NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
October 19, 2000
Purple and plump they hung, the bush plums, along the Uluru trail, and no one was tasting them. Bush plums were a staple of the Aboriginal diet in the Red Center of Australia, and the gray-green branches on which they grew pressed right up against Uluru, the massive monolith formerly known as Ayers Rock. I tried them. They tasted less like plums than like green peas freshly shelled, an indication of their leguminous origins.
I thought about the bush plums--and about the crested doves watering in a nearby rock basin, and yes, the ever-present flies--while reading Bill Brysonís new Australian travel book, In a Sunburned Country.
Bryson is an entertaining writer, but he misses a lot. Details of nature, for instance--the things that come from open-eyed scrutiny of landscapes and of the features therein. For this North American plainsman, the plains landscapes of semiarid Central Australia took some getting used to, but within a day or two they became wonderfully easy on my eyes. I liked the scrubby mulga, its broom-like branches, the makings of Aboriginal spears, spread to the sky. I liked, too, the droopy desert oaks, so unlike the northern trees whose name they bear that they mock the very word, "oak."
Most of all I liked the spinifex, the peculiar bunch grass that is the signature of regional flora. A clump of spinifex grows outward from its origins, with the center dying back, so that it forms a circle of prickly stalks perhaps 6 feet across. The tan circles lie strewn across a plane of bare, red sand, with the red showing through the centers--colors that define the country. Itís easy to imagine a native of the land touching a firestick to the stiff stalks, flushing bush tucker into the open for capture, renewing the country with fire.
Actually, if you arrive at the right time of year, you donít have to imagine the ritual of Aboriginal burning, you can see it. About 15 years ago Australia, as part of a treaty settlement, restored title to the national park comprising Uluru and Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas) to the local Aboriginal tribe, the Anangu. The Anangu kicked the vendors out of the park--moving the motels and other businesses back a respectful distance from Uluru. This was in line with Aboriginal religious belief, which ascribes great importance to the rock, but also was just good practice. Uluru should be surrounded by deserts of red sand, not of asphalt.
The Anangu also resumed traditional burning of the country, and the results are wonderful. If you want to see perfect formations of spinifex, go to the areas under Aboriginal management. What North Americans are only beginning to re-learn--that fire is our friend and ally in the husbandry of the land--the Anangu have known all along.
Immigrant Australians and international visitors feared that because of the centrality of Uluru to Anangu history and religion, the natives would prohibit the climbing of the rock, an odd ritual to which most visitors aspire. The Anangu frown on climbing and discourage people from doing it (partly by talking about heart attacks and heat exhaustion) but do not prohibit it. So we walked about, but did not climb, and we watched the "ants," as the Anangu call them--the line of climbers creeping up and down--do their thing.
The best way for me to recall those days at Uluru and Kata Tjuta, though, is to open up my photograph of a perfect Stuart desert rose, lavender with maroon center, in rare bloom, welcoming us respectfully into the Kata Tjuta gorge.
Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2942
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865
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