Friday, 18 April 2008

To black stump - Epilogue

A man is walking slowly along the edge of the Stuart Highway.
The road, known also as the A87, is running down the back-bone of Australia, slicing the outback in two. Conquering the unconquerable, a passage through the wasteland.
The man’s name is Walter Seddon. People tend to call him Walt.
If you could follow his trail – and there are footsteps still to follow through the dirt – you’d find your way to a place known as black stump, but you might never realise you’d arrived there.
Black stump is a place like any other. It’s miles out in the bush. There’s nothing there. Just a long dead tree and memories.
A truck’s coming along the highway now. The sun is beating down. In a few minutes the driver’s going to see the weary traveller and stop to ask if he’s okay. The traveller will smile and say he’s doing just fine. “Bonza”, he might say that.
He’ll be invited to climb aboard. He’ll say thanks and introduce himself as Walter. The driver will tell Walter that he’s pleased to meet him. And he is, very pleased.
The driver’s name is Bill and he hates to travel alone, without conversation. Never thought he’d see a hitchhiker out here though.
Walter will ask Bill if he’s ever heard of a place called black stump. He’ll reply that everywhere around here, to the left and right of the highway is out past black stump. Walter will nod and tell him he’s quite right, and maybe the story won’t go any further.
Bill is heading up to Darwin, on the north coast. Walter will spend much of the journey considering his next move, after Bill asks him how far he wants to go. Alice Springs is the name buzzing around in his head. But another name in there is Pattie.
We’ll leave them here now, leave the truck to roll on north. They’ll be okay now, Bill and Walt.
Let’s go back, instead, right across the great sweeping vista of the red sands, green-brown bushes and skeletal trees. Back to a place known as black stump.
There’s a man there, in a clearing, sitting. He’s perched there, upon black stump.
The man’s name is Derek Tanner. He lives in a place called Wilder’s Creek. But the outback is also a home to him, and his favourite resting place, his favourite seat in the whole damn country, is something which he calls black stump.
He’s smiling now. He’s just sitting there and smiling.

The End

Thursday, 17 April 2008

To black stump - Part IV

I don’t realise it yet, but I’m camping near to black stump.
Every day I have wandered this landscape, almost unchanging, and each evening I have come to a spot within about half a mile of black stump.
On the second day I was walking slowly. Sipping my water, not really looking where I was going. Just thinking about my lot. My life’s direction, my eternal soul.
On the third day I was stumbling about. My skin was drying, even blistering. I was dabbing the water onto my lips now. The billabongs all stagnant, the creeks almost empty. But I was in a reverie and I was obsessing about the infinite. At one point I sat down on the broken carpet of this sacred land, crossed my legs and lifted both hands up in praise to the immense sky. After a few seconds its magnitude bore down on me so hard that I toppled backwards and had to cower before it. I covered myself for fully ten minutes until the concentration of the sun on one part of my body began to scorch.
Each night I have slept near to the embers of my fire and dreamt deep of black stump. Perhaps the smoking remains of the burning twigs and branches felt a kinship with their brother, that black corpse of a tree, that charnel stump? Whatever, some magic pulled me away and each night it began the same.
I was lifted, carried almost, from my slumber and I floated with the wisping smoke trails, across the shapeless desert towards black stump. Always towards black stump.
From the ground, the stump was easily lost among the myriad scrambled residue of the Outback. But, from the air, it was easy to see.
Each morning, the start of my dream or my memory of it would jump and skip about, like a cherished record the needle could barely read. On the first day, for example, I recall no descent to the stump - I would simply have appeared there. Then, yesterday I found I had fallen (or been dropped) upon the ground nearby and needed to pick myself up from the dust and walk on a little.
During my first night’s slumber I met my-ex, Pattie, at black stump. It may be a little strange, but I was quite unsurprised to see her there. I was pleased, and immediately inquired after her and her family. Our conversation was polite, always polite.
I noticed she wore little, but a white robe. Her hair was more golden than the blonde I had known and her face seemed to shine. She was an angelic vision and eventually I found myself unable to speak, so captivated was I by her form.
She said I must speak to her, I must continue to search. Her face began to shimmer and glow white, at this. She asked why I came to black stump, why did I call her here? I tried to speak, but it was as if my tongue had grown wings and flown for the moon.
The longer I failed to speak, the more she was transfigured. Her robes sparkled and her skin was bathed in the glow of absolute purity. When I could see nothing but the fizzing whiteness of her open soul, my mouth engaged and words spat forth: “This is how I’ve always seen you.”
As the light receded so did my dream. I was then allowed to wake and remember.
On the second night it was my mother who was waiting for me there, at the blasted stump. Her eyes shone green and her black hair dropped in glossy flows about her shoulders. Her pursed lips were cherry red. She seemed some way between the benevolent Madonna and the blaspheming witch. I was cautious, though she bade me sit.
Questions raced through my head, things I thought I should know. About her, about me, about my father. They had all seemed so important, so fundamental to my life, to how it had turned out, to how it had reached this moment.
But as we sat and eyed each other from our seated positions, I realised there was nothing to ask my mother. There was nothing I needed to know.
In a moment of a dream, my head was dissolved of a lifetime of ponderings, recriminations and insecurities. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks and my mother opened her mouth to sing. From deep within her came a rich baritone, singing in a dead language. A powerful theme with notes slow and long, rising and falling gently like the soft undulations of the landscape about.
After a minute or so of song, she rose straight up from black stump. A graceful ascension into the night sky, the rumble of her voice echoing in the distant hills, and then… awake.
And so to tonight, the night I find black stump.
My dream tonight began quite differently, because it began by being awoken. A tap on the shoulder brought me from my body. I was standing, looking down on my sleeping form. No flight to black stump upon the smoke of my campfire tonight. I could walk.
A man, a tribesman, a stereotype of my mind, perhaps; with long clumped hair, a loincloth, a painted body and a stick or spear waited for me. He led me on a path, which curved like the S of a perfect snake, between five ironbark trees. Trees, somehow managing a hint of life and sustenance in a harsh world.
At the end of the path was black stump. He pointed and I understood. He put words, ideas, images into my mind. He offered me something that night, he suggested it was sanctuary.
I saw a picture there, inside my head. In the image I stepped upon the sacred stump. I understood that this stump was all that remained of a cursed man, turned into a tree and struck repeatedly by the wrath of heaven, until it was sated.
The charred tree and I were then joined. Fresh bark grew up from the stump and new roots flowed down from my feet. I would soon be encased in this new life. An ironbark eucalyptus tree, grown anew in the wilderness.
It was a wonderful sight. Such light and joy in the midst of a desert. But I never needed a moment more to consider his offer. Instead I bowed to the man, turned slowly and retraced my steps back to where my body slept.
Now, I’m almost there. All that remains for me to do is wake myself and recall the route. The route to my journey’s end. The route to black stump. be continued...

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

To black stump - Part III

The first few hours of my journey to black stump were soundtracked by swarming insects.
They seemed to surround and penetrate my head, as if one had burrowed into my ear and called the others to follow. Very soon the howls of distant carnivores were lost to me and all my brain could maintain was the chirrup of the scratching crickets and the buzzing wing-beats of great beetles as they feasted on the darkness of morning.
I was walking in a straight line, away from Derek’s place. A straight line, as best I could, in the direction he pointed me - straight out the door, and keep on walking.
Things were crawling on my clothes, in my hair. Things nipping at my skin and drinking deep of what goodness I had to give. Who was I to deny them that pleasure? I just looked at the ground before me, and measured each step, carefully, by the milky light that God had blessed me with.
The sun started to rise after just over two hours of walking. It was coming up behind me, so I figured I was heading west or maybe north-west. For the first time I noticed the colours. The sun blessed the landscape with colour.
You may think you know what a sandy or rocky landscape looks like; but to stand alone here, in the midst of what is a colossal ancient seabed and see the light creeping across the scattered rocks, bushes and hardiest of trees - to see the sand first begin to glow red with the pride of day - that is a blessing too few have had.
A rise of hills lay in the distance and arced off towards the north. This at least kept me penned in, kept me hunting in an area my brain could almost comprehend. I shifted my course, more to the north and tried not to disturb the lizards of day, before their prey did.
Birds called now and the insect drone gave way as the fat, delicious creatures of night looked for sanctuary. I’d stumbled into a long dry watercourse and was following its wake without thought, back towards the hills. I could leave this journey to itself for a while, so I put my hat on and I thought of Derek. I considered his words, his stories about black stump.
He told me that black stump was both a real place, and an imagined one. That it existed physically, at the site of a burned out old eucalyptus tree, but that it also existed spiritually and was a place of particular significance to the indigenous peoples of the area.
The Arabana tribe, he said, had many stories of powerful experiences near black stump. Rain was said to flow up from the sand, or fire might grow in the bushes and even inhabit the animals, round about.
These people would perform dances at the black tree and sing to the spirits of the air. Aboriginal travellers through the region said they had encountered dead friends and relatives, and even spoke to them. The shaman would come to the stump to ask questions of the ancestors, decipher the whispered truths from the lies of the dead.
To non-Aborigines, the notion of black stump was thought simply a part of mythology and local folklore. Lots of people said they’d seen it, but who could be sure it was the black stump of legend?
Of course, every weird event or crazy story, told by anyone who travelled through this stretch of bush, was at once attributed to black stump.
“Did you cross black stump on your travels?”, “Ah, you must have been passing near to black stump.” This place existed as clearly in the local imagination now, as it did in the traditions of the indigenous tribes people, and as it did in the vivid experience of Derek.
For Derek’s part, he told me he once found himself out in the bush, at the dead of night. Figured he’d been sleepwalking and had come to, miles from his home - maybe 50 miles. And there, about 20 yards away from where he was standing was his father, blood streaming from his ears and eyes, smiling at Derek, squatting there upon a charred black stump of wood.
They talked some, that night, and then Derek turned around and followed his footsteps home. He’s been back, he says, but every time he’s had to go a different direction. A new route, every time, to find black stump.
I'd like to believe him, I'd like to believe all of it, everything about black stump. I'd like that, so much.
So, as the sun’s heat waned later in the day, I stopped thinking about Derek and the stump. I just stopped thinking at all. I climbed out of the stream bed and veered north-east towards a distant billabong and I camped pretty nearby that night, but far enough away not to be bothered by mosquitoes.
That night, as the sun set behind the hills, I knew I wasn’t quite there. I might even have gone way past it, but it didn’t matter because I knew I wasn’t ready to find black stump. Not yet.
Something told me I still had a couple more days to go. be continued...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

To black stump - Part II

Let me tell you a little something about me, seems as how we’ll be travelling together, today.
It happens that my name is Walter; Walter Seddon, actually. Yeah, people pretty much just go with Walt, so why don’t you?
Guess I’m kind of a bum. Got kicked out of every place. First my mum kicked my dad out. Then she kicked me out when I got older so I guess I take after him, there.
I lived with a couple of guys - friends, you know? Lived with a girl, she was nice. Pattie. I’ve got her photo somewhere in my pack. I’ll get it later.
Anyway, kind of had to move out, move on. If you’re in someone else’s place you’re in someone else’s hair, that’s how I see it.
I mean, I’m happy for the couch or the floor or wherever, but you got to be ready, you got to prepare yourself, mentally, for that look in your direction, that whispered conversation. You’ve always got to be thinking about the door.
I’d like to find my own place one day, but I dunno where yet. I’m still looking, looking for someone or something to tie myself to. Put down roots or whatever it is people say.
You say you’re from Port Augusta then? Well, I’m an Adelaide boy, 24 years. Never did drive up to Augusta myself. Good fishing round there, I hear. Looked nice as the coach pulled in, anyway.
I take it you’re going on up to Alice Springs? Just sightseeing? Or you trekking on after that? Well, if you stick around there a bit, I might catch up with you. Could only afford a ticket to Marla, you see. I could stay on, but they’d just catch me at the next changeover and I’d be just as stuck.
But Marla, that sounds like a nice place. Like a girl’s name, or something. I’ll be able to find a ride in Marla’ll get me further north, or in Wilder’s Creek. I’ll be seeing you in a few days mate, I’m sure of it.
Or maybe I’ll see me a bit of this beautiful country of ours? Look at it, both sides of the highway, stretching on for bloody miles it is. Might get me a lift in some bloke’s Ute, head down to the local watering hole.
Ah yes. See this ancient land of ours. It’s gonna be sweet. Bet my old mum never thought I’d be, erm, ‘communing with nature’ in the middle of the bloody bush.
Nor Pattie neither. I never did show you a photo of her, did I? Hang on a sec. I’ll just get her out.
She’s nice, yeah? Pretty? Smart too. Too smart, really.
Well, we’ll be stopping soon. I’ll be getting off. Out of your hair. Heh!
You have a good one, mate. No, you keep the picture. Keep it for me. I’ll get it from you when I catch up with you. You know, in Alice Springs.
Yeah, g’day. See you soon, mate. be continued...

Monday, 14 April 2008

To black stump

After three days of travelling I found myself at black stump.
In the Australian vernacular, “the black stump” is an abstract place, known to everyone and nobody at all. It’s like saying “the back of beyond”, or “the middle of nowhere”, except this place, black stump, it seemed to be describing something worth looking for. A marker, something you could find, something you could hold on to in this arid wilderness.
Derek, a bloke in the pub near Wilders Creek, told me I could find black stump. Said it was a place I needed to find. Derek reckoned I was lost already; searching for black stump would be nothing in comparison.
From most men, the suggestion to go off and find an imaginary blackened stump in the ground, somewhere within a wilderness area covering hundreds of square miles, would have quickly rung up a polite “screw you, mate” followed by a wry smirk as you finish your beer.
But because of the fierce but genuine intensity with which Derek’s eyes burnt, I listened to what the man had to say.
And maybe it also had something to do with the mood I was in that night. I’d lost pretty big at poker in the pub. Couldn’t get another drink until Derek offered to buy me one. I was frustrated by everything and I thought the beer would calm me down.
But Derek doesn’t do calm, and he somehow instilled in me a desire to find a place that no-one in the town could even be sure existed. Well, he knew it, so he said.
He told me amazing things about black stump and how I could find it. I sat there on a bar stool, listened and drank.
After a couple more beers were drained, we left the pub and I slept on Derek’s floor.
Derek lived in a little cabin on the edge of the settlement. Well kept, but small - enough for one, I suppose. The front door opened onto the main street of the town. The back door, onto a small allotment and then nothing. Nothing, just the great Australian Outback - the bush.
At 3am I heard movement in the kitchen but there was no light on. Then a cupboard door opened. Rattling, pulling, something fell down. Then nothing. I waited for the next sound. I heard no doors open, no footsteps’ tread, but I knew Derek was sitting on the couch beside me.
“It’s time to go,” he whispered.
“Strewth, it’s still dark. What’s with all the noise, Derek,” I asked. “Is there a bloody snake in the house or something?”
“Yes, there’s a snake, in the house. So you’ve got to go now,” he said. “I’ve put supplies in your pack. You’ll be fine to black stump.”
“You can leave by the back door,” he said and opened it. So I stepped out into the cold, pitch morning and the door closed behind me. I looked back at the door for fully twenty minutes waiting for him to open it again. I thought it must be a test.
Eventually, I realised my test really had already begun.
I looked to the moon, and the dingo’s howl. I looked to the horizon and set off for black stump. be continued...