Take to the Road

I finished reading a book today called The Songlines. Written by Bruce Chatwin, it describes his trip to Australia to learn about the Aboriginal cultures of the continent. The work, a mixture of travel memoir, fiction and philosophy, is based on an actual trip he took a couple years before his death in 1989. It details Chatwin's travels on the continent as he tries to understand the “songlines.”

The songlines are the fundamental element of the Aboriginal creation stories. At the beginning of time, the “Dreamtime”, the Ancestors created themselves out of clay and began to wander across the earth, singing out the names of everything they saw—animals, plants, rocks and streams—thus defining their existence.

The paths that the Ancestors traveled on as they sang are known as songlines (or dream-tracks), and the songs are passed down from generation to generation. When an aboriginal goes ‘walkabout’, he follows the original songline that his ancestors did. The songs are always sung in exactly the same way, as a way of maintaining the creation. If a wanderer remembers his song and does not deviate from its path, he can never get lost. The melodies along each line are constant from one end of the continent to the other. They are transferred across boundaries where one clan’s territory ends and another’s begins. The melody stays the same, even as the words would change. In addition to maintaining the creation, the songlines also act as trading routes among the clans.

The book is not the definitive work on the songlines, and critics complain about Chatwin’s ‘amateur anthropology’. However, the stories he tells in the book are colorful enough to keep you engaged, and the book is a good primer for someone who is interested in learning about Aboriginal history and the relationship the people have with the land. It also gives the reader a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic picture of the interactions between the Aboriginal and white cultures.

At one point toward the end of the book, Chatwin is stuck at an outpost for two weeks because rains have flooded the roads back to Alice Springs. While stranded, the author sits down with his notebooks and begins to write, recounting stories, quoting philosophers and trying to determine why the human species feels such a need to move about. This section is quite long-winded but it contained several passages and quotes that resonated with me. Maybe they will resonate with some of you too. Among them are:

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.”Moorish proverb

I like that. Traveling opens your eyes and helps you understand how big the world is, and conversely, how small we are.

Solvitur ambulando. ‘It is solved by walking.’Unattributed

If you walk far enough, you can always figure out the solution to a problem.

“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.” Anatole France

Yes. Less stuff and more experiences! 

And finally, I have one last quote from the book that I want to share with you. It could be the foundation for the wanderer’s creed:

“All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’—the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.”

Indeed. Let us take to the road.