Wednesday 3 October 2012

Storylines by Eve Edwards

Australian Outback 
I was very inspired as a teenager by reading Bruce Chatwin's Songlines, his account of the Aboriginal tradition of navigating and understanding nature through the songs of the community.  It made perfect sense to me. In a culture that was still strongly reliant on oral transmission of knowledge, how better than to find your way on walkabout through relatively featureless desert by something which is inherently entertaining?

And it was so clever - mimicking the walking pace of the teller to be the perfect sat nav without the annoying instructions (Turn around now!).  And I mustn't leave out the most important aspect which is the forming of a spiritual connection to the landscape.  It is an idea that has haunted my imagination and I've often been reminded of it when thinking about other great walkers, such as Wordsworth pacing the Lake District or Dickens finding his way around the seedier parts of London.

It came back to me again this summer when my family and I were in the Yellowstone National Park.  This was one of the last places to be reached in America by white men as it is very inhospitable to humans, being isolated, high and cold.  Even today the park is closed for most of the winter (the animals breathe a sigh of relief no doubt).  During our stay, the wonderful park wardens often mentioned a man called Jim Bridger, a professional teller of tall tales. He was one of the first European to see the geysers and other natural wonders in 1822 and it was perhaps not surprising that few believed his account as Yellowstone is as close as we can get on this planet to seeing life as it might be on an alien world.  Springs that turn everything white in a limestone version of the Midas touch.  Petrified trees.  Bubbling pools of mud.  Cliffs of black glass.  Dragon caves.  Yep, it is a storybook world up there.

And Jim Bridger knew it.  My favourite right-but-yet-wrong story of his involves a tiny lake on the continental divide (this maybe a Jim Bridger style story rather than an original - they multiplied with the tellers and were attributed back to him. Yellowstone's Homer?).
'Go see that lake,' he would say, 'and you would see some danged tired fish because they've swum all the way up from the Pacific and are just waiting to go out the other end and swim all the way down to the Atlantic.'  I doubt very much the fish do this but the water does drain both ways from this one very innocuous looking pool.
The lake on the continental divide

So how does this connect to Songlines?  We talk about the world being mapped by cartographers, but the same process of exploration also charts it by stories.  Do places really exist for us unless we put our factual fiction upon them?  This happens at a national level, of course.  Sherwood would be just another forest without Robin Hood.  It also  happens at a personal level. If I asked you to imagine, let's say, your childhood bedroom, you would be able to see it and perhaps tell some of the stories of things that happened there. I had an airing cupboard in mine that led to Narnia - well, not for me but I kept on hoping, opening the door to try and catch it out.  Sadly, the only member of the household who made an exit that way was my hamster under the floorboards.  As I walk my local area, I don't see it as a map but a series of things that happened to me.  Blackwell's coffee shop - that was where my friend went into labour one day, much to our joint alarm.  That college was where I had a particularly unfair experience during a viva.  This stretch of pavement was where my son zipped ahead of me on his tricycle and I got told off by a policeman for not being able to keep up (I suspect he didn't have small children himself - small people can be surprisingly nippy).

And that's way I've called this post Storylines.  History is a web of them - often contested.  We wouldn't be able to navigate our way without it.

You have reached your destination...


Jean Bull said...

Thanks, Eve, for some interesting thoughts. I visited Yellowstone too this year, but somehow missed out on Jim Bridger and his stories. I like the idea that the fish swim up from the Pacific over to the Atlantic. It sounds far fetched, but salmon do make that swim, at least half way!

JO said...

Without story we have nothing - it's how we explain ourselves to ourselves. Like you I came across Aboriginal stories in Australia, and one thing that impressed me is the insistence that so few of them are written down. Of course I wanted some to take away with me - but no, they are active things, to be spoken and listened to and passed on from one person to another, adapting to time and place. They grow from the culture, are part of it, and change with it.

And we think a sat nav is the height of civilisation!!!

adele said...

Most interesting...that's indeed how we remember places, isn't it? Through stories/memories. Fab post!