Just before my father Alois left this world, he confided something simple but private to one of his daughters. Her fingers were swift enough to dance across a phone to tape the conversation. It was something one would think should have been well known by our family. It concerned his favourite song, ‘La Paloma’.
The song has been produced in many cultures, settings, arrangements and recordings for 140 years. It was written around 1863 by the Spanish composer Sebastion Iradier after a visit to Cuba. He died in obscurity two years later, unaware how popular his song would become. This haunting Spanish melody has the power to tease emotions and undermine the reserves of strength of even the strongest man. It has been sung in many languages by many singers and used in at least two dozen movies to create mood or convey a subtle message.
‘La Paloma’ held a secret power for Alois. At the age of sixteen, conscripted and on the way to war, he was fed in a Polish village and asked to select a piece of music to be sung. He chose ‘La Paloma’, a popular song at the time. It was sung by the head villager’s wife on the occasion of the last night in his home country. He never saw Poland, his mother, step father or half brother again. At the age of nineteen toward the end of the violent spasm of World War 2, he marched his men across Europe, dropping them off in their home villages, back to mothers, wives and girl friends until he arrived alone in Kufstein where Erna waited for marriage. They survived in the wreckage of Europe for four years and then left family and country behind for Australia. Going home was impossible. He was a leader and an independent thinker. Like so many others forced to return to the new order, the communists would have awarded him a bullet behind the ear or oblivion in Siberia.
After sixty five years in Australia he still had his papers and contributed much to the development of his new country as an engineer. However, the taped conversation about ‘La Paloma’ revealed a well concealed secret. He deeply missed his land, the land of his birth and early upbringing. A land whose culture, history, forests and family connections shaped who he was as a person. The tension this created influenced the development of his children.
Researching the song and listening to him on the tape led to a powerful revelation. The various lyrics are not always true to the original but the soul of the song survives all attempts to recast it in response to the latest musical trend. It is the music itself that expresses the tension between separation and loneliness, even death, and love. Alois hid his feelings well. While he loved his mother and perhaps his step-father, he certainly loved his homeland. He adopted the values of Australia, regardless of how hard he found the transition to the new land. Assimilation was important to him. The baggage of war torn Europe was buried, replaced by commitment to his adopted country.
After landing in Newcastle and three weeks in a hostel, he, Erna and baby Eveline were cast loose. No English lessons and no support except the expectation to work in Longreach and other far flung outback places while the family stayed behind in Brisbane. English was mastered with a dictionary and a pile of newspapers. They survived the assimilation and built a new life in a new land.
Many years have passed since Europe was left behind. For Erna the almost overpowering pull at her heart faded but still burned in her remaining years. She described an unbelievable craving for the mountains, lakes and the people. She was careful in describing this. A mountain in East Tyrol carries the family name, with descendants still farming its slopes. The people she described are the old families, the older people who made sense of their lives and the farmers with long family connections to the land. Each generation, whose name is carried by that mountain passed on a landscape in good order to a new generation. She calls it the ‘peasant heritage’. It is easy to see the throwaway term has a deeper meaning. While on a roll she talked about wild flowers and meadows. As age stalked up stealthily and unstoppable, she recalled walking the streets of Kufstein, following the route to school on a winter’s morning with her arm over the shoulder of her younger sister, hand over her mouth as protection against the cold.
She shared the history that immersed her spirit while imagining strolling down the Salurnerstrasse in Kufstein, the street that Napoleon and the Emperor Franz Joseph also walked. This may seem like a connection based on familiarity from childhood. Seeing the fire in her eyes was clear evidence that powerful deeper feelings were at work. Erna used the Austrian word ‘Wurzeln’ to describe it. The closest English translation is ‘roots’ but is more powerful than this. It is about ‘make up’, ‘family soul’ and ‘blood’. She struggled to find an appropriate word in English but her meaning was clear. The homeland where families have existed for generations has a powerful influence that words struggle to convey
Western people now understand that land has significant meaning to indigenous people. They have a spiritual, physical, social and cultural connection to land. Indigenous artworks portray connection between people and land. Non-Indigenous people often consider land as something they own, a commodity to be bought and sold, an asset from which to turn a profit and a means to make a living.
For indigenous people the relationship is much deeper and reversed. The land owns them. Every aspect of their lives is connected to it. They have a profound spiritual connection to land. Aboriginal law and spirituality are intertwined with the land, people and creation, forming the basis of culture and sovereignty. The health of land and water is central to their culture. Land is their mother and is steeped in their culture, giving them a responsibility to care for it. Indigenous people anywhere in the world live with the land, in contrast to westerners who live off it. Land sustains indigenous lives in every aspect - spiritually, physically, socially and culturally. The notion of landscape as a second skin underlies all indigenous art forms.
When walking on country, indigenous people see another dimension beyond the obvious. While they share the same world with white people they see a mythic and historic landscape and opportunities for bush food. Westerners see headlands and scenery while indigenous people see sacred sites. The connection to land gives indigenous people identity and a sense of belonging.
Aboriginal connection with the land is based on simple but powerful principles. They have a responsibility to ensure that all life flourishes. Survival hinges on ensuring that plants and animals have the right conditions to be abundant, with their location predictable and therefore convenient to harvest. Australiais the only continent where such a cultural paradigm enveloped the whole land. It meant that as a people, they acted locally to ensure the best conditions for survival but did so under a unique perspective that encompassed the whole continent.
As food gatherers, Aboriginal people learned to adapt to the land, no matter how harsh nature made it. Each season had a special time to hunt animals for food and clothing, a time to catch fish, to harvest fruit and berries and a time to pick and prepare medicines and roots. In doing so, they considered the growth, reproduction and regeneration cycles of plants, animals and birds. Interrupting these natural cycles was considered an act against the laws of nature.
Embedded within the Aboriginal world view is the concept of collective responsibility for managing the land, using only what is needed for sustenance. They were aware of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms, including humankind, flora andfauna – everything that exists on the Earth.
To indigenous people home is the land they hunted and held ceremonies on for eons. In western society home has become a house made of bricks or timber. It wasn’t and isn’t always like this. The musings of Alois and Erna show a deep rooted connection with their homeland, developed from a generational commitment to the land, ensuring it could provide a living to those that followed. The history of the Klaunzer mountain provides ample evidence of commitment, nurtured through generations of mountain farmers to provide sustenance for a family whose roots stretch far back in history. It is still there, part of a landscape that enthralls tourists toAustriaand captures their hearts. There is a spiritual and cultural family connection that is only different from an indigenous connection because it does not encompass the religious aspect.
I see the same thing on outback stations I have hunted to manage feral game for families who have worked the land for generations, doing their best to nurture it in face of economic realities. I have assisted station owners in their 70’s, who find it impossible to leave the land behind to retire to an urban world immersed in instant gratification, material consumption and the superficiality of social media.
While contemplating this, I think of my hunting companions. For them the final shot that bags the target and opens the opportunity to cook a succulent, natural meal is only a small part of their effort. They are there to engage with nature as an active participant, not as an exploiter, a user or isolated observer of nature. Deer hunters may put in years of effort among the mountains in their search. They don’t care if the opportunity to take game doesn’t arise. They enjoy being part of nature as a participant, following many generations before them. They respect their game and the land that nurtures it. They enjoy an early sunrise that bathes the land in light and warmth after a cold night. They immerse themselves in long walks through isolated country, searching for sign of the game they seek, learning the habits of animals around them, understanding the environment and its impact on wildlife.
They become actively and intrinsically part of an interactive ecosystem. Senses are more alert and finely tuned to the landscape. Life slows to a slow stalk, senses picking up the slightest sound or movement by tiny insects. The sound of a dried leaf being crushed, the call of an alarmed bird, a stone being dislodged, the smell of wet fur or recently disturbed ground all play with the senses of the hunter. I am heartened because it confirms that western people can connect intimately with the land to a depth well beyond the expectation of their urban upbringing. It is a connection that secretly approaches religion. Hunters are normally disparaged in the media. My association with people from all walks of life that I have crossed paths with reveals a connection with land and animals that is well hidden but powerful. It is one they rarely share, even with family because the pull is intangible and hard to explain.
Many people immersed in the consumer society value the environment but engage only superficially. This is not to deny that they enjoy it. Others engage at a deeper and more controversial level, becoming a part of nature. Alois and Erna demonstrated that deep connection with the land may not be the preserve of indigenous people. Westerners can feel the connection. It can be spiritual. It will be different from the indigenous perspective. Westerners may still live off the land but it can be done in a way that preserves a future for the generations that follow.
The Klaunzer mountain and my hunting companions demonstrate that it is possible. The land can only benefit if this possibility is accepted.