I got lost on the moor. It was already a bit misty when I set out, but then great banks of fog came in from the sea, cliffs of cloud, and soon visibility was down to a few metres. I thought it was ok. I’m ex-paras for god’s sake. I could leopard crawl through a snow drift with the best of them but of course within minutes I was completely turned around.
Don’t panic. Retrace your steps. Look for your own footprints. But it was hopeless. I stumbled about like an idiot getting more and more confused. Then I realised that all this ‘trying to find my way’ was my problem. I was looking at the ground with all its myriad features (or lack of them) when I needed to be looking at the lie of the land. My vehicle was parked at the top end of the moor and all I had to do was follow any gradient that seemed even slightly up hill. Within minutes my car emerged from the fog.
How like life. We get lost in the detail, in the busyness, in not seeing the wood for the trees. We try to figure out our dream rather than shaking hands with it. We try to decide what job we want to do rather than allowing ourselves to be called to something unscripted. We ask about the meaning of life as though it had to be something we could understand.
We think we are way more evolved than our ancestors and contemporary Indigenous people. Yet any aboriginal person would have laughed till they wet themselves to see me trawling about the moor, labouring under the deluded misapprehension that I was somehow using my superior survival and tracking skills when in fact finding my way was the kind of thing I could do in the dark after half a bottle of whisky if only I had the sense to look up.
Its not enough to feel that others are our equals. We must realise that we have something to learn from them. Some tourists in Australia asked an old ranger how the Aboriginal people find water in the desert.
‘They don’t have to look for it,’ he replied. ‘They know where it is.” Tom Keneally
In his lengthy field trips with the Xavante Indians in the Amazon, anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis describes the shift in his own consciousness when he realised the true purpose of their traditional log races.
Log races were major events. The whole village would get involved. Logs would be specially cut and teams would roar through the jungle at high speed amidst great cheering and excitement.
At first it seems like a competition. Then Maybury-Lewis notices that one of the logs is way bigger than the other, putting that team to considerable disadvantage but no-one seems to mind. Then he sees that team members from the winning log are peeling off to help those behind until they catch up. When the teams arrive together the village erupts.
”Everyone seemed to be speechifying or shouting or just yelling with glee. It was by common consent the most beautiful log race that had been celebrated for a long time. It was then that I understood. It was not a race at all, at least not in our sense. It was a ceremony, an aesthetic event.”
Individual runners are extoled by their team mates, not for running hard or fast, but for running beautifully. The ideal was to arrive together, symbolising a reconciliation of tension between Nature and Culture…
‘harmony through complementarity..’ ibid
Shortly afterwards M-Lewis has a dream that he is watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine chapel. To his horror the great artist begins to rub out the work. Lewis screams at him not to. Michelangelo looks up and….
‘in the voice one uses to reassure a small child he says, ‘but they are not supposed to last forever..’ ibid
Beauty is a fleeting thing, yet all art is done for beauty’s sake. It’s only a paradox if we lose from the mix that the purpose of beauty is not that it become collectable but that it is transformational. And not that you appreciate it but that you participate in it.
Maybury- Lewis went to learn about the Xavante and wound up learning mostly about Maybury-Lewis which is why he is such a vivid ethnographer, he discovered the Xavante in himself.
The creative daimon of Michelangelo accepts the ephemeral nature of the work because doing it is more important than having it. Only, the spirit of your own aboriginal nature has to be alive and well to know this.
Whilst the West is left wondering if beauty is truth or truth, beauty… arriving finally at the profundity that it is in the eye of the beholder, the aboriginal spirit within us all knows that beauty is something you live in. Its not just subjective. You sink or swim in it depending on how turned about you become by cultural insistence that values product over process.
”Beauty will come in the dawn, and beauty will come with the sunlight. Beauty will come to us from everywhere. Where the Heaven ends, where the sky ends. Beauty will surround us. We walk in beauty.” Billy Yellow. Navajo medicine man.
When the indigenous person is suppressed or even held in the imagination as less, we make less of ourselves. We undermine the deep aboriginal spirit in our own psyche which is the soil from which we are grown and the source of our creative life.