In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin writes about the charting and understanding of the land of Australia by its original inhabitants. The people sang and made stories about the land to be given from one generation to another as a way to pass along history as well as information about the land, its forms, its animals -- life maps.
Older people tend to collect reminiscences, photographs, often wondering whether their old diaries and pictures will hold any interest for their children and grandchildren. When does one finally throw away these memories? The natives of Australia didn't. Their history wasn't on paper. It lay in the songlines, the stories. Here's a short excerpt from Chatwin's Songlines:
Aboriginal Creation myths tell of legendarytotemic beings who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path -- birds, animals, plants, rocks, water-holes -- and so singing the world into existence...
In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die. To allow that to happen was the worst of all possible crimes...
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is being built in Cincinnati. I hope it will display the quilts and songs of the slaves who used quilt design as a covert form of maps to freedom, and wrote songs with hidden descriptions of trails and safe houses.
Walter Benjamin in "The Storyteller" writes: "In every case the story teller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today 'having counsel' is beginning to have an old fashioned ring to it is because the communicability of experience is decreasing." He is quote in Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, an account of the thoughts and experiences of McMurtry and his family in the Texas Panhandle and beyond.
What does he mean? Do we blow off experience because our technological progress is so rapid that what you know is out of date by the time you write it down? Are we losing the maps of our experience and history? Is one reason why we're so uncaring about the environment because its shapes and features can't be seen anymore on the GPS screens in our cars? Does it really not matter that a movie about a North Carolina story is filmed in Rumania? That all of America on the screen resembles California -- is California?
Was Benjamin right when he wrote that the "communicability of experience is decreasing"?