Imagine a radically different way of being in the world. Imagine you were conceived on the very spot where your mother first felt you moving inside of her. Earlier your father had, er, prepared the soil, but what your mother felt at that spot was actually you rising from the ground into her womb. Before she stepped there you were a “life cell”, a “spirit child” deposited there long ago by one of your Ancestors.
And there “you” remained until that day your mother walked by and happened to step upon a song couplet, which caused you to slip into her womb, carrying the song planted within you. Your mother remembered the place and told the tribal elders, who went and examined it “to discern which Ancestor’s songline was involved, and which stanzas of that Ancestor’s song will belong” to you. At birth every one of your people “inherits a particular stretch of song as his private property, a stretch of song that is, as it were, his title to a stretch of land, to his conception site.”
Your land is part of the Dreaming from which your life originated; the contours of your life are indelibly shaped by the contours of the land. The song is the story of your life, the life of your tribe and your peoples. These lives are continuously being sung into being through the thousands of songlines that crisscross your continent. Song literally and figuratively locates and orients you in your world. Song and land hold your collective memories, from where you were conceived—your couplet in the story—to where you journey and the songs you sing as you find your way.
There is a ritual you periodically undertake, called “Walkabout,” in which as you walk amidst the land and its song you chant “the Ancestor’s verses, without altering a single word, singing the land into view—and in this manner recreating the creation.” Walking and singing, retracing and reanimating the steps and the songline of the ancestors, you dwell on your own in the countryside for months. In some of the places you re-enact the journey and heroics your ancestors enacted there. For you know that the Dreaming, like your life and the land itself, must be continually renewed. And so your walkabout is living history as you renew the land’s song as well as the story of your Ancestors and your own story: “and thus the storied earth is born afresh.”
All your days, the land will collaborate with you in the song of your joint existence. At the end of your life you will sing yourself back into the land from whence you arose. So at the time of your dying you return to the spot where you were conceived, and upon death your vitality rejoins the dreaming earth, just as your Dreamtime Ancestors—at the end of their journeys—folded themselves into some feature of the landscape.
[See there,] That tree is a digging stick
left by the giant woman who was looking
for honey ants;
That rock, a dingo’s nose;
There, on that mountain, is the footprint
left by Tjangara on his way to Ulamburra.
I read about this in a chapter of David Abrams’ fascinating book, The Spell of the Sensuous, in which he discusses the dreamtime beliefs of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. As he says, “The Dreamtime is not, like the Western, biblical notion of Genesis, a finished event; it is not, like the common scientific interpretation of the “Big Bang” an event that happened once and for all in the distant past. Rather, it is an ongoing process—the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full-waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech.” (This sounds like much the same song that scientists are hearing proteins sing; see my post on the ontology of potent proteins.)
Why call it dreamtime?
That Native Australians chose the English term “Dreaming” to translate this cosmological notion indicated their sense that the ordinary act of dreaming participates directly in the time of the clan Ancestors, and hence that that time is not entirely elsewhere, not entirely sealed off from the perceivable present. Rather, the Dreaming lies in the same relation to the open presence of the earth around us as our own dream life lies in relation to our conscious or waking experience.
Hat tip: Thanks to M.W. Fogleman, who recommended The Spell of the Sensuous after reading my post on a question about the value of wilderness.