In this marvellous book, Bruce Chatwin does more than describe the Australian songlines. See last blog. What follows are my words, not his.
He suggests that human beings have been nomadic hunter gatherers for two million years and settled farmers for only eight thousand years. Our brains are therefore wired up to a life like that of the Australian aborigines (before the white man destroyed it). We struggle with our settled existence: we are designed to walk, not to sit or to labour. This idea resonates very strongly in me, as I was passionate about walking, both on my own and with my rambling club and felt completely at home and fulfilled when walking. Chatwin quotes the Buddha: “You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself.” That is exactly what it felt like.
Further, Chatwin relates the songlines to the myths of ancient peoples more familiar to us, suggesting that the Greek myths are the verbal remains of songline maps. He quotes other writers who see a resemblance between the myths of disparate cultures – Hebrew, Old Norse and Greek. The gipsies it seems, another nomadic people, have enormous amounts of secret knowledge which they memorise before initiation. The literary books that have power over us are the ones that tap into myth – from Charles Dickens to J.K. Rowling.
A last insight: in Europe we traditionally had dialects that mutated incrementally into the next one as we travel across the country, but they are not mutually incomprehensible. In Africa there are hundreds of different non-cognate languages – seven major ones in Namibia, for example. Chatwin suggests that in aboriginal Australia each clan named the plants, animals etc. in their own area. They had no name for plants that did not grow there. Does this begin to account for the purely local languages of different, though neighbouring. tribes?