Tuesday, March 24, 2009

the silent land

I describe Australia as the silent land. Even in the great cities one senses a silence different from anywhere else. It is, I am sure, the vastness of the continent that overpowers all the man made structures...
(Ian Player)

Someone who has been following this blog wrote to me with a nice gentle correction, about which I should have known better myself. He said he was curious about my impressions of Australia particularly my sense of the newness of this country. He agreed that the time of recorded history since European settlement of this land is quite brief and young in comparison to America and certainly Europe where ages past are obviously still present. However, he invited me to reflect on

…Australia as an ancient land with at least 40000 years of indigenous history which is not necessarily present in any built up way but present in the land and the ongoing culture of these peoples. So the European history of this land is only possible in some ways because it comes on the back of something much much older culturally and geographically. I occasionally catch glimpses of this when being with the land more fully including in the cities. It is an old silent mysterious presence something articulated better than I by a South African photographer, Ian Player:

“To my friends I describe Australia as the silent land. Even in the great cities one senses a silence different from anywhere else. It is, I am sure, the vastness of the continent that overpowers all the man made structures...” (Wilderness: The Sacred Landscape, 2004).
And then he wonders if this isn’t Christ as Hagia Heyschia, Holy Silence speaking through the land, something the indigenous peoples have surely sensed for millennia?

I thought this was beautifully put and I hope that he does not mind if I add this here. It also has put words on something that has only been inchoate for me here in Australia, especially down here in Tasmania where the silence is so overpowering. I kept having flashes of Alaska probably due to the vast open spaces that lie between the little human habitations. Even the big cities are dwarfed by the sweeping untamed lands. And I have been particularly struck in various places before an event takes place where there is an honoring of the land, and a naming of the peoples who had lived there before. There does not seem to have been the wholesale destruction of the aboriginal culture and peoples here as there was in America. There was some to be sure, but not to the same extent and the aboriginal culture still survives and even thrives in the outback. That is to be envied because, as my brother above here wrote, the indigenous peoples’ sense of the pervading sacredness of the land is something we surely would do well to recover in this new axial period.

My last event in Adelaide, with my bags literally packed and waiting at the door, was to sing for 300 students at Sacred Heart College itself in the performing arts center right across the parking lot from the brother’s house where I was staying. In spite of it being the nicest performing space I had had yet in terms of stage and sound system and lighting, given my own experience of young Australian audiences, I was prepared for the worst in terms of participation, which is so central to the music I do. I had also been warned by one of the teachers that the kids were many of them un-churched and would be for the most part non-participatory. I decided on the spot, as I told Barbara later, that I wouldn’t put a heavy religious trip on them then, but try to go from the known to the unknown. I sang the Circle Song for them, and then Awakening, I guess just trying to draw them in with the music, and then did a few participatory songs with them, and they actually did sing along just fine. They also were pretty attentive and applauded more than politely.

After about a half an hour I launched into a bit of a spiel. I have a new twist on it again, thanks to our new president. I had a very small graduating class at St Charles Borromeo Seminary High School––we were only 18, and the whole school never topped 100 while I was there. So I always get kind of excited when I meet people my age and I like to ask them, “What are we supposed to be doing now? Did anyone tell you?” So it was quite a wake up call for me when I realized that our new president was three years younger than I was. If I ever wondered about what people of my generation were supposed to be doing right now, now I know––we’re supposed to be running the world. If I ever doubted when my turn was going to be––it’s now. It’s our turn. And so I told the kids the other day, It’s going to be your turn soon, maybe sooner than you think, maybe sooner than it was our turn. So my message is this: Wake up! Wake up! There are real serious issues we are facing as a race, and everything you do affects the whole world either for the better or for the worse, and the only real answer to those issues is a spiritual one. Something like that. I think it went pretty well.

* * *

Saturday, 21 march, 09, Tasmania

Tuesday I flew farther across Australia to Melbourne and from Melbourne south across a vast amount of sea to the island of Tasmania. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was not what I expected. I landed in Launceston (“LAWN-sess-ton”) a tidy little 200 year old town on the northern edge of Tasmania divided by three rivers. I guess the farther south I go I keep expecting things to get more and more rugged and less populated, but sure enough there were comfortable modern homes and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was the guest of Paul and Gordana Crowe in their beautiful home that would certainly win Martha Stewart’s approval. And Gordana, who is an exceptional cook, took it upon herself to try out a handful of new pretty fancy vegetarian recipes on me. Paul is a candidate to be a Camaldolese oblate, and friend of Drasko, the former monk of New Camaldoli who is the head of the oblate community down here.

I had a great day wandering around Launceston. Early in the morning, following Paul’s directions, I went for a run out of town to the Cataract River Gorge. I ran about a mile into the gorge and was about to turn around when I suddenly saw some movement ahead of me. (Luckily I was uncharacteristically wearing my glasses.) It was a kangaroo. Actually, it wasn’t a kangaroo, it was a wallaby––an Australian marsupial that is similar too, but smaller than, a kangaroo (of the family Macropodidae of several genera and numerous species including the agile wallaby [Macropus agilis])––but I thought it was a kangaroo, until a woman came up behind and I asked her, “Is that a baby?” (because it was small) and she said, “No, that’s a wallaby.” It seemed to be a female and she had a beautiful little face and we sat there and stared at each other for the longest time. I finally sat down on a stair and continued the long loving gaze at her when someone else came up from behind me. It turned out to be Julien, a young French intrepid explorer who had come over on a ferry and spent the night in his car there at the gorge and now wanted to practice his English with me. We had a brief friendly conversation comparing notes, and then I said goodbye to him and my first marsupial (you never forget your first marsupial…) and jogged back home.

I had a session with the small WCCM community later that morning and then headed out on my own for the afternoon, camera in hand. Alas, the wallabies had vanished, but the coffee shops were open. And the next morning Paul and I headed farther south straight down the middle of the island toward Hobart. We stopped halfway for lunch at a little place called Campbell Town, and again I was surprised by how developed and even hip the place was. We ate at a trendy little café with delicious vegetarian food. Once we got to Hobart, but before taking me to the retreat house where the oblate gathering was to be, Paul drove me up to the summit of Mount Wellington, a spot about 4000 feet above sea level with a view of the southern shore of Tasmania, the estuary of the river pouring out of Hobart and opening up to the ocean. It was beautiful up there, with low-slung eucalyptus trees permanently hunched over clinging to the mountainside by the winds, and dramatic outcroppings of rocks thrust up from the earth all around.