Exploring the stories hidden in the skies of the southern hemisphere, as understood by the oldest living culture on earth: the Australian Aboriginals.
For this season one finale of Passport, we head to Australia to explore the star-studded skies of the country’s Western Outback. Scarce on people and heavy on sheep and cattle stations, the vast expanses of land and desert here offer pure darkness and one of the top global destinations to stargaze. Astro revellers travel from all over the world, but what many miss out on is the rich tapestry of indigenous creation stories, myths, and customs that the stars can all point to.
The Australian Aboriginals have been reading the skies above this land longer than any culture on earth. They possess a deep understanding of cosmology and how to accurately read the stars for navigation, water sourcing, animal migration and breeding patterns, natural law, customs, and spirituality. For thousands of years, this profound astronomical intelligence has been buried. Fortunately, this is changing.
Passport producer Jennifer Carr took a trip Down Under for Part 1 of this double episode season finale of Passport, and discovered there’s a whole lot more to the Cosmos than meets our Western eyes.
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Duane Hamacher: on the web
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Lloyd Hornsby: on Facebook
This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Jennifer Carr, and edited by Neil Innes.
Huge thanks to Duane Hamacher, Carol Redford, Lloyd Hornsby, Marnie Ogg, Jessie Ferrari, Trevor Leaman, Madeline Anderson, Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer and Isaac Davidson.
Our theme music is by the incredible Nick Turner. Additional music by the indiginous peoples of Australia and jinglepunks.com.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Our production assistant is Eliza Engel
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are our celestial emus. They also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who has never been down under but somehow has been on walkabout for nearly 40 years – Andrés Bartos.
We will see you in the same place next week.
EPISODE 37 – TRANSCRIPT
[Neil imitates a Didgeridoo. Really.]
NEIL: Pretty good.
ANDRÉS: It’s excellent.
JENNIFER: Not bad.
NEIL: You did the, do the clicking sticks.
[Neil and Andrés making clicking noises]
NEIL: It’s really cool.
NEIL: A bunch of white people doing 65,000 year old music.
ANDRÉS: With their face
NEIL: That’s okay, right?
ANDRÉS: Yeah, it’s fine.
NEIL: All right, sweet.
[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.
I’m Neil Innes
ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.
NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.
ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.
[END MAIN TITLE]
NEIL: Australia. The world’s smallest continental landmass and its largest island.
ANDRÉS: This place is defined by extreme dichotomy. If you visited a different Australian beach every single day, it would take you 27 years to see them all.
NEIL: In Australia, the wonder inspired by its beauty is matched only by the fear of the things that can kill you.
ANDRÉS: It’s home to more kangaroos than people, 21 of the world’s 25 deadliest snakes and a coral reef that is over a million years old.
ANDRÉS: Because it is so isolated, the country’s ecology is remarkable.
NEIL: So are its indigenous people. Today on Passport, part one of our season finale, producers Jennifer Carr and Andrés Bartos take us to Australia, my old home.
ANDRÉS: But today, we’re looking up for a story about survival, the stars and ancient tales.
NEIL: This is a story about the original astronomers. Australia’s first people and how the knowledge written in the stars is being reclaimed by today’s astronomers, artists, activists, and filmmakers to reveal an understanding of our world that we’ve never known before.
NEIL: This is exciting for me.
JENNIFER: And me.
ANDRÉS: Me too.
NEIL: I feel like I’m being shown in my own house, it’s nice. And it’s been, it’s made me go back and learn just from you doing this episode Jenn, like, it’s been crazy to go back and like, read about all of these crazy stories and land rights issues and all this sort of stuff that I just had had no clue about at all.
JENNIFER: I spent a year traveling both coasts, going to an Aboriginal reserve, you know, by this like shaky tin can of an airplane that I thought I was going to completely die in, but, knowing what I know now, you know, in the context of how little I knew back then, but also getting that feeling of like division between white Australia and aboriginal, indigenous Australia.
JENNIFER: Yeah. It gives you a whole new understanding of the country and um, what’s, what’s still being fought. There’s just such a defiant spirit in these people. It’s like that Victor Frankl thing of like, it’s their personal choice to not let that like consume them, you know? And it’s, there’s a more important thing at play here and there’s a deeper connection to the land.
And I think they just, it’s on such a different level of spirituality that we can’t even understand. And I think that’s almost like the preservation piece of how they keep going and like how that doesn’t just destroy you psychologically.
ANDRÉS: It feels, it echoes to a lot of things that are happening now as well in different places.
You know, when you unmask one part of the history, then you have to kind of accept a series of things. And it’s, it’s that first step that’s the hardest thing to do because the minute you do that then you’re kind of acknowledging the myth of the nation is a farce somehow.
ANDRÉS: And then you almost have to start over.
JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s kind of a pandora’s box that people don’t want to open, but they denying the fact they are the box. I think that’s the thing, you know, with these indigenous, they just want to have that conversation. They just want to have that chance to have their seat at the table and preserve and honor their indigenous roots as well.
And it’s like, why can’t those things sit side by side? Yeah, I feel like there’s something about Australia. It doesn’t do anything in pastel colors, you know? It’s, everything’s intense.
JENNIFER: The animals are going to kill you. The sun’s going to kill you.
JENNIFER: You know, it’s like, you really are, I really remember that red earth like baking and just this cobalt blue sky, you know, there’s something that’s so like unapologetic.
NEIL: You can see the horizon 360 degrees like around you and you feel like you’re enormous and tiny at the same time.
ANDRÉS: Yes, I know this feeling.
NEIL: You feel, you feel super lucky. And just not important at all.
ANDRÉS: It feels singular. And it also feels like a landscape where you can imagine giants roaming the earth.
NEIL: Like a fist coming out of the sky and just like squishing you.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. You gotta be tough there it seems like.
NEIL: I think still it’s any place in the world where you can take the C word on the chin and be totally cool with it, you know?
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah, true.
NEIL: Be like hey [censor beep], do you want another beer?
ANDRÉS: Yeah, [censor beep]
NEIL: Take it easy, Mum.
JENNIFER: Flanking the east coast of the Australian continent is the Great Barrier Reef – the largest living structure on earth. I lived and worked here in my twenties, residing on a pretty ridiculous collection of coral islands nestling in the reef.
JENNIFER: Located off the tropical coast of Queensland, about halfway up Australia’s east coast, these 74 islands were named after Captain James Cook, who sailed into this spot on the seventh Sunday after Easter.
I remember gazing out over the reef one sunset, spying a shoal of mackerel being pursued by a band of tiger sharks. A school of dolphins was slicing through the waves right behind them.
This was not an unusual spectacle for the island residents, but for me, I was left speechless.
In this part of the world, nature finds you. I remember smacking my trainers against a wall each morning when I was staying on Australia’s gold coast to check if poisonous red back spiders hadn’t laid eggs inside. On two occasions, they had.
I remember lush rainforests on the northeast tip of Australia. The Daintree rainforest, a place spun with silvery sacred geometry and home to thousands of spiders.
I remember a deadly king brown snake thicker than my thigh slithering into my unzip tent while I was busy getting drunk around a campfire.
I remember parched red earth and eternal bus journeys up the country’s western shoulder where strange limestone desert formations pierce the sky that seems, come nightfall, to be dripping with diamonds.
ANDRÉS: The majesty and the terror of life on the ground or in Australia’s immense tropical waters, it’s reflected in the sky. A night sky like you’ll see nowhere else on earth.
ANDRÉS: The cosmos here is spectacular.
For Australia’s First Nation people, the animals, spirits and a whole world of mythology inhabit the constellations.
The Celestial Emu. The Grey Kangaroo. The thorny-devil lizard. Baidam, the shark.
You might not be familiar with these intergalactic creatures. These animals don’t exist in the Northern Hemisphere. But Down Under? The sky is packed with the symbols and creatures and astrological entities of the Southern Hemisphere. You just need to know where to look.
JENNIFER: Depending on the angle of stars in the sky and how they twinkle, especially before dawn and at sunset, stars can be ‘read’ to find water, navigate land, source food and understand changing weather patterns or approaching storms. The Aborigines have been reading stars like a practical and cosmic language in order to coexist with some of the most deadly nature on earth for tens of thousands of years.
It’s a big cosmic playbook up there. In the words of the aboriginal elders, everything is written twice, once on the ground and once in the sky.
DUANE: There’s a tremendous amount of astronomical knowledge amongst all the different Aboriginal communities across Australia, which there were hundreds.
We’re talking hundreds of distinct languages each with unique astronomical views.
JENNIFER: This is Duane Hamacher, Associate Professor of Cultural Astronomy at the University of Melbourne.
DUANE: When I began learning more about this, I thought, well, there’s there’s actually a tremendous amount of science here too. And this science seems to go back before Western science was developed. So there’s a story here that needs to be told.
JENNIFER: He quickly became enchanted with a version of astronomy that wasn’t getting any airtime on the ground.
ANDRÉS: Duane leads a growing team of researchers all over Australia who are working to bring to light how astronomical knowledge is encoded in various Aboriginal cultures of Australia.
DUANE: I had been asking some people around campus and around Sydney, what were some of the Aboriginal traditions about the stars and the response I got was there wasn’t really anything there.
You know, they had a few names or stories about it, you know, they’d say, oh, there was some myths and legends and that was about the extent of it. And I thought, okay, that seems strange.
JENNIFER: The lack of awareness about Australia’s oldest inhabitants and their relationship to the sky got Duane a little curious.
But just how do these stories marry up with our modern Western idea of astronomy?
DUANE: Culture is as critical and integral and central part of science as it is any other endeavor that involves humans. And indigenous people around the world have been working and lobbying and advocating for a very, very long time for this knowledge to be taken seriously. For it to be included, to have a voice at that table.
ANDRÉS: Like so many fighting to reclaim this aspect of Australia’s indigenous cultural past, well it also got him pissed off, justifiably pissed off.
DUANE: What I’ve learned from the elders over the years is there’s a tremendous depth of knowledge that links to the stars.
ANDRÉS: When Duane refers to elders, he’s talking about the older members of any Aboriginal community, each with their own distinct language and territory.
DUANE: There’s a lot of science there, but there’s also a lot of culture and spirituality and identity and things like that as well. Some of that of which really isn’t my place to try to learn about or talk about. Um, but when it comes to the science component of that knowledge, there’s a tremendous amount there.
JENNIFER: It is these elders who are the true gatekeepers of Australia’s oldest indigenous wisdom. This wisdom is often referred to as The Dreaming, or Dreamtime. Reading and interpreting the stars is closely linked to this ancient knowledge, and a crucial way of understanding both culture, but also, scientifically, what’s going on immediately in the environment around us.
DUANE: The work that I’ve been doing is more on the science side of the things. And that’s the elders telling me that, you know, everything on the land is mapped out in the sky. And what that means is a person’s ability to read the stars is critically important.
ANDRÉS: The elders have been doing this since the beginning. According to the most recent archaeological evidence, aboriginal peoples have been living on this land for at least 65,000 years. They are the world’s oldest continuous living culture.
DUANE: By reading the stars, what I mean is a person’s ability to observe and interpret the meaning behind the changing positions and properties of things in the sky. So when stars rise and set at dusk and dawn were used as seasonal indicators. And it might tell you something about maybe the wet season transitioning to the dry season. It might tell you about a particular animals behavior.
JENNIFER: These signals from the Cosmos point to something I come to learn is fundamental to the aboriginal understanding of life. Nothing is random. Everything is connected and everything has a consequence.
DUANE: Is that animal migrating? Is it breeding? Is it nesting? Is it brooding? What is it doing? It might tell you about the plants. Certain plants come into season. They flower, they fruit.
And also how to look at the changes in the properties of the stars. Their brightness or their color or their fuzziness, or how they twinkle. All of these things have special significance because those will tell you about atmospheric conditions.
ANDRÉS: An entire knowledge system for life mapped out in the sky.
JENNIFER: Duane and his team of astrophysicists, ethnologists and PhD students are hell bent on getting aboriginal cultural astronomy into the mainstream narrative.
ANDRÉS: They also want to prove – beyond a shadow of scientific doubt – that the aboriginal traditions do accurately explain the relationship between events in the sky and corresponding events on Earth.
Take the example of perhaps Australia’s most emblematic bird – the emu. In this case, the Celestial Emu.
JENNIFER: Its silhouette is traced by the dark dust lanes of the Milky Way between the Southern Cross and the Scorpius-Sagittarius. This constellation is found all across the continent in different dark sky locations.
Depending on which community of elders you ask though, there are many different interpretations of Dreaming narratives attached to it.
ANDRÉS: When the Celestial Emu in April-May first appeared, aboriginals took this to mean that the emu breeding season had begun. Then, when the bird is seen lying horizontally in the sky in June, this is the time when terrestrial emus are nesting and laying eggs. This is the best time for aboriginals to harvest emu eggs, but only what was needed.
For Duane, it’s clear there’s just as much going on in Australia’s southern skies as there is down on the ground.
DUANE: When you bridge these two worlds, people see aboriginal culture in a very different way and they associate, you know, it’s a way of associating the positives to that instead of everybody trying to focus on negatives.
JENNIFER: He is, of course, referring to the fact that the country, for centuries, has been divided. The aborigines were the original stewards of the land, but white colonial settlers swiftly and violently redirected the course of history. It’s only in recent times that the country’s some 500 distinct aboriginal communities or aboriginal clans have begun to find their way back onto the radar of mainstream Australia.
It’s not before time.
DUANE: That that empowers the communities, empowers the elders and the students coming up in this group. It’s skyrocketed. You know, in just a couple of years some of the aboriginal people in our group, you know, they’re super bloody famous now. They’re on, you know, stargazing live and giving TEDx talks and their on major movies and documentaries and stuff like that, you know, which is the way it should be.
ANDRÉS: It makes me think about a lot of stuff that maybe we’ll get into later as well. But there’s, this, this thing that humans suck at and we’re really bad at, which is how you take care of and how you preserve kind of intangible stuff. You know, the colonial story is a story that’s gone on almost every continent in the Southern hemisphere, right?
But the places that have managed to somehow find a way to bring that to the front or deal with it in one way or the other.
JENNIFER: At least integrate it.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. They had like tangible kind of monuments. The Aztec pyramids.
ANDRÉS: The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. You can kind of point to something very specific. And when you’re in Australia, it’s, uh, it’s, it’s something that you have to take some time to actually parse, like what is that, right?
ANDRÉS: A lot of our problems now come from that, you know?
NEIL: Not having an intangible cultural preservation society.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. Or like a sense of what that even means, you know, and like this feeling like we’ve got to get rid of philosophy in school.
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah. Anything abstract is basically obsolete.
ANDRÉS: Yeah like it’s a waste of time.
ANDRÉS: Cause what we should be doing is like building chips.
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah.
JENNIFER: And giant servers and deserts.
ANDRÉS: And yet, even in terms of like all of the things that we’re facing right now in terms of pandemics and people storming Capitol buildings, you know, all of this stuff, it feels like it’s all about this detachment, right? Of humanness.
NEIL: It’s, it’s, it’s almost doubly hard in Australia because it’s all oral history. Like there’s not even that many paintings really.
JENNIFER: Yeah. You’ve got to seek them as well. They’ll be in caves. They’ll be on carved on rocks in the middle of nowhere and –
NEIL: And so all of those, with the dying of all of those languages and the dying of all of those people, the stories and all of the – all of their own traditions have been, have gone within two generations.
ANDRÉS: It’s crazy.
NEIL: You know, even the ones that have luckily been preserved, they’re so amazing. Can you imagine like an ancient aboriginal joke?
NEIL: It would be incredible. And there must be so many of them because I found out today, right, that Canberra, the capital of Australia, is an aboriginal word and in many different aboriginal languages, it means cleavage. It’s the space between a woman’s breasts.
NEIL: It’s like
JENNIFER: It’s decolletage.
ANDRÉS: You’ve been to decolletage.
JENNIFER: Wow, that was a great fact.
NEIL: We’ll be back after this short break with an unexpected star killer and the woman trying to stop it, aboriginal artist Lloyd Hornsby, plus, more animals, omens and tales from the night sky. We’ll see you in a bit.
ANDRÉS: Beyond the deeply painful colonial cultural amnesia, the stories held in the stars now face a different kind of threat – light pollution.
CAROL: There are people around the world who live in big cities like Beijing or New York or London and it’s really difficult to see one star let alone, you know, the millions and billions of stars that we can see in the country in WA.
JENNIFER: Carol Redford is CEO and founder of Astronomy WA. Not only is she a campaigner for the importance of dark skies, she’s also recruiting aboriginal people to share their deep philosophical, spiritual and even ethical interpretations of the stars as it’s passed down from their own ancestral elders and guides.
ANDRÉS: Carol is an ambassador for the stars and is working to recruit special star trail towns and their communities across Western Australia to join her in promoting and protecting the region’s phenomenal night sky.
ANDRÉS: For the past few years, she’s been developing these trails in two regions in Western Australia: Perth, the major city on the west coast of the country is the most isolated major city on earth. The landscape beyond Perth is not only spectacular, it’s spectacularly dark.
CAROL: We’ve mapped out now, 50 places for people with telescopes or cameras for the beautiful astrophotography we see these days and they can really sit underneath the Milky way and experience a truly dark sky.
JENNIFER: I spent some time in Western Australia. It reminds me of Texas. There’s the deliciously drawling accents, basically more red earth and desert than you could ever know what to do with, and an immense pride from the many ranch owners, farmers, and small communities who populate the thousands of miles of land that stretches in all directions from Perth, the West’s capitol city.
ANDRÉS: The space between the east and west coast of Australia is vast. From Perth, it would be quicker, cheaper, and easier for you to jump on a flight to Bali in Indonesia than it would to fly to Sydney or Melbourne on the other side of Australia. Vast is an understatement
JENNIFER: On balance, the west coast of Australia is also far less populated and tourist centric than the east, which is famous for its dazzling Sydney Opera House, Bondi beaches, the surface paradise of the Gold Coast, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.
ANDRÉS: One of the reasons that the east coast holds about 81% of Australia’s population is the country’s colonial past. In 1770 during his first Pacific voyage, Lieutenant James Cook claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for the British Crown.
JENNIFER: Cook’s reports inspired the authorities to establish a penal colony in the newly claimed territory. The new colony was meant to fix the problem of overcrowded British prisons and expand the British empire.
ANDRÉS: The Impact on Australia’s First Nation people was devastating. In the 10 years that followed, 90% of the indigenous were wiped out from a combination of plague, white settlers taking over their land and violent conflicts.
JENNIFER: Carol’s home turf, the west of Australia, sits directly beneath the Milky Way. From the dark sky regions that exist only a few hours north, south, and east of Perth, you can also see the large and small Magellanic Clouds, which are known by astronomers as dwarf galaxies and span 14,000 and 7,000 light years across respectively.
ANDRÉS: According to First Nation people who live in this part of Australia, the clouds represent the camp of an old couple who can no longer obtain their own food and a nearby star represents their fire. This story represents a celestial model of respect for elders and the need to share food with those who need it.
It’s also one of many moral tales found in the sky that reflects back the social, cultural and religious value systems of aboriginal society.
JENNIFER: These values still exist today and act as a very real moral compass to modern aborigines who received these stories and fables from their ancestors. These stories would also be impossible to tell if the sky lost its darkness.
CAROL: 80% of Western Australians live in Perth and Perth, the Perth metropolitan area, only makes up 0.25% of the whole landmass of Western Australia.
So it means we’ve got this vast area with small country towns with low populations and naturally low levels of light pollution. Uh, and that’s what, um, if we can try and maintain that, that low level, we’ll have this beautiful dark sky for a very long time to come.
Um, in our isolation and our remoteness, there is great advantage.
ANDRÉS: There’s a much bigger picture when it comes to protecting dark skies.
CAROL: When we reduce light pollution, we can protect wildlife and also our human health as well. Um, that light pollution affects birds migrating, turtles hatching, uh, there’s all sorts of insects that light pollution can affect. Um, but also our own health, our own sleeping and waking cycle, our circadian rhythm and light affects all of that.
JENNIFER: I hadn’t considered that lights play a role in unseen tragedies, like insect populations declining because they’re no longer able to use the stars for navigation. Not to mention ancient aboriginal stories and myths quite literally being canceled out by light.
CAROL: Two years ago, I went out and did some initial meetings with communities and I went to communities who were working together already on tourism initiatives in Western Australia. So there are about seven or eight local governments. They’re working on a fantastic initiative called the Wheatbelt Way.
JENNIFER: I backpacked my way through part of the Wheatbelt back in 2004. The towns that form the Wheatbelt span about 800 kilometers southeast of Perth. Placid lakes, ancient geological rock formations, thick blankets of wild flowers, and perhaps my favorite, Wave Rock in Hyden.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, it looks like it sounds – a 110 meter long stretch of granite curving in perfect formation right at that moment when you’d expect a regular wave to crash. Except that wave is 2.7 billion years old and perfectly frozen in time.
JENNIFER: This region of Western Australia is one of the global hotspots to find pitch darkness.
I recall my 22 year old self being by Lake Askew. Me and a few other backpackers laid down as the sunset and were quickly humbled into silence from the spectacle of the stars above. I remember feeling completely immersed and swallowed up by the sky, not really knowing where the stars ended and my own stretched out, star-struck body began.
CAROL: I travel with a dark sky quality meter. So I measure the quality of the night sky and how dark it is there.
ANDRÉS: Carol and her team have selected 50 different places to create an official astro tourism map, each town or settlement all offering something unique and spellbinding to gaze at come nightfall.
Does this map allow for some indigenous storytelling too?
CAROL: It’s um, always been in my, in the back of my mind to overlay with that an aboriginal astronomy trail. When I think about the night sky from an aboriginal perspective, it means seasons and seasonality.
In the southwest of Western Australia for instance, there are six Nunga Aboriginal seasons, and of course I’ve grown up with only knowing four. Doesn’t that indicate such a level or a depth of knowledge about the environment that we just don’t have?
JENNIFER: Given the colonial backstory, it shouldn’t surprise me that this knowledge isn’t widely shared and celebrated, but it still blows me away that thousands of years of indigenous intelligence has basically been ignored.
And let’s not forget that a lot of First Nation wisdom and knowledge has been either withheld or shared in fragments or snippets by ancestors who weren’t always informed.
There’s so much we’ll never know.
CAROL: Most of us live in brightly lit cities. We’ve forgotten that those stars are up there. And, you know, we have lost that connection with the night sky and yeah, perhaps that’s why it’s become such a hidden thing. And it’s just there, it’s right there under the surface and all we have to do is turn out the lights. We’ll find it again.
NEIL: There’s like an image I have of almost pitch dark, just starlight. And you just see this car, like coming from the distance, like, like Lawrence of Arabia coming out of the desert, just the middle of nowhere. It stops, someone gets out and she gets a little machine out of her pocket and she goes, yeah, it’s pretty dark here.
NEIL: Puts a little note in her notebooks and then drives another thousand kilometers. So awesome. Just like test, just like
ANDRÉS: It’s like night police.
NEIL: Yeah, this is pretty dark. This is cool.
ANDRÉS: This is good dark.
JENNIFER: The dark sky reserves and the dark sky alliance is something that’s definitely like, I mean, she, she’s basically lobbying and campaigning for policy change. A level of government and working with the Australian and the international dark sky alliance to make sure that the sky has the same level of reverence and protection as say a UNESCO site.
NEIL: Where my folks live, which is, it’s like an hour and a half,
ANDRÉS: Between an hour and a half and six hours.
NEIL: It’s like one or three or six…
JENNIFER: When you go walk about it’s 12.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s hard to know, like, the star from my parents’ house, it’s just like incredible.
ANDRÉS: So there’s people that have grown up and have never had that experience at all. That anecdote,
JENNIFER: The LA thing.
ANDRÉS: It was an earthquake. It was an earthquake in LA. All the lights went out and then people started calling 911 because they were like, there’s, there’s a giant fire in the sky.
JENNIFER: It’s like a noxious cloud.
ANDRÉS: There’s a noxious cloud in the sky. Make it stop. And it was like, no, that is,
NEIL: That’s the galaxy. That’s where we live.
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah.
JENNIFER: When we talk about reclaiming history, reclaiming a story, there’s a really compelling question that comes up: Who has the right to do it? I’m not sure I know the answer. But we came across someone who’s trying to do it.
ANDRÉS: Yuin country, Wallaga Lake is situated on the border of New South Wales and Victoria and tucked into the bottom south east corner of Australia. The Yuin are a group of indigenous aborigines considered to be the original stewards of the lake. The lake, incidentally, is the largest in the region and features a small island in the middle: Merriman’s Island.
Aboriginal artefacts from thousands of years back have been found here and in November 1977, it was the first place in New South Wales to be declared an Aboriginal Heritage site by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Lloyd Hornsby is an artist and a Koori from here. His spiritual name is Gawura which means whale.
JENNIFER: After ageing members of his family revealed his connection to the Yuin nation, he started to dig into his family tree. He discovered not only an Australian lineage, but Chinese as well.
And it was not until Lloyd turned 55 that he went back to University to study aboriginal art and culture. Lloyd has been a professional artist ever since. In recent years, his celestial artwork blew up on the internet. In 2020, it caught the attention of one of the world’s most iconic museums: The Louvre, in Paris.
LLOYD: The artwork that comes out of the central desert is beautiful. It is unreal. It’s basically patterns selling, like some of them tells stories, telling stories of their past, but um, a lot of them are just basically patterns and you’ll never see art like it anywhere else in the world.
ANDRÉS: Lloyd’s art is beautiful. He uses a traditional dot technique seen in other Australian indigenous art with recurring symbols and patterns woven through intricate constellations.
Often you’ll see celestial animals leaping across the canvas or silhouettes of men or creatures going walkabout along aboriginal song lines. Lloyd’s journey into art isn’t your typical story of a lifelong struggling painter. It was upon him discovering his true lineage that he got the urge to put himself through art school at 55 years old, motivated by a burning desire to understand where he came from.
LLOYD: My daughter told me, my auntie told my daughter and my daughter, she’d gone on the internet and looked it up and found out the truth. We’re actually part of a family tree that’s on the internet. And, uh, we didn’t know about, and none of us knew about it. But, what happened is some, is that she said, hey, I don’t want feeling and I said it all makes sense now.
JENNIFER: Imagine your whole life not really knowing why you felt disconnected to your family history. Then having this deep, gnawing ache confirmed by your own family. Lloyd’s way back was by reconnecting to his ancestors through quite literally painting the stars.
Despite him living in a tiny rural town in Yuin country called Glen Innes, it didn’t take long for art enthusiasts, professional collectors and global media to zone in on his story.
LLOYD: We did an interview with a journalist from the ABC here. And he took images of mine and he put it on his website. And within about a half an hour to an hour, we had 610,000 hits. I’m not too sure why they approached me, but I’ve sold work in Germany. I’ve sold work in France, some work in Britain.
Uh, and maybe somebody has put it to their attention or they’ve seen my work on the internet. Uh, they’ve approached me. At first, we thought it was a scam. And then we found it through the Australian government it wasn’t.
JENNIFER: A 73 year old guy getting a phone call that one of the most famous museums on the planet wants to hang his art.
Talk about karma. What Lloyd is excited about though, is art. As a conduit for education, as a conversation starter, as a means of storytelling and connecting indigenous and non-indigenous Australians after they’ve been divided for so long.
LLOYD: One of the biggest things where the movement between tribal areas, that’s been the greatest movement in Australia, is it the aboriginal, Australian Aboriginal, recognize the Torres Strait aboriginal. Um, the, uh, the Torres Strait on there totally different to look at. They’re different buildings, different songs, different structure.
Uh, and what’s good is that even where I am, we fly the Torres Strait flag along with the Aboriginal flag. And we’ve had visitors that have turned up here from Torres Strait and get quite emotional on flying their flag. And that’s the way it should be.
JENNIFER: I’m glad Lloyd brings this up. The Torres Strait Islanders, like Australia’s aboriginal indigenous, are an indigenous group that are deeply connected to star astronomy.
But they are ethnically distinct.
ANDRÉS: Torres Strait Islanders are the indigenous people of the Torres Strait islands. The Torres Strait is an oceanic passage between the Coral Sea on the east and the Arafura Sea in the western Pacific Ocean.
JENNIFER: Duane works with Torres Strait Islander, Martin Nawa, who works at the James Cook University in Queensland.
He’s invited Duane up to Murray Island in the Torres Strait as part of a work project. Duane’s stargazing story from this trip was too good not to share.
DUANE: We thought, you know, doing a project at the Torres Strait on astronomy would be fantastic because even what little had been done in Australia on indigenous astronomy, almost none of it came from the Torres Strait.
So we were headed up there and he grew up on Thursday Island.
ANDRÉS: Thursday Island is one of 274 tiny tropical islands that stretch some 48,000 square miles of shark-infested waters. From the tip of Northern Queensland up to Papua New Guinea. It is only 1.4 square miles wide and islanders either speak Torres Strait Creole, or the indigenous language, Kowrareg.
Pearling and sea cucumber fishing are big industries here.
DUANE: Sitting outside, it’s a beautiful night, we’re having a whiskey. And I looked up and I was like, oh wait, I recognize those stars. Isn’t that Baidam the shark. And it’s the stars of the Big Dipper.
The nose of Baidam is touching the horizon at sunset. That means that the shark breeding season has begun. And you need to be very careful about getting in the water because the sharks come very close to the shore and they’re hunting for these sardines that sort of tend to cluster real close to the shoreline, like a, like a rope all the way around the beach. And, uh, when I said that, uh, professor Nacht just sort of looked at me and he sort of smiled and said wait till tomorrow.
And then we got off the beach and my eyes just sort of bugged out. I was looking and there was all these, you know, giant sharks in the water, like literally in like, less than knee deep water, just going back and forth. You could see the dorsal fins popping.
I could see the whole shark on the water. It’s beautiful, clear water up there. It’s going back and forth tearing through these, um, schools of sardines on the shoreline. I kind of looked at him and he just looked at me and sort of nodded and smiled. You know, this was an opportunity for me to see it firsthand because that was why the season that the sharks are breeding.
And I said, well, wait a minute. When we were flying in, I thought I saw some kids swimming in the water. I mean, surely you don’t swim in the water when the sharks are like this. He’s like, oh yeah, they’re fine. I’m like, well how? He’s like, we train the sharks to only bite white fellas.
JENNIFER: Warnings, omens, prophecy. Real life written in the stars, and then experienced on the ground. Of the many communities that Duane works alongside, some of this knowledge is simply a deep inherent knowing of how to coexist with nature. It’s not something they’ve been officially taught per se. The knowledge acquired out of dreaming is dynamic, ever present and exists on a level of consciousness most of us Westerners just can’t fully grasp.
DUANE: There’s a tremendous wealth that we can learn from aboriginal people. Um, and that can guide our scientific, it does guide our scientific practices. And as a matter, if you’re looking at geology, ecology, astrophysics, whatever, every area, even mathematics and chemistry like this stuff is informed and guided by traditional knowledge. Because these people figure this stuff out a long time ago.
NEIL: I want to know if I can read the sky to know when to not get eaten by sharks.
JENNIFER: They’ve got all these signature animals in Oz, haven’t they? The koalas and the kangaroos and the wallabies and the platypus, of course. And giant hallucinogenic ants. I licked an ants bum once.
ANDRÉS: Excuse me? Did you just say you licked?
JENNIFER: I licked an ants ass and it was on the premise…
ANDRÉS: On purpose?
JENNIFER: Yeah, totally on purpose.
ANDRÉS: Someone was like lick this ant’s ass.
JENNIFER: I picked it up and it was like as big as a finger, definitely.
NEIL: Gonna go have to lick some ants.
ANDRÉS: Hallucinogenic ass ants.
JENNIFER: Ass ants.
ANDRÉS: Um, okay. So this is, this is the end of part one.
NEIL: The end of part one.
ANDRÉS: So there’s more coming, Neil.
NEIL: So this episode has been all about the stars and our disconnection or connection to the stars.
NEIL: The next episode is going to be all about the kangaroo’s vagina.
ANDRÉS: No, but it does.
NEIL: You just licked an ant’s ass.
ANDRÉS: I am trying.
JENNIFER: It’s not sexual, is it? Well, maybe, yeah. I mean, it wasn’t sexual at the time, for me, that’s for sure.
ANDRÉS: Maybe for the ant.
NEIL: It was for the ant, yeah. The ants are all talking. The ants remember you.
ANDRÉS: 20 generations later, they’re still discussing.
JENNIFER: That British chick came into the rainforest.
NEIL: Built like a whole religion around you. It’s like a Rick and Morty episode.
NEIL: Build an ant hill of Jenn.
NEIL: We will be back in Australia next week for part two and our seasoned finale. Looking up once more, but this time with a little caution. A story about omens, asteroids and impact craters. Oh, and there will be a very special guest.
WERNER: Yes, I can accept that. And there is something which is their truth and I marvel at it and accept it and feel enriched.
NEIL: That’s right. The unmistakable voice of Werner Herzog. Plus many more incredible people of and in Australia. Plus, our five saved pins for some night’s sky action.
Keep an eye out for us on social media @passportpod, @passportpodcast on Instagram and at frequencymachine.com/passport for all show notes and info.
Today’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Jennifer Carr, and edited by me and Andrés.
Huge thanks to Duane Hamacher, Carol Redford, Lloyd Hornsby, Marnie Ogg, Jessie Ferrari, Trevor Leaman, Madeline Anderson, Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer and Isaac Davidson for all of their kind help and words making these episodes. For information on these amazing people, check in the show notes.
Our theme music is by the incredible Nick Turner. Additional music by the indiginous peoples of Australia and jinglepunks.com.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Our production assistant is Eliza Engel
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are our celestial emus. They also executive produce the show.
Which is hosted by me, Neil Innes and a man who has never been down under but somehow has been on walkabout for nearly 40 years – Andrés Bartos. We will see you in the same place next week.
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