Explorations: Australia

Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me. I am part or particle of God.Nature
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836)

In the badlands up north I found peace. I saw no one face-to-face, in the chasms and crags, in the marsh green deeps. Northern Territory: Australia. Pack your Maya sunnies. Stare down the sun. Prepare to be emptied and fulfilled.

I wonder why it is that solitude, somehow, draws us closer together. It’s not quite that we miss each other, that we want to hold each other close and never let go. At least, it’s not quite that for me. I travel all the time. I miss my friends all the time, and when one picks me up at JFK at three a.m., returning from Bangkok, no matter how exhausted I am I hug her, tight, like she is the only person in the world, like I will never let go. But, but Kakadu National Park is different. It doesn’t, it doesn’t so much make me wish my friends were with me. Actually the emptiness makes me wonder whether two people can ever really be together, even where they’re both around. I am desperate. I am invigorated. I relish the chance to share even the briefest moment, idea with someone else, and I will always try harder to make a connection than I ever did before.

The emptiness scares me. Here, and now, in a world of scary men with nuclear codes and a barrage of social media and social pressures, here is an intangible island, a tract of integrity,[1] and here are the pools of crystalline reverie, spreading themselves for your becoming. Go north, young man, and don’t come back. I’m not sure I want to go back. I’m not sure what would be there.

And then there’s hope. The Kunibidji People of Maningrida have a ritual, an old ritual, one of the oldest acts of artistic expression still practiced. They carve animals and faces into the rock face. I ventured out with them, one day, into the heart of the void, and I asked them how they bring themselves to do it. Maybe, at this point, I was over the disorienting discomfort. But I still wondered what the point was. I wondered why people would walk, supplies in hand, at the crack of dawn, to produce art only they would ever see. Spectatorship. We think we only matter when others notice us. That’s what I thought. That’s how, I mean, how… How could it be any different? My whole life: travel blogging, sunglasses, society… revolves around visibility. What is the value of secrets?

Well, one of the reasons the Kunibidji carve figures is to acknowledge the spirits all around them, to commune explicitly with nature. Until then I had never thought of the wilderness as anything but empty. It never occurred to me that even tufts of grass, even the wings of a bird, could enliven the space so much. But I’m not an animist, and that’s not where my thoughts stayed.

There is another reason they march. Their parents marched, and their parents marched, and their parents marched, and their parents marched, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents, and, and, and…. But it’s not just tradition. They see the faces, and figures, face to face. Here where wind and sun bleach out all meaning, they discern a mantra, echoing through time and space. I am here. I am here. I am here. I will see the world. I will see the world. I will see the world.


[1] Both “intangible” and “integrity” come from the Latin root intangere, meaning “not touched”