It was a late afternoon on a Saturday in summer. It was very hot. The horizon was lit in an astounding palate of blues, pinks and deep orange. The desert was so still and windless, the air so thick and palpable, it was like walking through honey.
I was in the Troopie, windows down, idling through the community, after dropping off a patient who needed a lift from the clinic. Up ahead, in the distance, on the road, I saw a figure dragging what looked like a giant log. I thought I was seeing things and wiped the sweat from my eyes.
I drove forward and pulled up. It was Tjapaltjarri. I leant out and saw what was indeed a giant log, a tree in fact, a Kurrkapi, a desert oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana).
‘Yuwa,’ he said.
‘Yuwa,’ I said.
Tjapaltjarri was a short, stocky man with a big smile, tight curly hair and a short curly beard. He was always kitted out in tan jeans and a deep brown t-shirt. As he stood before me, I was baffled. He was completely covered in red dust as though he’d just burrowed out from beneath the earth. It clung in lumps in his hair and on his face. He was sweating profusely. I could see the track made by the log, where he’d dragged it from out of the bush. He looked like he’d walked for miles.
‘Tjapaltjarri, need some help?’ I turned off the Toyota and got out of the vehicle.
‘Wiya, I’m right Tjangala,’ he said.
‘I got ‘im this one for my garden,’ he said balancing the log over his shoulder.
‘From out there,’ he said pointing back out into the bush towards the Ngingtaka hills, the Perentie dreaming. He hefted and stood the log on the rough, red corrugated track then rested an end on his shoulder, leaning into it.
‘I put ‘im this one in that front yard,’ he said with the lovely rising tone on the last syllable of a sentence, a characteristic of Aboriginal English in the desert.
I looked at the base of the log. Tjapaltjarri had carefully chopped out the roots with an axe to remove the tree.
‘But that won’t grow Tjapaltjarri,’ I said, ‘You’ve taken out the roots.’
‘He’s right Tjangala.’
Tjapaltjarri was clearly very happy with his endeavour. The log looked heavy.
‘Come on, let me help. Let’s put this in the back of the Toyota.’ We were very close to Tjapaltjarri’s house but I could at least help to get his log this final distance.
‘I’m right,’ he said. ‘My place there, close up.’
He was determined to complete his mission and walk the last stretch.
‘You sure? Come on let me help.’
‘Wiya, I’m right Tjangala,’ he said and smiled.
‘Okay then.’ I pulled myself up into the Toyota to head back to my camp.
‘See you tomorrow.’
I turned the vehicle and drove past Tjapaltjarri’s front ‘garden’. It was a patch of compacted and dry, bare red earth, fenced off with pieces of old corrugated iron and star pickets that leant precariously in tangled bits of fencing wire. A single limp acacia stood in the middle of the patch. I think it may have been dead. In the rear view mirror, I saw Tjapaltjarri heft and man-handle the giant log onto his shoulder and continue dragging it with incredible energy and exertion, that final stretch.
In Australia, There’s a widely held view, a cultural stereotype, that Aboriginal people are lazy. I had found this to be something of a myth. Tjapaltjarri and his log personified this. It was more the case that Pintupi absorption and interpretation of European settler culture and values could manifest with incredible energy and endeavour but were sometimes misplaced.
The arrival of modern communications such as TV and digital technology added to this. Tjapaltjarri’s notion of a garden was an interpretation of gardening programs on television and what he saw when he visited Alice Springs. The neat fencing, the well-trimmed and watered lawns and borders with flowers. Generally, most Pintupi aspired to have what we white fellas had. A nice house with appliances and white goods, a nice car, a garden but there remained a disconnect, as to how one achieved those goals.
For whitefellas, the purchase of a house is the single biggest investment they will make in the course of their lives. It is the achievement of years of working and saving. One of the key signifiers of owning a house- of ‘home’, is establishing a garden.
A modern Pintupi life was still one of constant movement. The patterns and cultural architecture of traditional life, the travelling through the landscape, was now transposed onto the constellation of communities spread throughout the desert regions. The Pintupi were almost entirely preoccupied with maintaining their network of kinship relationships whether near, or far distant. They retained a deep and innate understanding of the importance of what modern 21st century digital technologists term the ‘network effect’.
Home to the Pintupi was not a small and clearly defined square of land in a designated street but rather an entire landscape. Their traditional country was all ‘home’. In a sense it was all ‘garden’. Their cultural architecture of home required that they, the Pintupi, move through it constantly to not only maintain the requisite spiritual connections but for practical reasons, to undertake land management through a complex burning regime.
This notion of home was different to a camp which was viewed as more one of impermanence and transition and whereas home manifested a preoccupation for maintaining relationships across a landscape. These concepts were now combined with a limited and patchy exposure to European settler culture. It resulted in an unusual set of cultural and economic assumptions about the lives of urban westerners.
We Europeans took for granted our sedentary and settled lives, well established over generations. We had a pre-determined expectation and trajectory of education and career. Our vision was one of years of steady work and a long-term investment in one small patch of land with a house and garden. For Tjapaltjarri, he saw his garden with a Pintupi vision. The innate, cultural infrastructure and understanding of the necessary steps to establish and maintain a whitefella garden was missing.
But nevertheless, he was going to give it a go.