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The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin reinvented travel writing in the 1980s with his book The Songlines, in which he travels across Australia. Here, he learns about the different Aboriginal clans

Arkady ordered a couple of cappuccinos in the coffee-shop. We took them to a table by the window and he began to talk.

I was dazzled by the speed of his mind, although at times I felt he sounded like a man on a public platform, and that much of what he said had been said before.

The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him his food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died. A man’s ‘own country’, even an empty stretch of spinifex, was itself a sacred ikon that must remain unscarred.

‘Unscarred, you mean, by roads or mines or railways?’

‘To wound the earth’, he answered earnestly, ‘is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.’

‘Rilke’, I said, ‘had a similar intuition. He also said song was existence.’

‘I know,’ said Arkady, resting his chin on his hands. “‘Third Sonnet to Orpheus.’”

The Aboriginals, he went on, were a people who trod lightly over the earth; and the less they took from the earth, the less they had to give in return. They had never understood why the missionaries forbade their innocent sacrifices. They slaughtered no victims, animal or human. Instead, when they wished to thank the earth for its gifts, they would simply slit a vein in their forearms and let their own blood spatter the ground.

‘Not a heavy price to pay,’ he said. ‘The wars of the twentieth century are the price for having taken too much.’

‘I see,’ I nodded doubtfully, ‘but could we get back to the Songlines?’

‘We could.’

My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men’s books, what a Songline was – and how it worked. Obviously, I was not going to get to the heart of the matter, nor would I want to. I had asked a friend in Adelaide if she knew of an expert. She gave me Arkady’s phone number.

‘Do you mind if I use my notebook?’ I asked.

‘Go ahead.’

My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men’s books, what a Songline was – and how it worked

I pulled from my pocket a black, oilcloth-covered notebook, its pages held in place with an elastic band.

‘Nice notebook,’ he said.

‘I used to get them in Paris,’ I said. ‘But now they don't make them any more.’

‘Paris?’ he repeated, raising an eyebrow as if he’d never heard anything so pretentious.

Then he winked and went on talking.

To get to grips with the concept of the Dreamtime, he said, you had to understand it as an Aboriginal equivalent of the first two chapters of Genesis – with one significant difference.

In Genesis, God first created the ‘living things’ and then fashioned Father Adam from clay. Here in Australia, the Ancestors created themselves from clay, hundreds and thousands of them, one for each totemic species.

‘So when an Aboriginal tells you, “I have a Wallaby Dreaming,” he means, “My totem is Wallaby. I am a member of the Wallaby Clan.”’

‘So a Dreaming is a clan emblem? A badge to distinguish “us” from “them”? “Our country” from “their country”?’

‘Much more than that,’ he said.

Every Wallaby Man believed he was descended from a universal Wallaby Father, who was the ancestor of all other Wallaby Men and of all living wallabies. Wallabies, therefore, were his brothers. To kill one for food was both fratricide and cannibalism.

‘Yet,’ I persisted, ‘the man was no more wallaby than the British are lions, the Russians bears, or the Americans bald eagles?’

‘Any species’, he said ‘can be a Dreaming. A virus can be a Dreaming. You can have a chickenpox Dreaming, a rain Dreaming, a desert-orange Dreaming, a lice Dreaming. In the Kimberleys they’ve now got a money Dreaming.’

More about the author

The Songlines: Moleskine Special Edition

Bruce Chatwin

This Moleskine-bound edition is sold together with a blank Moleskine notebook, for recording your own thoughts and adventures. Perfect for the travel writers of the future.

The Songlines is Bruce Chatwin's magical account of his journey across the length and breadth of Australia, following the invisible and ancient pathways that are said to criss-cross the land. Chatwin recorded his travels in his favourite notebook, which he would usually buy in bulk in a particular stationery shop in Paris. But when the manufacturer went out of business, he was told “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus”. A decade after its publication, on reading this anecdote in The Songlines, a small Milanese publisher was inspired to revive production of the legendary ‘moleskine’ notebook.

This limited, special edition of The Songlines celebrates both the 30th anniversary of the publication of Chatwin's iconic work, and the 20th anniversary of a brand that has now become synonymous with culture, memory and travel.

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