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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