Friday, February 17, 2017

Larapinta: Extinction, Temporal Discernment and the Reaches of Creation

Water Hole on Finke River/  in Evening Light

I was out of touch.  After a night of uneasy sleep, still topsy turvy with half-remembered dreams, I wobbled out into the early morning light of Glen Helen Homestead and sat down on a bench overlooking the waters of the Finke River.  It was time to take stock.  Of what exactly was unclear - of the last week, month, or year, or perhaps even of an entire lifetime, at least as much as the latter had progressed so far.  In my 67th year to heaven, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, should he have lived so long, I found myself again in the Red Center, looking yet again to make some sort of contact with what matters.

Stone Marking Tjilpa Country
A few years ago, I had spent a week in these environs with anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose engaged in preliminary ethnographic research regarding Dasyurus geoffroii, the Western Quoll, also known as Tjilpa to the Arrernte families here traditionally responsible for its well-being (See Rose and Hatley, 2011). Like many of its marsupial kin in the area, Dasyurus geoffroii is a threatened species, yet one more living kind being summarily consigned to non-existence in an era of mass species extinction.  In fact, this marsupial cat, as it is has sometimes been called by Europeans, has long since disappeared, at least in the flesh, from these surroundings and is now only found in the wild in the southwestern corner of the continent. Nevertheless, Tjilpa remains in this country a ceremonial presence, its dreaming still a powerful element of Arrernte cultural life.  I witnessed during that visit how even in the shadow of its absence, Tjilpa still reaches out to touch those who would remain faithful to it.  And now I had returned to express my own commitment, however fraught it might be with the destructive legacies of European settlement, to this living kind's continued life upon the face of the earth.

Thinking about mass species extinction as one's day to day activity leads to a disquieting way of life.  When Deborah Bird Rose, along with Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew, instituted the Extinction Studies Working Group in 2013, we were well aware that the challenges presented by our subject were as much spiritual as conceptual.  One's love for the diverse creatures wth whom we humans from our very beginnings have shared a home on the face of the earth, leaves one, here and now, the target of terrible knowledge and uncanny grief.  At the bottom of it, one is called upon to witness a degree of disloyalty on the part of humanity to its more than human kin that is not easy to bear.  The temptation is either to succumb to anger, becoming consumed with rage, or to yield to despair by simply growing numb.  Even worse, one can just let the madness of it all settle in, giving free rein to the mania and incoherency feeding the catastrophe.  One acts as if all is well, regardless of what might actually be the case.  One denies climate change and habitat loss, as if reality can be dismissed with a quip.  When worlds are ending, it turns out, for those who remain the shopping can be fantastic.  At least temporarily.

Dragon Perched on Stone in Ormiston Gorge
Yet what is really required is the courage to remain faithful to all involved, both the human and more-than-human living kinds who make their homes here.  Half a continent away to the east in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, both eastern and western quolls can be found at the Secret Creek Nature Sanctuary, thriving not in the wild but in pens designed to protect their inhabitants from the marauding cats and foxes permeating the countryside.  The quolls are cared for by former coal miner Trevor Evans.  A prodigious soul bustling with energy, Trevor once looked me straight in the eyes and said wth blunt frankness:  "If you write about a creature, about a living kind, then you owe it.  You shouldn't just write something, and then walk away."

Blooming on the Finke River
Those words have stuck with me.  And so these several years later, contemplating retirement and the looming question of what to do next, I had repaired to the Red Center to revivify my faith in things in general and Western Quolls in particular.   Arrernte artist and author Margaret Kamarre Turner puts succinctly the devastation wrought by European settlement here when she writes: "The land's...been turned upside down" (Kemarre Turner, 192).  Yet she also observes: "We see our country, even though it might be destroyed by another species, we see how the beautiness is still in the country. It doesn't matter that horses and bullocks have caused such destruction, we still the spirit of that Land glistening" (Kemarre Turner, 141).   If nothing else, I had hoped, perhaps in my just witnessing a place in which so much is still flourishing, in which the very land still speaks of quolls, even if they are not so easily found, healing and insight might be offered.  Yet after a week of motoring about the desert, stopping here and there to be still and listen, or at times even to kneel down on the earth and observe as closely as possible the goings on (lots and lots of ants!), I was still more than a bit lost.

Cliffs overlooking Larapinta

And this brings me back to that moment recounted above on the banks of a river.   Known on contemporary Australian maps as the Finke. Larapinta rises in the McDonnel range of the Red Center and then meanders several hundred miles before disappearing into the arid reaches of the Simpson Desert. Named in 1872 after a benefactor in Adelaide bankrolling an expedition into these parts, the earliest European account of the river's Arendan name mistakenly understood it as a word denoting the rainbow serpent; only later did it become clear that Larapinta refers to the briny waterholes dotting the riverscape (Koch and Hercus, 292).  Still, the river's serpentine course bordered by white sands and green marshes twisting left and right across the desert floor - as if the the milky way had looked down to find its reflection on the face of the earth - makes the mistaken translation a bit more forgivable and perhaps even inspiring.

Reading one of the earliest accounts of contact between European outsiders and the Arrernte people on the banks of this river is instructive.  In his journal, Ernest Giles writes: "We made an attempt at a long conversation, but signally failed, for neither of us knew many of the words the other was saying.  The only bit of information I obtained from them was their name for the river – as they kept continually pointing to it and repeating the word Larapinta" (Koch and Hercus, 291).   The river itself then serves as the hinge of encounter, the auspicious occasion for the first word shared between one people and another.  Personally, I am saddened when I read Giles's characterization of the medium of this precious exchange as "a bit of information." So much went wrong so quickly when whitefella met blackfella, but in this first interchange might be found a hint as to another way in which the settlement culture now housed at Glen Helen Homestead might find its way into the truth of things in this place under the sun.  Something much more than "bits of information" will be involved.

"Ancient River Gum" by Roland Hemmert
And so early on November 29, 2016, if I had been keeping a diary at the time, I might have written something like this: "I am not sure what is happening as I face the great glistening cliffs hovering over the river this morning. I do not know its name, but I am being touched by it and heartened, my anxieties eased, my despair assuaged.  I have been scurrying to and fro over the floor of the desert looking for a sign these last days when all along the earth was speaking loud and clear right outside my door."

This experience is one that is more often than not dismissed these days as romantic claptrap by many of my scholarly colleagues.  And perhaps more often than not, they are right to be suspicious of, if not outright scandalized by, yet another denizen of the non-Indigenous world seeking out sunny climes usurped from other peoples in order to feed her or his appetite for spiritual enlightenment.   All the while, all around one, the catastrophic consequences of colonial usurpation continue unabated.  Better perhaps to pack up and leave and go home.  Of course, the very home one would return to is itself stolen land.  The more one thinks about the position of the great-grand-children of colonial settlers upon the face of the earth, the more homeless one realizes she or he might be.

Larapinta is among a small group of rivers, it turns out, whose courses are older than the mountains surrounding them.  When one views the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, one looks down at waters that began carving into the earth some six millions years ago. The story gets more complicated when geologists note that earlier rivers had already begun sculpting these canyons, so that the defiles themselves go back some 70 millions years (Greenfield-Boyce).  This is already a long ways.  But Larapinta adopted another strategy altogether, continuing to meander over the face of the earth, even as mountain ranges were thrusting up around it, inch by inch (Pickup (1988), Wells (1988), Haines (2001)).  The path the river follows is now 300 to 400 million years old, older by far than the diverse species of marsupials, Tjilpa among them, now making their home here.  As a whole they have only been in residence upon the earth for the last 90 million years.  Yet next to these we humans are rank newcomers.

When one is called upon to take stock of one's time upon the face of the earth, one would do well to consider the immensity of the past into which one's own life is rooted.  European colonists were convinced that the earth was a recent phenomenon, no more than four or five thousands years in age.  While other cultures might not have quantified so precisely the time involved, they seemed far more aware and respectful of a temporal depth to earthly existence transcending the human capacity to conceive of it in straightforward terms.  They realized we humans are in need of discernment to understand how time itself provides for us.  We were not here upon the face of the earth, when Larapinta first arose, nor when Tjilpa first set foot on the desert floor surrounding its banks.

The birth of a living kind is not an overnight phenomenon.  Larapinta instructs us concerning the powers at work on the face of the earth, powers that mold the living kinds, that call the very dust of stones into the restless shapes moving through time that are both ourselves and our biological kin.  Before we who are now living can begin to appreciate what is involved in the threatened loss of Tjilpa among many others in a time of mass species extinction, we would do well to listen to what this river has to tell us about the reaches of creation.

Hills Overlooking Larapinta's Waters Transformed into Molten Light/

River Gum near Larapinta

Works Cited

Edinburgh, Unviersity of.  "Origin and Evolution of Marsupials." University Natural History Collection Website:

Greenfield Boyce,  Nell.  "The Grand Canyon May be Older (and Younger) than you Think."  NPR Website.  January 27, 2014:

Haines P.W., Hand M., Sanford M. "Palaeozioc synorogenic sedimentation in central and northern Australia: a review of distribution and timing with implications for the evolution of intracontinental orogens."  Australia Journal of Earth Sciences. Vol. 48, no. 6 (2001): 911-928.

Hemmert, Roland.  "Ancient River Gum," a pastel composed and completed in pleine aire nearby the Larapinta, is in my collection of artwork.  More can be read about Roland's work at:

Kemarre Turner, Margaret. Iwenhe Tyerrtye -what it means to be an Aboriginal person (Alice Springs: IAD Press, 2010).

Koch, Harold and Hercus, Luise.  Aboriginal Place Names: Naming and Renaming the Australian Landscape (Canberra: ANU E Press and Aboriginal History, Inc., 2009) Access:

Pickup G., Allan G., Bakerr V.R. "History, palaechannels and palaeofloods of the Finke River, central Australia.  Fluvial Geomorphology of Australia.  Warner, R.F., ed. (London: Academic Press, 1988), pp. 177-200.

Rose, Deborah Bird, and Hatley, James. "Tjilpa - Quoll - Native Cat - Dasyurus geoffroii - Dreaming - Vulnerable."   Blog originally published on the Extinction Studies Working Group Website in 2011. For an archived copy see:

Wells, A.T., Forman, D.J., Ranford L.C., Cook, P.J.  "Geology of the Amadeus Basin, Central Australia.  Bureau of Mineral Resources, Australia Bulletin (1988), p. 100. 


  1. Beautifully expressed. Your deep reading of the landscape is honest. Red dust is under your feet and the wind whispers a silent prayer of thank you.

  2. Such a deep and challenging essay, Jim! I especially love the way you ask about being-at-home for us settler-descended people, and link that process (of becoming, really) with destruction, and yet also with fidelity and love. Great photography too!