When the tea trees are in bloom

Above: ants and honey. Image by Balaram Mahalder, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons.

From the pages of Oceania to the digital troves of Indigenous corporations working today, animals are everywhere in the Australian Aboriginal poetry archive. In many different cultural expressions they are hunted, celebrated, memorialized, loved, and mythologized; they also serve as metaphors for who we are now. This is nowhere clearer than in various stories set in the Dreaming, where our ancestors are literally the bandicoots, the eagles, the native cats that cross the earth, making it the shape, form, and geography it is today. That this same archive involves moral proscriptions — against wife stealing, against hunting taboo foods, against law breaking — and is told in story form means that at the very heart of many Australian Indigenous cultures is the belief that animals are, at the end of day, just like humans.

The selection of poems below comes from a range of sources, but each of them has, until now, been defined as anthropological. In them, however, are lessons that are as aesthetic as they are mythic, legendary, and ethnographic. The selection here is to represent the diversity of the sources that are available, considered in terms of form, style, geography, and time. The source texts are various, from journals to books to previously unpublished work, but they share a borderland between that considered ethnographic and poetic.

Some of the grandest expressions of animals’ role as Dreaming beings with totemic significance appear in T.G.H. Strehlow’s contested text Songs of Central Australia. It is useful to be reminded of Strehlow’s strained and problematic place as an interpreter of traditional Arrernte life. His work upset boundaries of the secret and sacred even as it offered a much-needed expression of culture there. Drawing on Strehlow’s experiences as a child in the Central Desert of Australia as well as on sources by the numerous traditional owners of that desert who were his informants, the selections I have made here are merely a taste of a work that is peopled and populated with the full gamut of nonhuman beings. They look at the everyday life of the kangaroo and wedgebill as a microcosm of life as a whole.

In Ronald Berndt’s “Other Creatures in Human Guise,” we have an imagistic scene of domesticity personified by a mother frog and her children. It comes from an anthropologist who maintained good relations with a wide variety of communities. This excerpt is representative of Berndt’s oeuvre insofar as it expresses a normative morality through depictions of domesticity, something that we see in other works of his in Oceania. The frogs are us, and like us they are happy with their children in a comforting kind of soft rhyme.   

Mangana’s “Arrival of the Turtle” uses direct address in the lines “Glowing like this sacred blood / You appear.” It draws the reader into an ecosystem of the spiritual and makes them an animal, as it were. There is something similar — the personification of the reader, or writer, or person in general — in Boss Davey’s “Old Echidna,” which could be read be as a comment on literary community, on the idea that there is a recognizable, strong, influential poet who grows defensive under attacks by the coterie. The latter poem is an analogy for a type of social relations and politics more generally. It contains a lesson in how to act — how to find one’s way about.  

The fragments here from Richard Gould’s Ngatatjara Songs are reminiscent of found poetry from other traditions as well, but this is owing to the translation that allows space around the original for the reader to infer and read into what is possible. Each of the pieces use repetition and rhyme to reinforce images of the lives of animals. This attention to the lives of animals as mirrors and metaphors for ours is there again in the selections from Ernest Worms, who writes in one stanza:

Hanging at its mother’s tail
Down in the depth of the sea
The dugong calf swims with its mother.
With the old mother it dives.

A dugong is a dugong is a dugong, but here it is also a portrait of family relations that suggests what is possible. We can ask, how does mother relate to child? What is the context of the sea? And what is it to plumb the depths and know thyself? Animals might ask themselves these questions in languages all their own; as far as we know, they are cyphers not of an instrumentalized humanism, but of an ecosystem that features relations and reflections both imagined and real. The final poem here is an expression of that ecosystem, being a simple couplet from Yugambeh Talga that shows us that we are indeed connected, that one can apprehend small aspects of an ecosystem to see the season as a whole, a kind of ecological structuralism where the truth of dreaming is made manifest in small material expressions. This is a symptomatic ecopoetics that allows us to realize we are part of the environment in a deep, elemental, maybe even dreamtime kind of way. 

At a time when climate change and the Anthropocene are being felt (discursively and materially) it is salutary to turn our gaze towards other species. In reexamining the Australian Aboriginal song poetry archives we can begin to see that animals have long been a social and moral life force used for teaching and story. What this might create is a renewed consciousness, not only of the power of metaphor and narrative in poetry, but also a moral and political possibility when our very ecological fates seem to be foreclosing.



Kangaroo Song of Krantji

Crunching their food in their mouths —
While feeding they smack their lips noisily.

Grinding their food in their mouths —
While feeding they smack their lips noisily.

The white whiskered ones
While feeding smack their lips noisily.

The black mouthed ones
While feeding smack their lips noisily.

Through their fodder stands of tnelja vines
They drag themselves along leisurely, leaving their tail prints behind.

In the thick plot of everlastings
They are forever playfully fighting with each other.

In the thick plot of everlastings
They are forever sportively fighting with each other. 

In a thick plot of everlastings
They are forever resting with faces turned upwards. 

The night parrots are speaking, the night parrots are speaking merrily;
In the tree tops, they are speaking in the tree tops they are speaking merrily. 

—   Ted Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, 1971), 172–73.



Wedgebill, O Wedgebill

“Tail-thruster, thrust up your tail —
Wedgebill, o wedgebill!”

“Along their path under those dense bushes
They are hopping upwards in the gully.”

They appear from the broken heaps of rubble;
They are standing still, watching intently. 

The baby joey
On the nose of the precipice
Looks down without a move.

The great sire is basking in the sun;
His legs resound on the rockplates.

He imprints his penis everywhere —
His penis swelling with liquid. 

Having rushed out of the thicket of bushes
They scatter in all directions.

Having rushed out of the thicket of bushes,
They are standing still, watching intently.

With echoing hops they are ascending rocks
In the tjuara thicket, in the tjuara thicket.

His leg bones that are powerful —
His leg bones collapse under him.

“Close in upon him from all sides:
He has vanished into his red cave!”

“He has vanished into his red cave,
He has vanished at this very spot.”

“Those men from Ulaterka —
Whoever is pursuing them without a pause?” 

—   Ted Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia (Angus and Robertson: Sydney, 1971), 422–23.



Frog Cycle


mularig-mularig …
gidjaga                                     gigun-gigun
calling (for water)                    dancing

Frog woman,
Calling, dancing.


mularig                                                ginyarawarag
frog                                         hopping away
mularig                                                gindji-wilugbulug
frog                                         swimming
mularig                                                ginyaragar
frog                                         hopping
mularig                                                ginyalbagbar
frog                                         small frogs
mularig                                                ginminmarmar
frog                                         she’s ‘happy’

Hopping frog,
Swimming frog,
Hopping frog,
Small hopping frogs,
She’s happy.


djagaba                                                ginyarugugin
she (frog)                                hopping round
djagaba                                    ginyaramulmul
she (frog)                                diving into the water
djagaba                                                ginyabidjin
she (frog)                                laughing
djagaba                                                gagalanda
she (frog)                                eating
ginyadjawul                             ngawu arandanyi waidj
calling (to her children)           come for eating food
ngawuba                      gudbanunbara              ngawuba la      inyulilin
come                            for sleeping                 come                sun setting 

Frog hopping,
Frog diving into the water,
Frog laughing,
Frog eating,
Calling (her children), come to eat,
Come to sleep,
Come, the sun is setting! 

—   Ronald Berndt, “Other creatures in Human Guise and Vice Versa: A Dilemma in Understanding,” Songs of Aboriginal Australia, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross, Tamsin Donaldson, and Stephen A. Wild, in Oceania 32 (1961): 180–81.



The Arrival of the Turtle

gangulari milidari mindun                   Blood similar thou art
dolnan burdar mindun                         toward the spring tide moving a
gadaridunu                              stranger. 

dalnara waledunu                                Turtle to the south belonging
nalar indun nalar indun                                    glittering it is glittering it is
nalar indun nalar indun                                    glittering it is glittering it is. 

Glowing like this sacred blood
You appear.
Riding up and down on the waves,
Quickly the stranger arrives.

The turtle arrived
From the south
Glistening and glimmering in the waves,
Shining and glittering on the waves. 

—   Mangana, in Ernest Worms, The Poetry of Yaoro and Bad in North West Australia (Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1957), 218.


Echidna’s Song

Wangur dthunnee dthunee dthunee
Wangur dthunnee dthunee dthunee
Wangur dthunnee dthunee dthunee
Wangur dthunnee goolgoo boora
Goolgoo boora goolgoo boora
Wangur dthunnee dthunee dthunee

Old Echidna with stately stride
Is out to see where ants may hide
To know his track you cannot fail
The toeholes deep, the dragging tail
We touch him with our yam stick, wai!
He’s now a spiky ball, yakai!

—   Boss Davey, in H. O. Lethbridge, Australian Aboriginal Songs: Melodies, Rhythm, and Words Truly and Authentically (Melbourne: Allan, 1937), 8.



Dingo Cycle 

papa                 ngarira                         yingka             yingkara
Dingo              is lying down               sing!                is singing

papa                 yingkantjayi
Dingo              was singing (in the dreamtime)

Rabbit-Eared Bandicoot Cycle 

ninu     ninu                 nipungama                   tjipiyakala
Rabbit-Bandicoot        keep pressing
ninu     ninu                 nipungama
Rabbit-Bandicoot        keep pressing

Goanna Lizard Cycle

mirkalu                        kampupala                   ninara
vegetable food kampurarpa fruit                    sitting
ngampu                       yalaringu
seed                             became open 

— Richard A. Gould, Ngatatjara Songs: Western Australia Desert Aborigines,1969, Smithsonian Institution, audio recording.



A Triptych on the Dugong  

mal ind Narelgun                                             It stops at Narel
barambar madarin inda                                                the dugong noise it made
mal ind Narelgun                                             it stops at Narel
barambar madarin inda                                                the dugong noise it made
barambar                                                         the dugong.

At Narel the dugong has stopped.
A loud noise it made when breathing.
At Narel the dugong has halted.
A hissing noise he made sucking the air
The dugong. 

lirba indan lirba indan                                      The tide has gone out the
lirba indan lirba indan                                      water has fallen (x2)
malb indan malb indan                                    the young one has come the
malb indan malb indan                                    young one has come (x2) 

The tide has gone out, the sea will soon return.
The low tide has finished, the flow will soon be back.
A dugong calf has come, a young dugong has arrived.
A young dugong came in the bay, a dugong calf has arrived.

garalgun inben                                                 With the female it goes
garaldadu dimben dimben                               together down below
garalgun inben                                                 with the mother it goes
wurumbadadu indu                                         with the old woman it swims. 

Hanging at its mother’s tail
Down in the depth of the sea
The dugong calf swims with its mother.
With the old mother it dives.

— Djidun, in Ernest Worms, The Poetry of Yaoro and Bad in North West Australia, (Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1957), 222–24. 



A Welcome to the Turtle  

nim dan goalgad iralen                        Eyes my south towards they look
bidi goalgad iralen                               sea to the south they see
ginin olalun diba                                  that (turtle) deep water in here
indan garingun indan garigun              he calls sandhill from he calls sandhill from
nolad bel gau dunu                              dance — for there he cooees
ginin olalun diba                                  that channel — in here
diba                                                     on this side.

— Djidun, in Ernest Worms, The Poetry of Yaoro and Bad in North West Australia (Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1957), 226.



When They Are Fat

Kambullum wongara
Woojerie bingging
Woodooroo wongara
Woojerie kunneng

When the silky oaks are in bloom, the turtles are fat
When the tea trees are in bloom, the mullet are fat 

—   Ysola Best, Candace Kruger, Patricia Keeaira, Yugambeh Talga: Music Traditions of the Yugambeh People of South-east Queensland (Southport, AU: Keeaira Press, 2005), 28.