The Songlines I read because of a bag of chips.
I was in Pennsylvania at a Wa Wa, about to leave for Canada with Kevin. And there, next to the hot dogs, were these chips with the word UTZ on them. “That’s funny,” I thought, “There’s a novel called Utz.” I only knew that book because I read about it in John Gray’s Straw Dogs. That book I was reading, because I had seen Gray’s Immortalization Commission in the science section of Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa.
But after seeing Utz, the chips, I found a copy of Utz, the novel. I read it last year while I was in California. It’s a short book, but a good one, about a figurine collector.
Recently, though, I found myself reading another book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. Its subtitle is Perception and language in a more-than-human world. Abram writes about the relationship of nature to language. The rain has a voice. The breeze has a voice. Birds, of course, have a voice. And our voice joins with them—sometimes literally, since he talks about a language that incorporates bird songs into its vocabulary. The hermit thrush’s whirring phrases that sound at night make the words, sook’eeyis deeyo, which translates to, ‘it is a fine evening.’
But Bruce Chatwin, who wrote Utz, the novel, shows up in The Spell of the Sensuous, writing about the Australian aboriginals and their songlines. These are songs which name a route over the country, describing the features of the land with stories to go along with each. I put Abram aside for a while to read The Songlines.
That is the full route to get to The Songlines. I could have traced back how I found Prairie Lights or why I might have been looking in the science section, but we’d get mired, soon thereafter, with details of my grade school, the color of my hair, and the time I got sick and had to eat nothing but baby purée.
The Songlines is good, but abbreviated. He went to Australia to learn about the songlines. That’s the first half. The second half is a collection of notes he took in a moleskine notebook about nomadism and violence.
Berserk, he informs us, is a word that comes from the word bearskin. He theorizes that early humans weren’t violent against other humans, but violent against predatory animals. Enormous cats. In sparring, then, one would play as the predator so that others might practice. That one would then go berserk against the others.
Chatwin’s other notes follow a muse that says humans aren’t inherently violent, they are defensive. And the one’s that are sedentary are more violent, or meaner, than those who are moving. The same, he finds, with migratory birds compared to non-migratory, territorial birds.
Towards the end, there is this:
"Wendy said that, even today, when an Aboriginal mother notices the first stirrings of speech in her child, she lets it handle the ‘things’ of that particular country: leaves, fruit, insects, and so forth.
"The child, at its mother’s breast, will toy with the ‘thing’, talk to it, test its teeth on it, learn its name, repeat its name—and finally chuck it aside.
“‘We give our children guns and computer games,’ Wendy said. ‘They gave their children the land.’”