The Jump Up, near Itjinpiri in the Pitjantjatjara Lands

The Image of Dark

After sun down, I could still see with the glow coming from below the horizon. When I came to a deep and narrow creek, I descended into darkness, slipping and scraping, remaining upright by holding onto ti-tree. In the creek bed I could see only a few glistens of water; nothing else. I walked unknowing into a mob of scrub cattle, which exploded with bellows of panic into thrashing water, crashing shrubs, and the clatter of creek bed rocks. I was lucky not to be trampled. In the darkness, I did not see one of them. As I staggered away from the creek, I sank into mud up to my knees, with no way of knowing how deep I would sink, or where it would end. My barely calmed terror from the cattle flooded into a few moments of total panic, as I staggered, unable to see, through the quick mud up to higher ground.

It reminds me, on reflection, of the panic I once felt as I paused in my reading. I was deeply immersed in fundamentalist theology, feeling the first needs to escape. As I paused to consider the words I had just read, I found myself on the top of a high, dark tower in an equally dark night. Standing on the very edge of the parapet, I felt myself being sucked out... that kind of overbalancing which there is no stopping, even though there seems no reason for it. I began to fall out into the darkness- a moment of utter terror- until for some reason, my feet almost glued to the wall, I was able to sway back to safety. In the middle of the day I had been somewhere else, and utterly terrorized.

Perhaps I had seen how life is. We live in darkness. Our horizons are dreadfully limited. Danger is all around. There is much to terrorise us. It is true that we live with great technological advances, not least being the internet that brings you this article. But in one sense we have built a city of bright lights and loud music which is a pretend reality. Underneath it all, we still do not really know who we are, why we are here, or where we are going.

As we sat around the fire one night, the mad whitefellas who had climbed the mountain began to talk about the wati apu they had seen; the stone man. He was sitting on the edge of the mountain, looking out over the plains, with a profile strikingly similar to my aboriginal grandfather, who was a ngangkari (medicine man.) The aboriginal men, who had spent the afternoon doing the sensible thing, (hunting kangaroo) joined their wives in making up little stories about the wati apu. He would come in the night, they said. They seized upon Frank, a young white teacher.

"The wati apu will come for you, Frank," said his teacher aid. "And he'll wake you up," Roderick continued, in his best scary voice.

"That's alright," said Frank, laid back as usual, "I'll tell him I'm just a teacher. He wants the mayatja, the headmaster!" He pointed to Bob, amid guffaws of laughter all round.

Out in the darkness, something stirred, a weird hoot and thud, and the camp hushed, people shuddered, torch lights probed the darkness, and the fires suddenly seemed very small. There was more laughter... embarrassed and tense. Fear of the darkness is never far away. Later that night, I awoke in the swag. High up on the bank of the creek, silver in the moonlight, a dingo stood silently, watching us, like an evil portent.

When the veneer of life is stripped away, we are primitive beings. It is not only the savagery of Lord of the Flies which descends on us; we are also afraid. Much of our day to day life is a pretence of security. We build up a world of consumer goods that mean nothing. And when it is threatened we often react with panic and hostility, just as if we were surrounded by huge unseen beasts stampeding in the night. At our best, we are often simply whistling in the dark.

Later in the night, as the mud dried on my calves, it was too dark from the cloud cover to even walk. I searched in the dark for bits of mulga, and built three small fires out from a small dyke running across the plain. With a few rocks between me and the fires I could sleep without rolling into them. In the loneliest place on earth, in the full darkness, I was strangely peaceful. This is what I aspire to in my whole life. To be at peace, able to accept my small field of vision, warmed by what little I know, and in some strange way, despite all the danger and unknown, to enjoy it.

Of course, all I have written here, is a story made up from old memories and associations of images. This story is the limited light of my three small fires. All stories are like this; limited light, scanty analogies, and half truths. Part of growing up and coming to peace and, ultimately enlightenment, is to realise that everything is story.

Consider Father Christmas. As children, we inevitably grow to realise his story is not literal truth. Whatever the story's links with a long gone man called St Nicholas, its truth is not in literal facts. Its truth is in the values and ideas it talks about.

The Christian Bible's Gospel truths are not in literal facts either. They are not in fanciful children's stories about Mary's donkey on the way to Bethlehem, nor in detailed historical reconstructions- if such were even possible. Even if a person had seen the entire life of Jesus, day by day, blow by blow, nail by nail, these events would not make him the Christ. He becomes Christ when something in us responds to the story; when something in us finds the story provides some pathway in our present darkness; when it kind of tunes us in to a greater reality; when it shines a little light on me- not a light that explains the whole world- a floodlight- but a little light on me.

It also becomes a story I can play with- the Christian story is what I use to think about me and my darkness. I could use Buddha's story, but I am Christian. Sometimes I find truths in stories about the Buddha, but Christ is my main story. Other stories, like the degraded hero stories from a Bruce Willis movie provide me little or no currency to work with.

Tying the Gospel narratives down to being an historical story does not work. It is truly a whistling in the dark. The whole point of a religious story is that it is about something beyond the ordinary and literal. A religious viewpoint says there is more to life than meets the eye. Its story is reaching out into the darkness beyond what we can see.

(It may not be intrinsically so, but in our worldview, literal historicity leads to a denial of the "other", or "something more." Literal historicity makes the "other" is made captive, or defines it out of existence by the its need to conform the truth to its dogma.)

To say we can tie the gospel down to an historical story is to try and limit it to facts, and doubtful facts at that. Which Christian history is the real one? Which stories are "facts", and which are simply stories with a purpose? Unless we undertake the ridiculous bondage of burdening ourselves with some doctrine of historical inerrancy- surely Father Christ-mas for grown ups, tying the story to an historical base is always to be captive to a certain historical hypothesis which can disappear when someone writes a better story, or digs another hole in Palestine. I'd rather take the story as it is, and let it talk to me. True, historical research will give me insights to what it may have meant to the original listeners, and into why it was crafted the way it was. But its ultimate power is what it says to me, now, in my situation.

Some words of Francis Schaeffer always stuck in my mind. We could not have two Christianities, he wrote, one for the ordinary person, and one for the enlightened scholars. Like other stray phrases that have stuck in my mind for decades, I think it has persisted in my memory because there is something problematic about it.

The observable fact is that there are levels of knowledge- and yet, they may mean nothing. My cousin, who does wonderful good works, believes in the Bible as literal truth. My Old Testament lecturer knows more about Ezekiel than I will ever know. Does any of this say anything about our motivations, our wisdom, or our goodness? The literalist may be driven by a fear of judgment while the Ezekiel scholar rejoices in the complexities of ancient Hebrew, or perhaps my cousin worries little about theology and simply loves the children he cares for; the scholar is driven by a neurotic need to know. Neither intellectual knowledge, nor the ability to articulate the dearly held things of the heart, has any necessary relation to the Divine, or to what is good.

When I look at J who seems naïve- J who is naïve, what does that naiveté say about J's sense of Life? Politically and socially we disagree, - and strongly. I oppose many of J's aspirations. Yet I appreciate J's compassion and generosity, which sometimes astound me. And all the while, something in me wants to look down on J. Knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge, is a constant temptation to judge, and to act superior. Our prejudice constantly seeks to misuse what little knowledge we have.

My mother said of a wild, and somewhat disreputable neighhbour that, really, he was a hero trying to make the best of life. "Even those we regard as evil are seeking the same goal." writes Peter Russell. " Deep inside... they are another spark of the divine light struggling to find some salvation in this world."

One person is not better than another, whatever insights they have. And true knowledge should lead to compassion, humility and service, not a claim to superiority.

When Wendy left us at the base of the mountain, we set off across the high plain to what the whitefellas call Brown's Pass. The dogs scampered around us with a whole world of new smells. At the head of the pass we plotted our course down the valley for a few miles. From what looked like a waterhole we would turn east to the next range, aiming at another likely water source. It was, as Eustace said to Jill in The Silver Chair, an adventure.

There is an old photo of Kim relaxing by the water at the edge of the plain. It was an adventure, with careful, and anxious, detours around scrub bulls to prove it. We climbed the ridge in the late afternoon, and found a tight bend where we camped on the downward side. During the night the dogs sprang awake barking, racing after scrub cattle which came too close.

In the desert, you never walk past water. You always stop, drink, and top up your water bottles. But on the next morning we passed so many little pools in the creek that we forgot until, quite suddenly, we were way out on the desert plain, thirsty, and carrying only a few litres.

We dog-legged toward the distant range, heading first for a well treed desert creek, choosing the lushest green we could see. Stifling hot at ten a.m. all we found was a wide bed of sand. We dug deep, but could only reach a slight dampness. We set off on the miles long march to the ridge, hoping to find water there. It was so hot the dogs would walk a few paces in our scanty shade, and then lope ahead to some small bush, and wait panting, until we arrived. We are built differently, Kim and I, so the rhythm we needed to swing our packs along soon had us well apart, and alone in the heat.

A smudge in the heat shimmer slowly resolved into a solitary tree. It took a long time to appreciate how high it was, and even longer to recognise it had a fence around it!

The tree stands stark like a gaunt guard at the mouth of a wide desolate gateway disappearing to the north between two ridges. I had heard of the place; up there, where plains rolled over the horizon was the place of the dead. And here, I could hesitantly translate the epitaph of the little daughter of one of the first Christians. In hope, or defiance, he had buried her here, not the traditional place.

We continued on, rocking under the packs, too thirsty, willing ourselves to keep going. The height of the ridge grew, and it appeared even steeper than usual, a Musgrave wall rising out of the sand. I headed up a gorge of a creek. I had never been anywhere so hot and so oppressively quiet. It meant the chirrups of the zebra finches were loud down the gorge. I could not see them, but finches mean water, so I followed the sound up the side- like an ant crawling up a crack in the wall of an old house.

The pool was full of gum leaves, black and stinking. Even Kim's dog, a desert dingo, slurped once and limped off in disgust. We filled our bottles in disappointment, not yet desperate enough to risk drinking it. Half an hour later, as the crack in the wall began to turn into a mere builder's scrape on the shoulder of the ridge, we heard finches again. Under a slab of rock was another pool, clear of leaves, twenty or thirty litres of water which stank of kangaroo. We boiled a litre at a time to get rid of the stink, waited for it to cool enough to drink, and slowly began to recover enough to climb the last few hundred feet and limp off towards home in the dusk.

Despite the terrors, the dark nights have a certain drama. We are alive! Too often, life is in the day, grindingly hard, and full of tragedy. Things which could be highlights are disappointments, and even the times of rescue seem bare survival, not relief. We limp on exhausted. Yet even in the worst of days are little outposts of hope, and tombstones of defiance, which tell more of life than death. To Live is to work day to day, night to night, watching, listening, seizing the moments of insight, feeling in the dark in broad daylight.

We live our days feeling a little lacking, suspecting we have somewhere lost the way toward a better life. Instead of green pasture, we too often find the hard grasses of the desert, and sometimes unbearable tragedy. Life can feel so oppressive we wonder how we will survive. To survive the heat of the day, we must walk towards the darkness. If we flee from the dark, we will perish in the desert; life is in the darkness. In the dark, the worst day may seem a pleasant memory; where we hope and long for light. Yet, the task of life is not to avoid the dark, but to learn to live at ease, at-one, in the dark; to build the small fire we need for warmth and light; to provide shelter for those lost wandering, and for those passing on their own journey, a stopping place for a kindred soul.

If there is to be a dawn where we can see the whole land in sunlit glory, what a sight that will be! If what is remains too much ever to see clearly, we will have been free, and we will have lived. In the peace of the night, there will be light.

Posted June 2005

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