Australian Magazine Edition Only

new internationalist
issue 223 - September 1991

Listening through your feet
Not all the lessons of life on the move are learnt by head
alone, writes Barry Katanga from outback Australia.

Jogging shoes give good grip, but on rocky ground soon leave the soles of your feet bruised and battered. Walking boots give better protection, but don't let your feet feel the subtleties of the ground you're covering. Dress shoes - the type you see on buses and trains and in offices - give neither benefit, but both drawbacks.

For really knowing the territory you're walking on theres nothing like well-calloused but supple skin. Knowing, and learning. There's a lot of learning that feet do in a lifetime. Step on a sharp rock in childhood, and your feet 'know' that pain for the rest of your life. They'll know the preference to avoid, but the possibility of bearing pain if the alternative is worse. Like going hungry. Or seeing your child hurt.

For those who spend their travelling on plastic seats, rubber tyres and steel-smooth rail lines, there is no such knowing. Intuition is swallowed by mindlessness. The journey becomes the summary of two ends, instead of a pilgrimage. The traveller forgets to learn.

Such travellers forget that we are all travellers, nothing more. Moving, and moving, growing. Learning from our feet what life has to teach, listening to our muscles and skin, our bone and our sinews.

We blacks have learnt much from our centuries of travel. In walking to, between, and within. In walking in communities, clans, families. We know more than the arc of the sun and the scorch of its light at midday. More than the smell of water and the winelike taste of it after days of chalk dryness. The prints of the goanna, wallaby, dingo. The cry of the galah.

As a river that carves its way through a rock face knows each crack and crevice, each twist and turn, so too our peoples know the paths which become our tracks of life. Poetry through sight, sound, sweat and breathing. Paths of words and rhythm. Songlines of laughter and fear. We sing the land. We recite it. We know it, and it knows us. Like a woman and man know each other when they become one. Flesh and memory, hurts and joys glued. The land is known and knows us.

The city offers a plastic security, thin and brittle in the hard summer sun. There, people force people together, but back to back through fear. Compete, destroy, a moment of comfort is sold for a lifetime of knowing and being known. There, fences tell neighbours they are not welcome, locks that what I have I will not share, insurance that what I lose I will have others pay so that I can get it back. It is a slow death, disguised as life and poisoned by glamour.

Walking and knowing the land refuses these life compromises. It is hard but real.

And what happens when a people are a walking people? We learn from walking, treading the earth. Each step is a heartbeat, pulsing the lifeblood of our community. We have no aspirations apart from living, and learning what life and its mysteries teach us.

But imagine the pain from forced non-walking. Settlements, camps, cities, streets reticulated with static misery. The absolute depth of prison or a police cell. The death of modern urban life. No choice. Phantom choice. The Europeans came and took the life from our step. Much they brought was good. But much they brought denied life-walking. Not clothes, but expectations that clothes brought with them. Not carriages and cars, but streets and road rules and mind fences. Many blacks now have no walking. Slow death by stealth. Many blacks have forgotten. Few whites want us to remember. Fewer still understand.

East and south, towards the coast, lie the cities which slowly choke in their own brown bad breath. Their millions live busily but with little understanding. Their spirits never soar. Their hearts struggle hard to be at one with the world which is their home; from it their bodies come, to it they return. Our short years give few second chances. To see. To feel. To know.

From a car the forest is a blur. On foot, each shadow and light plays with your eyes. From a car it is silent. On foot, each tree sheds songs with its leaves and bark. Not all songs are happy ones. But it is better to sing from the heart than to be mute in the pursuit of painlessness.

Barry Katanga is an Aboriginal poet living in mid-western NSW.

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