard Ancestor. With us, but keeping to themselves, were four elderly Aboriginals—Old Alan, Timmy, Big Tom, and the “man in blue.”
We sat in silence until Arkady, judging the moment, turned to Alan and asked quietly, in English, “So what’s the story of this place, old man?”
Alan gazed into the fire without twitching a muscle. The skin stretched taut over his cheekbones and shone. Then, almost imperceptibly, he tilted his head toward the man in blue, who got to his feet and began to mime (with words of pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.