Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Last of the Nomads

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Yatungka and her husband Warri, the last two Mandildjara people to live in the traditional way on the Western Gibson Desert of Australia.  William Peasley wrote their saga in The Last of the Nomads.

Aborigines have one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth.  They have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years, some say 60,000.  Nomads first inhabited the more fertile regions, leaving the deserts for later.  Folks have lived in the Gibson for maybe 20,000 years.  Most readers, if dropped off in the Gibson, naked, with a spear and boomerang, would be dead in a day or three.  Water is extremely scarce.  For the paleface colonizers, the desert is dangerous, miserable, a land of horrors.  For Aborigines, it was home sweet home, where they belonged, a sacred place.  They had an intimate understanding of the land, and learned how to live in balance with it.

Yatungka and Warri spent most of their adult lives as pariahs, because their relationship violated a tribal law that defined permitted and forbidden marriages.  Laws were taken very seriously.  If they returned to their people, they might be beaten, or even killed.  So, their family lived away from the tribe, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, hunting and foraging.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government made efforts to move the Aborigines into settlements, where intense culture shock led many to lose their identity, become massively depressed alcoholics, and abandon their ancient traditions.  The sons and kinfolk who stayed with Yatungka and Warri eventually moved off to civilization, but the outlaw couple feared to join them.

Anyway, in 1977, it was the third year of an extreme drought, the worst in a century, maybe the worst in many centuries.  The kinfolk of the outlaw couple were worried about them.  Mudjon was a respected elder who had been raised on the desert in the traditional way.  He knew all the waterholes, and cared about Yatungka and Warri.  His dream was to take the Mandildjara people back to their desert paradise, return to the old ways, and preserve their traditions.  Few of the young were interested.

Mudjon asked a white friend to help him search for the couple, and he agreed.  Mudjon was joined by five white lads, including Peasley.  They loaded up three vehicles and took off across the vast roadless desert.  Mudjon knew that this was probably his last visit to the territory of his people, and the last time a traditional Aborigine would drink from each well, or leave footprints in the dirt.  Peasley noted, “It was very sad for him to move through the land where once his people hunted and laughed and sang around the campfires.”

The chapters describing the long search contain some fascinating passages about the old way of life.  Mudjon was a master at reading the land, noticing the countless slight details that provided strong and detailed messages to him, but were invisible to the whites.  Without a map for the 1,500 km (932 mi) journey, he guided the team from waterhole to waterhole, looking for signs of the couple.  It was a powerful experience for him, to see old campsites, windbreaks, caves, springs, rock paintings, and other artifacts — the remains of an ancient culture.

Eventually they found signs of the missing couple.  At several locations, Mudjon started a brushfire that sent smoke high into the sky, where it would have been visible from up to 160 km (99 mi) away.  Warri did not respond with a smoke signal.

It was an ancient custom of the desert people to routinely light brushfires as they journeyed from waterhole to waterhole.  This had three benefits.  (1) Fire flushed out hidden game.  (2) It signaled their progress to other groups.  (3) It regenerated the earth and stimulated plant growth.  Fresh green sprouts attracted game.  Wildlife became dependent on burning.  This was called firestick farming.  In recent decades, in regions no longer visited, the burning has ceased, the water holes are not kept cleared, and animal and bird life largely disappeared.

One happy day, they saw smoke from Warri, and drove to his campsite.  When Mudjon greeted him, there were no smiles, hugs, or handshakes.  Warri was about 150 cm (5 ft) tall, naked, extremely thin, and both eyes were inflamed.  He wasn’t strong enough to hunt, so they were living on quandongs (peach-like fruit).  Yatungka returned from foraging with several dingo dogs.  She displayed no signs of excitement.  She was about 165 cm (5’ 5”) tall, younger, naked, very thin, but in much better physical condition.

They would not survive much longer at the waterhole.  The rescue party knew that the nearest well that still had some water was 150 km (93 mi) away, an impossible journey on foot.  The couple agreed to return to the Wiluna settlement with Mudjon and company.  They wanted to see their sons again.  Mudjon assured them that there would be no drama about the taboo violated long ago.

In Wiluna, many folks came to look at the long-missing couple, and were stunned to see their emaciated condition.  “There were no greetings, no shouts of joy, in fact there was no sign of recognition on either side, and yet the sons of Warri and Yatungka were within a few meters of their parents.”  Tears streamed down the cheeks of Warri and many others.  A few months later, Mudjon got very sick, declined, and died.  A year after their return, Warri and Yatungka caught a disease.  He died in April 1979, and she died a few weeks later.

For me, this was a powerful book, not primarily for what it said, but for the silent message unperceived by the white heroes who came to the rescue.  Peasley spent his boyhood on a farm in Australia, and he sometimes discovered signs of prehistoric campsites.  He felt sad that, after more than 40,000 years on the land, the people had not been able to leave behind anything more significant than simple campsites, grinding stones, rock paintings, and so on.

For me, this low impact living was an amazing achievement.  They successfully adapted to a hot dry ecosystem, and it was a wonderful home for them.  What a terrible problem!  The Gibson Desert that the rescue party drove across looked nearly the same as it did 1,000 years ago, or 10,000.  The silent message screams “genuine sustainability, beautiful, healthy culture!”

Humans are also capable of adapting to godforsaken nightmares like Chicago, jammed together with millions of isolated, anxious, stressed out, depressed strangers… ah, the wonders of progress!  The rescue party was proud of their advanced technology, which gave them the ability to dominate, exploit, and rubbish the continent.  What significant artifacts will they leave behind to impress the youngsters of generations yet to be born?  Will the land be in no worse condition in another 1,000 or 10,000 years?  These questions are taboo, heresy in a culture whose god-word is Growth.

Peasley did confess to having some uncomfortable thoughts.  When the rescue party knew that the couple was alive and nearby, he realized, “We were about to intrude into the lives of the last nomadic people in the Western Gibson Desert, and in doing so, it was possible that we might be responsible for bringing to an end a way of life that had gone on for several thousand years.”

Peasley, William John, The Last of the Nomads, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Australia, 1983.

The Last Nomads is a 45 minute Australian documentary of this story.

The Future Eaters provides an environmental history of wild Australia, the early human impacts, the mass extinctions, and the lessons painfully learned.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley tells the story of an Englishman who abandoned civilization and spent 32 years as a hunter-gatherer in the early days of Australian colonization.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley

William Buckley was born in Cheshire, England in 1780.  He was trained to be a bricklayer, but the monotonous work bored him.  He joined the militia and was a soldier for four years.  Then, he met some scruffy lads, and got busted for receiving stolen property.  In 1803, he was rewarded for his mischief with a one-way nine-month pleasure cruise to a luxurious resort for white trash in Middle of Nowhere, Australia.  He never saw his family again.

It was not a high security penal colony, because fleeing into the vast wilderness was essentially suicide.  In just three months the prison routine got unbearably boring, and Buckley joined three other lads in a great escape.  One was shot by a guard, and the two others soon lost their courage and gave up.  Buckley was a stubborn cuss, not an obedient bootlicker.  He refused to surrender, bid farewell to his cowardly mates, and abandoned the British Empire.  Good luck Willy!

A mile or two later, in an incredible act, he passed through a time warp, and entered a vast Stone Age wilderness inhabited by cannibals, venomous snakes, and vicious packs of dingo dogs.  He was free as can be, suddenly a clueless unarmed hunter-gatherer in a reality quite similar to 40,000 B.C.  For the next 32 years, he never saw a civilized person, forgot his mother tongue, ceased knowing what year it was, and continuously worked to improve his survival skills.  Fresh air, sunshine, and absolute freedom.  Imagine that!  His escape inspires pleasant fantasies for daydreaming corporate inmates trapped in cubicle farm workstations.

In the next several months, Buckley ate shellfish and occasionally observed a few passing natives.  One day he stumbled upon a grave with a spear sticking out of it — Lucky Willy’s salvation.  He took the spear, and used it for a walking stick.  Later, while having a pleasant nap, he was spotted by two native women, who returned to their camp with wondrous news of a white man.  Everyone came to see him, and he was given the name Murrangurk, the name of the corpse in the grave, previous owner of the spear.  They believe that after death, souls return as white men.  They were very happy to find him, and Willy now had relatives who held him in great awe.

Over time, he mastered their language.  He learned a great deal about hunting, fishing, and foraging.  He now dined on organic swans, emus, shellfish, shrimp, opossums, squirrels, large ants, roots, wombats, kangaroos, black snakes, grubs, lizards, toads, rats, and mice.  Yum!  Technology included long spears, short spears, spear throwers, boomerangs, tomahawks, shrimp nets, and fire-making sticks.  Their portable mansions were bark tents.  They weren’t too interested in clothing, fashionable folks wore a few strips of hide.

His saga often mentions seeing gatherings of 100, 200, and 300 natives, which surprised me.  My minimal knowledge of Aborigines, based on twentieth century commentaries, led me to believe that they lived in small groups in a harsh land where food was scarce.  Buckley indicated that they were intimately attuned to the cycles of the seasons, knowing when and where abundant food was likely to be found, for a temporary span of time.  They lived a wandering life, trying to move from one food banquet to the next, improvising along the way.

Buckley arrived in Australia in 1803, just one year after the first non-Australian arrived in the wilderness.  Willy spent 32 years with the Wathaurong Aborigines in the Port Phillip and Geelong districts (near Melbourne), and then made contact with sailors in 1835.  In about 1849, as he neared the end of his life, he told his story to impoverished journalist John Morgan.  Buckley could not read or write.  The saga he told was based entirely on memory, long after the events occurred.  He especially remembered the events that had made the deepest impressions on him — conflict and bloodshed.

Throughout the short book, he describes numerous violent events.  Many folks were speared to death, and many of their corpses were eaten.  Very often, women were the cause of bloody disputes.  These conflicts were commonly resolved by spearing the woman, or the man who was with her, who was not her husband.  Whenever someone was speared, the family of the victim was obliged to seek revenge, immediately, or at a convenient opportunity in the future.  If the chief offender was not available, a member of his family would do.  Sometimes two tribes clashed in large rumbles, and several died in the process.

Buckley reported that all deaths were believed to be the result of human agency, never natural causes.  For example, when a man from an enemy tribe died from a snakebite, Buckley’s tribal brother-in-law was suspected of sorcery or something.  The enemies attacked and speared the family that had kindly adopted him.  Buckley became an orphan in a dangerous world, and he cried and cried for hours.

He felt safe and relaxed when living alone by a river or shore, but dangerous people could suddenly appear at any hour.  Any day he could become the main course at dinner.  One white man who met him later in life said he was of “a nervous and irritable disposition, and a little thing will annoy him much.”  Another noted that he “was always discontented and dissatisfied.”

His wild days ended when he met some sailors on the shore.  They were utterly surprised to see a dirty, nearly naked, six foot five inch (2 m) white man with long flowing hair, and a spear.  It took him some time to remember English.  He was greatly relieved to return to civilized society.  He worked as an interpreter for colonists.  Their mission was to meet native chiefs, and buy their land for a pile of trinkets.  The natives had no chiefs, and no concept of owning land or selling it, but they did have a fondness for blankets, knives, and stuff.  They did not understand what these transactions actually meant.

Buckley the bricklayer built the chimney for the first brick house in a primitive frontier settlement now known as Melbourne.  Before long, a steady stream of ships was unloading settlers.  Pissed off natives found exciting new opportunities in sheep rustling, looting, and spearing terrorists.  There were many conflicts, and the well-armed terrorists eventually conquered the Aborigines, and profitably began mining the soil, grassland, forests, and wildlife.  Buckley married the widow of a friend who had been speared.  Soon after, he got typhus.  In 1856, he died of injuries received from being run over by an ox cart in Hobart.  The end.

This is a short book, and Morgan was not a master wordsmith.  The book is a unique snapshot of a time, a place, and a life — a reminder of the era of low impact living.  It’s an effective antidote for those who suffer from the illusion that wild tribes of hunter-gatherers universally enjoyed idyllic lives of love, peace, and happiness.  It’s also sad. 

Today, two centuries later, the wild ecosystem of 1803 has been severely and permanently damaged.  This is not a path with a long future.  The Aboriginal path very closely resembled genuine sustainability.  All paths include some conflict and bloodshed, some coherence and happiness.  We live in interesting times.

Morgan, John, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852, Reprint, William Heinemann Ltd, Melbourne, 1967.