Her poetry, especially her earlier writing, has always resonated with me because it says something to me about the world in which I grew up, a world still deeply imprinted on my soul. I thought therefore that it might be fun to take some of her poems and use them as a window to look at different aspects of New England.
I suspect that many Australians still think of Australia's traditional Aborigines as simple hunter gatherers living in an ancient and unchanging landscape, although there is growing recognition of the complexity of their social and spiritual life. In fact, within the limits set by their tools and available food supplies they were also sophisticated builders.
The Bora Rings of New England and south-eastern Queensland are examples. As Sandra Bowdler pointed out, these earthen rings of eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland are significant ritual structures and are probably unique in the world as hunter gatherer constructions of known function which constitute notable monuments in the landscape.
Sandra goes on to describe them:
The earthen rings known as “Bora” are usually part of a complex of two or three rings, linked by a path or paths. They were used in what Sutton calls “man-making ceremonies”, that is, male initiation ceremonies. In the literature, we find that the large ring in the complex was usually part of a relatively public ceremony, with women looking on; the smaller ring was the site of the major initiation rites, for initiated men and initiates only. The purpose of the third ring is not as well documented in the literature. It has been suggested that these are women’s rings, but it is not clear to me that this was always the case. Bora sites were often (always?) associated with carved trees.
The average size of a large ring is about 25 - 30 m across, and a small ring 10-12 m. There is a wide range of variation however. The earth is mounded up to a height of c.25-50 cms. Usually there is a path, often to the south-west from the large ring, connecting to smaller ring.
Judith's poem starts by painting a picture of a Bora Ring now alone in the landscape:
The song is gone, the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.
Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring, the apple gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmurs a broken chant
The hunter is gone, the spear
is splintered underground, the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still
The rider halts, feeling that the ghosts are still present.
Only the rider's heart
halts at sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.
It is a wonderfully evocative poem. But it is also a very European perspective with its emphasis on the vanished Aboriginal past. In fact, that past was still present.
I am not sure when Judith wrote this poem, but at the time there were almost certainly New England Aborigines alive who had passed through traditional initiation at one of the Bora sites. Further, the knowledge of the sites and their significance has continued to be passed on.
Here we can compare Judith's words with the much later 1996/1997 Aboriginal description of a site near Bellbrook quoted by Sandra:
“This site is known as the passing out ground for initiates of the Thungetti tribe. It is one of several initiation Grounds in the Bellbrook area where different stages of the Bora ceremony took place. As such, it is still highly sacred to the Aboriginal elders residing at Bellbrook Mission, and is considered to be one of the most important of the initiation sites in the area”
Entry Page for Posts about Judith Wright's poetry