[as you sing it, you tell the story of all that you are]
Imagine, for a moment, that land isn’t divided up into areas, but into paths through.
So, you cannot put a fence around a piece of land and call it your own. You can only join the dots between significant places (a gate, a bus shelter, a tree). If this join-the-dots comes full circle (gate – bus shelter – tree – gate), then all you have is a circular path; the space inside the circle does not belong to you.
You have no more ownership over your back garden than over your journey to work. You cannot buy or sell land, because its only use is in providing scenery to pass through, and nobody has any interest in standing still. All that you possess is a way of travelling; a route. And each route is your own, unique sightline on the rest of the world. Many other paths will cross it, but only you can walk its full extent.
Now, imagine that you couldn’t draw this path on a map, and not simply because maps don’t exist. The depth, the weight of the information contained within your path is too great to be drawn. A line cannot contain it. A line would only convey the thinnest part of the information; the blank, formless geography.
Your path is more than that. Your path has peaks and valleys, yes, but it’s also littered with things that you treasure. That stream is your stream; you took off your shoes and socks to wade through it as a child. That village is the place you drove to one day, when life was ripping at the seams, and you put your head on the steering wheel and cried. That junction box is the one you notice every time you crest the hill on your way home; you have come to think of it as a sign that says, nearly there. Your path is made of meaning. All of these things are encoded in it. Because they’re too rich to be drawn, you must speak it. You don’t tell everyone you meet, only those closest to you. You take them from place to place with your tongue and your teeth, chattering out the detail.
Unchecked, you would carelessly change the path every time you described it. Instead, you learn it, with all its diversions intact. You let it create a pattern for itself, a verse, a song. Now, you can sing this path to your friends, your lovers, your children, and as you sing it, you tell the story of all that you are. You transmit your creation myth. When you die, they are left with your song.
This isn’t a utopia I’ve hallucinated at the low ebb of a long walk. Transpose it to Australia, and you have something approximating the Aboriginal understanding of territory. As Bruce Chatwin describes them in The Songlines, these paths memorialise the actions of the ancestors as they sang the Earth into existence. Australia is dotted with relics of the Dreamtime. They are sites of ritual significance, certainly, but they are also landmarks by which to navigate. The songlines link them together. By learning your song and singing it, you memorise a route that you have perhaps never even seen; and by walking the route that is encoded in your song, you assert a connection that flows through the generations to your clan ancestor’s dreaming. This is all that you own: the whole of creation and nothing at all; a path that cuts through time.
Everybody has a song like this. A song that is a map, a compass; a song that sets you straight again. Learn it, and it will take you home.
That song, of course, is a very different matter on English terrain in February.
[De verbeeldingskracht van Katherine May in The electricity of every living thing. ‘Imagine, for a moment…’ Zoals de Aboriginals denken over territorium denkt zij over zichzelf. Je bent de verbinding tussen enkele significante plekken – en wie dat weten. Als je je verhaal zorgvuldig vertelt, steeds opnieuw, dan wordt het een lied, een kompas, een ‘map of meaning’, een manier om thuis te komen. Hoe je reist vormt je bezit. ‘This is all that you own: the whole of creation and nothing at all; a path that cuts through time.’]