Architecture of the uninhabitable
In March cities shuttered & dissolved under their own redundancy. I moved from melbourne to darwin to Manayingkarírra. What Omar Jabary Salamanca calls ‘infrastructure violence’ shapes time and space.
Living remotely, everything’s in short supply, except sensation. The terrain is precariously made reliant on infrastructural support from the bureaucratic centre. The modulation of calories, megawatts, water, telecommunication networks, bandwidth all allocated at the bare minimum for survival, Jasbir K. Puar goes on: “to deplete of strip resistance”. Here, remoteness isn’t distance, but biogeographic caesura ‘between the ones and the others’ as Achille Mbembe writes in Necropolitics.
When you drive from Manayingkarírra to Jabiru it takes 2 hours &or 5 hours, depending on how well you can handle the gnarled roads. I know because I’ve done it – looked out for red lily, pink & purple lily billabong, the place Big Bill Neidjie, talks about in Gagudju Man (1986).
This is where Indjuwanydjuwa, hunted, danced, travelled, carving out the earth – giving form to the land, and at the same time imparting the wisdom of all of this to the Bunitj clan. Water following his trail, filling-up rivers and lagoons, Red Lily Billabong where Indjuwanydjuwa transformed himself into a stone.
This book, Gagudju Man, which was transcribed by anthropologist Stephen Davies, contains the poetry spoken by Neidjie.
Often mythologised, remembered as the last speaker of the Gagudju language, Neidjie trusted anthropologist Stephen Davies to transcribe his geopoetic stories to the book’s pages. The land is itself a text, it can be read, listened to, felt, but is never reduced simply to human needs. The local ecosystems, to varying degrees are artefacts of the relationship between Bunitj people and their Country. Neidjie wisdom, intuition, philosophy, law printed in text so that it wasn’t lost.
every night he grow.
Just about dark….
he start again.
Just about morning I look.
‘Oh, nice tree this.’
When you sleep,
Tree growing like other trees….
they got lots of blood.
Throughout Neidjie’s poetry, and in Aboriginal English generally, ‘e’ with the ‘h’ dropped, doesn’t necessarily refer to a male figure. Here, ‘e’ is an ambiguous gender-neutral pronoun, variously referring to tree, person, spirit, feeling & story itself.
‘E’ is swept up, the tree in the story becomes illimitably various, but will not budge. A specific tree in print, wandering off the page, unsettling, “growing like other trees…, full of blood.”
According to European interpretation the figure of the tree stands for genealogy, the distinct family unit, excluding everything else in its environment. This is not the tree in Neidjie’s poem, ‘e’ is open to and contingent on everything in the ecosystem, innumerable world.
You can only search for your roots through poetry or knowledge.
– Eduard Glissant
The tree I’m concerned with is a boab, standing alone in a carpark in darwin City in the Northern Territory. At first glance, a stranger, stranded in an asphalt sea, but determined. As though it were inverted, its swollen trunk resembles a bulb – the plant’s underground storage organ – and its branches are a mesh of roots, planted in the sky. Errant tree, its triumphant caudex, growing in every direction casts a singular shadow.
This boab’s past mirrors and reflects the enigmatic history of boab (or baobab) trees, in particular the specious’ opaque arrival on this continent.
Endemic to the Northern Territory and the Kimberly region of Western Australia, it’s not known to science or the prevailing historical record, how the boab, native to mainland Africa and Madagascar, arrived here. Boab’s arrival is anti-space, anti-time in non-performance of arrival.
Eduard Glissant, speaking about despair and loss, and what can be gained in the traces of such loss in Manthia Diawara’s effervescent film Eduard Glissant: One World in Relation, talks of an: ‘African tree, the baobab, the sacred tree, under which elders used to gather to talk’.
It’s certain that the boab arrived by sea, the tree’s fruit – the boab nut – floating, an unutterable trace across a hollow ocean. The boab nut contains edible white pith. Did hands clasp the fugitive nut, opening it, the pith softening in the mouth, silently dissolving against a tongue, words dispersing, lexical terrain receding.
‘Every night he grow. Daylight, he stop.’ The undoubtable mystical presence, its history open only to intuition. Entering into the tree or the tree entering you is the path from the site of one story to the next.
Bloated trunk, might be full of water, light brown bulla bark that looks wet, shimmering, pink star on the river’s rippled surface. In the dry season the boab sheds its oily green leaves and its knotted branches freeze in the light.
Boab nuts are good. Eat the husk or mix it with water, drink it, carve the shell with images of emu, lizard, snake, kangaroo.
I flew from melbourne to darwin in February of this year to do archival and site research towards the production of a book, looking for a textual trace of my nana’s life in an eroding landscape. But, an interpretive path from where fragments of meaning might be recollected and retold. I wanted something material, marking her indubitable journey – 6-year-old child taken from her family, thrown on the back of a cattle truck, driven hundreds of kilometres to a mission in Western Australia – archival records, architecture of cruelty. In the old papers, records, books stored at the darwin archive, I found no evidence, but a decaying frame for absence.
To start with, all one can do is try to name things, one by one, flatly, enumerate them, count them, in the most straightforward way possible, in the most precise way possible, trying not to leave anything out.
– Georges Perec
Susan Howe, observing the deceptively simple wording of Emily Dickinson’s beautiful, elliptical poem ‘My Life had stood –a Loaded Gun–’, writes that: “definition, seeing rather than perceiving, hearing and not understanding, is only the shadow of meaning”. The boab, like the poem, remains outside the constraints of a specific resolution, resisting the demand for transparency.
Enter into the tree, present it in its opacity.
The boab precedes the car park in darwin. It’s not known how it got there; sometime in the 1880s it was planted or began growing by itself.
The city’s first primary school was built around the boab. Its sprawling branches shading children in the schoolyard through the first half of the 20th century.
The Greek-australian artist Vlase Zanalis painted a depiction of a large hollow boab with a cell-like window in its trunk. Reviewing the artist’s exhibition in 1949, a journalist incorrectly described it as a ‘prison tree’, a myth that sticks in the public imaginary.
The boab is not a prison.
The boab grows slowly. Its dormant in the dry season – “daylight, he stop”. Its soft yellow flowers opening in September.
In World War II when darwin was shelled, a Japanese ‘Daisy Cutter’ bomb landed by the boab and came to lay, unexploded in the tree’s shade for days. Then, in 1974 when tropical Cyclone Tracy tore through darwin, sculpting steel girders and tearing the built city to the ground, the boab stood there, facing the sky.
The boab disrupted Charles Darwin University’s development plans.
The boab directed the architecture of the abortive new campus, the tree’s halation, a commanding radius of air and light space. The university was already cursed, because it cut down a 100-year-old milkwood and so it ran out of money and development plans were temporarily halted
Its skin glares, an uncertain and irregular boundary of memory. Inconsistent memories. Traces across the tree’s warped surface, Snakey, Angel, Archie, Tiger, names carved in bark, personal markers of future memory.
Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and independent researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar where the Rose River opens onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lives and works in the Naarm and the Northern Territory. Tristen publishes essays, reviews and criticism on art, architecture, literature and film. His writing is published in Australian and international publications including The Monthly, ArtReview, Overland Journal, Art Almanac, Un Magazine, Metro magazine, Art + Australia and more. He is currently writing a book about ecology, myth and memory.