Sunday, February 2, 2020

Australia Part 2: Social interactions and stories

Giff Miller, Richard Tax, Marilyn, Sean Pack (standing); Geoff Hunt (rooftop), Mulan area 1999
       As we wound our way to the Top End, we experienced social norms very different than those in the United States at that time. For example, it was surprising to almost everyone that I was the scientist leading the trip, not my husband. In the town of Daly Waters, we attended a comedy show in a restaurant and heard many racist and anti-gay jokes. In indigenous people's communities, we saw poverty, alcoholism, and segregation, typically with a white couple running the show through the local gas and food store. The availability of fresh food in the Outback was minimal—frozen kangaroo tails were considered a delicacy. Chips (French fries), sweets, and white bread (also frozen) were about the only groceries available to the community.
            Working in remote Aboriginal communities requires several years of planning. We obtained permits for our studies in the Lake Gregory region of Western Australia. Getting there wasn't easy. Working with local people required building trust and respecting local customs. Our relationships with the people of Mulan, the community near Lake Gregory, were very good.
        On my second trip to Australia in 1998, my family and I started our voyage in Perth, drove north along the Indian Ocean coast, then inland to Halls Creek, a mid-size town in Western Australia. Our destination was the village of Mulan, an Aboriginal outpost with a population of about 200 people. We were headed to this area because Mulan was on the shores of Lake Gregory, a 400 square mile lake that has been accumulating sediments for thousands of years. Mulan wasn’t on any of the maps that we used to get us to the Lake Gregory field area. Giff Miller had sent a cryptic email that said, “Turn right about 30 kilometers after you pass through Billaluna. We’ll be camping about 10 kilometers out of town on a creek. You can’t miss it.”
            We drove from Halls Creek, past the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater to Billaluna, a town with several shops and a gas station. There, we asked where the road to Mulan was, but we asked in a way that was destined to take us in the wrong direction.
         We did not realize that indigenous people never answered “no” when asked a yes or no question. We asked, “Is this the road to Mulan?” The answer was, of course, yes. Our family of four, mom and dad with our two kids, headed down a dirt track that got smaller and smaller. Just outside of town, we passed a hitchhiker and without much thought, offered him a ride. He was heading in the same direction as we were, but we didn’t notice until he hopped in the car that he was carrying a rifle. Perhaps this wasn’t the smartest thing we’d ever done. 
         After a few kilometers, we came up to a group of Aboriginal hunters, and our rider thanked us and took off. The hunters had set fire to the area on the left side of the road in order to drive game to the other side where they would shoot any bustards--turkey-sized birds--or kangaroos, both of which were considered delicacies. It was our first time driving through a bush fire, but not the last. When we let off our hitchhiker, the road diverged into three directions. Chris pointed to the left fork, “Is this the best way to get to Mulan?” The answer, of course, was yes. Chris headed the jeep down a one-lane dirt track. Within a kilometer or two, the road had diverged again. We stopped, thought about it for a moment, then took the left fork. Shortly, the road started to fade out with thorny acacia bushes covering the way. We had reached a dead end.
Painting of Lake Gregory and Serpent

         Fortunately we had food, water, and enough fuel to camp out if we were lost—and we were. Carefully, we turned the vehicle around and retraced our steps. In 1998, I did not have a GPS unit so were traveling on our own with maps. After returning to Billaluna, we stopped in the store, this time asking the white proprietor how to get to Mulan. He directed us back to the Tanami Track and told us to look for a primitive sign and an even more primitive track leading to Mulan. Near 5 pm, as the sun was low in the horizon, we finally turned off on the track that took us through sand dunes and swamps to the village of Mulan.
         Over the years, I met many indigenous people, even working with them in the field. I went many times through the village of Mulan, 40 kilometers off the Tanami Track in Western Australia, but that first trip influenced my son to become a medical professional. Years later he reflected on this trip:
I traveled with my family through the Australian outback in search of the small Aboriginal town, Mulan, where my mother conducted fieldwork, 8 hours away from the nearest paved road. After years of abuse from the Australian government, the village greeted us with wary skepticism. Mulan hosted high levels of chronic illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and impoverishment. The village leader, Whiskey, took us in and we exchanged ideas on wildlife and climate. Throughout our stay, what impressed me more than the accumulation of 100s of years of passed down knowledge was the distinct and overwhelming respect the community held for him as their leader and, more importantly, as their healer. He treated everyone with the utmost kindness and kept an open ear for all who sought his counsel. The degree of trust they had in him inspired resilience that pushed them through times of drought and illness. Observing Whiskey made me realize how one person can make a difference in the lives of others. The strength he inspired in his people allowed them to turn the Australian outback into a home where they could grow for generations.” Evan Swarth, December 2018.
Marilyn and Evan on the road to Mulan, 1998

         We drove out of Mulan with Whiskey’s directions—over a sand hill, through a creek bed, then over a sand hill, you’ll see them on the right, he said. We took off confident we’d be in the camp within a few minutes. No problem with the first couple of sand hills and creek beds, but no sign of Giff or John. Then the road forked. We got out of the vehicle and looked for recent tracks, but the sun was now well below the horizon and it was getting dark. We chose the left fork heading into a vast open plain dotted with the outlines of gum trees. Suddenly, there in the distance we saw the bright orange glow of a campfire! The relief was palpable. 
         We’d made it or so we thought. As we drove closer, the orange glow grew larger—but it was the rising moon. Disappointment lay heavy in the vehicle. Chris and I kept an upbeat tone. But it was 9 pm, pitch black outside. The kids were hungry, and we were beat. We pulled off the road under a gum tree, pitched our tent, heated up some baked beans, and called it a day. The kids slept in the car.
         Where was Giff? Would we ever find the camp? The next morning we packed up camp, and with determination, continued on the track. Within 20 minutes, we ran straight into a small caravan of field vehicles driven by Giff, John Magee and Jim Bowler. Relief flooded over me. We’d actually made it, this time. After spending the day collecting plants, we headed at last to the camp, another 10 kilometers from where we’d parked the night before, far from the few sand hills past Mulan. 
Nancy Tax (Richard's wife), Lake Gregory painting

         That first field season in the Mulan and Lake Gregory area was a good experience for learning how to incorporate a whole new field area into a study. We had originally thought that we could take sediment cores from the center of Lake Gregory, a sizeable lake in  native territory. We were naïve in this thought because the community had no boats and forbid sampling sediments in any part of the lake. When we thought about this, we realized that the Mulan people’s dreamtime stories included a serpent coming from the center of the lake, who morphed into the tribe that occupies the land today. To drill into the lake would in essence disturb the sacred ground—a religious area strictly off limits to geologists.

Richard Tax, Senior Lawman, Rainmaker, and Artist
         Collecting plants and eggshells was no problem for the elders in Mulan, but taking soil samples was another matter, because soil meant earth, meaning their land. In 2001, we wanted to take cores of sand dunes in the Lake Gregory area around Mulan. To do so, we were assigned a “senior lawman” to travel with us to make sure we did not violate any sacred sites. Monday morning we picked up Richard Tax, who was accompanied to our vehicle by his wife, Nancy Tax. Richard was dressed in an older, buttoned shirt, some three-quarter length pants, and a pair of seemingly ill-fitting shoes. He reeked of tobacco, sat quietly in the back seat sans seatbelt with his lunch in a tin container.  We took off going places, we learned later, that Richard had not seen since he was a boy. As we crested one particularly steep sand dune where everyone, not just me squealed, we heard his seat belt click on. Together we were on a once in a lifetime ride into wilderness where the closest inhabitants were 100 kilometers away in all directions. The power and beauty of the landscape filled us with quiet awe.
         Tax became a member of our team on Wednesday of that week. When we stopped to pick him up, he leaped into the vehicle, nodded good morning, clicked his seat belt, and we were off. At lunch time, we would park under a gum tree, gather some twigs and make a small fire to heat the Billy for tea and Jaffles, heated sandwiches filled with yesterday’s leftover dinner, slices of cheese, and pepper sauce, melded together over the fire. Student Sean Pack offered Tax sugar for his tea with the phrase “Say when!” We watched as more and more sugar was dumped into Richard’s cup, finally realizing he had no idea what “Say when” actually meant. The syrupy tea was dumped and everyone laughed. 
         On our last day with Richard, we stopped and took a group photo. It is said that indigenous people of Australia don’t like to be photographed, but that did not seem a problem. We shook hands warmly as we drove out of Mulan, knowing we’d had a cultural experience and glimpse into the life of a native Australian that almost no white Australians ever have. When we departed via the town of Balgo, stopping at the local art shoppe, we were surprised to learn that not only was Richard Tax a valued senior lawman, but he was the Rainmaker of the community, a man who could put a spell on us if we’d misbehaved! He was also an internationally recognized painter with tourists flying into Balgo to purchase his artwork. His painting of people sitting around a campfire hangs on the wall of my home office as I wrote this. 
Richard Tax, abstract painting of people (Xs) around a campfire

Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater or the Rainbow Serpent’s ascent
            The samples we were ultimately able to collect in the Lake Gregory area weren’t good enough to provide a robust climate signal. Giff, John Magee, and I had another idea. We thought the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater just north of Lake Gregory might provide us with laminated sediments, if we were to take a core in the very center of the crater. Wolfe Creek meteorite crater is part of a national park of the same name. We obtained permission to sample the sediments inside the crater from the National Park folks, as well as the senior lawmen from the Aboriginal community that resided in Billaluna to the south.
            An international team was assembled. Bev Johnson, postdoc Matthew Wooller, and two students of Bev’s from Bates College joined Giff, John Magee, and scientists from Australian National University at the campground just outside the crater. A sizeable drilling rig had been hauled up on a trailer from Canberra. Using a system of ropes and pulleys, the rig was carefully lowered from the east rim down to the crater floor. After a couple of days of testing, we took our first few meters of core sediments. The floor of the Crater contains plants that are specially adapted to that environment. At its very center, there are small ponds 1-2 meters in diameter that are filled with aquatic plants and slimy microbes. It is without a doubt a surreal place that exudes a feeling of cultural importance.
            On the third day of drilling, we were relaxing around the campfire, discussing the day, when a man walked into our camp uninvited. He was about 50 years old, wearing a pair of grey woolen slacks, a short sleeved white sport shirt, and a skinny tie. At first glance, I took him for a religious missionary of some sort. We said hello to him, then he spoke.
Mat Wooller, Giff, Marilyn, and John Magee, 2001 Wolfe Creek campsite

            “I’ll have to ask you to cease and desist from your drilling operation in the Crater, or I’m afraid I’ll have to put you under arrest,” he announced somewhat sheepishly. He was from the government council in Halls Creek, 158 km north, the nearest major town. “We’ve had complaints from the local community down here. You need to stop.”

            We were stunned—almost speechless. Giff was the first to get control, “But we’ve got permits from the National Park and the community. Who complained?”

            “I can’t really say,” the government fellow answered, “but this is a sacred site and it can’t be violated. I’m afraid there is no choice but to stop your work and leave the crater.”

            I pictured myself in a jail cell in Halls Creek, sharing the space with women who were sleeping off a night of heavy drinking. It wasn’t appealing. After a twenty-minute conversation, we obtained more details and discussed appealing our situation to the government office in Halls Creek the next morning. Giff, Magee, and I packed overnight bags and drove into the town after breakfast. We spent time going from government buildings to community spaces speaking with both white and indigenous people leaders. No one was sympathetic. The area was closed to drilling and that was that. Eventually, we learned how to get in touch with cultural leaders in the Billaluna—not the senior lawmen that we’d gotten permission from.

            Two days later, three older members of the community came to our campsite and listened to our story. Most geologists in Australia are economic geologists searching for mineral deposits to make money. We were simply doing research—and spending money. We tried to make our case, but continued to be denied.

            We learned from a government anthropologist that the Crater site was so sacred, even the local community did not know its full importance. We gleaned that the Crater held their answer for the origin of their people. One of their enduring stories is that the Rainbow Serpent emerged from the center and created Sturt Creek, an important landmark. We’ll never know the full story because its written record is sealed and never to be opened by any but the indigenous people of the area.

            Mat Wooller and I spent a day collecting plants and surface soils in the Crater, while the drill team hauled the rig back up the side and out. We had tried but had run smack into cultural norms that we don’t have in the United States. Giff and John cored a sand dune just outside the rim. We made the best of a bad situation. That can easily happen in any research endeavor. I learned that it’s best to undertake complicated projects with an open mind. Fortunately for us, we were a strong team and able to lick our wounds and continue on with our work in other areas.
Inside the meteorite crater, 2001

            The indigenous people of Australia have gone through near annihilation during their first couple of centuries of contact with Europeans. I treasure the times I was able to visit their lands and see first hand their view of their history and culture. Both Giff and I purchased many Aboriginal paintings during our trips there. They mind me, daily, that there is still a world out there that doesn’t depend on tweets and television.

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