Con­tin­ued from Page 5

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

and women of Gir­ringun of­ten go: to re­cover them­selves, to re­mem­ber what they are; to be re­minded of what’s been lost.

Claude Beeron, a mem­ber of the Gir­ringun board and hus­band to Theresa Beeron, is one of the chief hold­ers of rain­for­est his­tory and knowl­edge. He and his gen­er­a­tion speak their ances­tral lan­guage at home and try to pass its words on to their grand­chil­dren. He is the chief singer of the old dances. He too comes to the river, to think in si­lence, and to lis­ten, and take in its sounds. Back he leans, against a top­pled hard­wood trunk upon the sand­bank, his wife and her sis­ter Nancy within earshot, a dis­creet dis­tance away — men and women in their dif­fer­ent camps, yet near enough for repar­tee. His eyes glance up to the high leaves and branches of the pa­per­barks where the sun re­flected off the wa­ter plays. He used to come to this spot, and walk the river, with his grand­fa­ther, all its length, from falls to flats, out to his own tra­di­tional coun­try.

Then, when he was still a young man, the forests were all knocked down. It was 1963: King Ranch from Amer­ica brought in three bull­doz­ers and a huge ball and chain and cleared the ground. First herd cat­tle were in­tro­duced, then sugar cane.

It was the same pat­tern all through the district. Claude’s father wept when he saw it, and made a song to com­mem­o­rate that lost world, and the thick mists that used to lie on the coun­try in the cold early morn­ings, and will never come again.

‘‘ I can’t get back to my coun­try,’’ Claude says into the quiet. ‘‘ I was brought up there, I walked it all the time, it’s close by, but I can’t take my chil­dren home, and my grand­chil­dren — the gate’s al­ways locked.’’

And the gates of the cane fields and the banana plan­ta­tions are still closed, in much of the re­gion, against the rain­for­est Gir­ra­may and Jir­rbal and their chil­dren.

Hence, of course, the up­welling of en­ergy at the lit­tle art cen­tre in down­town Card­well: hence the ur­gency in the mak­ing of the earth­fired pots and wo­ven bas­kets and the fig­urines. The men and women there have found a way of ex­press­ing their con­di­tion, a strange con­di­tion, lit­tle met with in con­tem­po­rary Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia: a state of vir­tual ex­ile while at home, a state, also, of be­ing ma­rooned in time, within mem­ory of a past when life’s or­der was still smooth.

Claude, his wife Theresa and his sis­ter-in­law Nancy still read the coun­try much as their par­ents did. They move through the bush and read the flow­er­ing trees as wildlife cal­en­dars. When Claude sees the rainbow lori­keets fly at night, he knows some­thing’s up with Theresa’s fam­ily. When sick­ness strikes, they all go to the river for its heal­ing waters; and when they walk its banks they can see the faint steps cut in the river­gums by their an­ces­tors who were search­ing out the nests of na­tive honey bees. There were rules to fol­low in the coun­try, too, and they are still in force: no cooking at night, only when the sun’s above the horizon, in case the hun­gry spir­its with their fu­ri­ous stormwinds rush in.

There are sa­cred fig trees to avoid; there are the old shade trees, still stand­ing, where their friends and fam­ily were born.

‘‘ My father had a Bagu with him, when he was out walk­ing, al­ways,’’ Claude re­mem­bers, ‘‘ in the time when we were young, and liv­ing all to­gether, and that was his way of keep­ing fire, in the damp forests: but the fire­sticks were more than that. A clever man, a magic doc­tor, could use that Bagu to fly, he could fly all the way from here to Jum­bun: the Bagu was some­thing close to him, a part of him. When they were mak­ing that fire the way a man used to make fire, in the old days, they used to talk Beeron, in her soft, cau­tious way: ‘‘ We re­mem­ber what the old peo­ple said to us about what was there be­fore, we’ve got the knowl­edge from those peo­ple, we carry it. We still bear that in our minds. The old peo­ple were very sim­ple, they saw the way things were for us. They spoke to us sim­ply, and told us things, they gave us knowl­edge, they made you lis­ten to them, and they said: if you keep this knowl­edge you’ll be right, and if you don’t, you won’t sur­vive.’’

Those are the stakes — and it was al­ready a ques­tion of cul­tural sur­vival for the Gir­ra­may

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