Unspoiled Australia This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

September 12, 2010
Dust picked up in the wake as our train of cars jumped along the dirt roads heading to the field-study site two miles from the outstation of Sugarbag-Dreaming in the Northern Territory of Australia. With a sudden jolt, the car tipped forward as the undercarriage lowered into the path of a shallow river. As we lurched forward, the tires ground against the stream bed and over rocks.

I looked out the window at groups of sun-baked children, bare skinned with wild black hair, playing in the rushing stream, ducking and weaving through generations of laughing women laundering clothes in the shallow pools.

With each day my knowledge of the area increased; the names of the tall eucalyptus forests and spinifex grasses of the low-lying valleys were now more prevalent in my mind than those of the cedar and yellow pines in the forests outside my bedroom window in Virginia.

From the top of the sandstone escarpment above our camp, I could look out onto the land. I breathed in exhilaration – the same feeling I experienced at the first hike of Fall up the smiling creases of the Blue Ridge Mountains to look out onto the patchworked expanse of the Shenandoah Valley – the freedom of pure nature and the scent of change with the oncoming autumnal season. The flat plateau spread to the horizon, an ancient, eroded landscape cut through by rivers.

This was the first time I had seen land that had no sign of human life, no hint of an industrial heartbeat; here one could flatline into remoteness. Yet something greater rose up, the beating of the land itself, the true rumblings of a heartbeat from the center of the untouched land. Inhaling the isolated surroundings, I felt release. This is what it must have been like for the first people to reach the Blue Ridge Mountains of ­Virginia.

Tramping through the Australian forest with the group’s botanist and fire rangers, laying out the plots for field sampling, we’d sift through the leaves and underbrush, separating by species and distinction, ­applying modern science to understand this ancient ecosystem. Along the way we acquired knowledge of the medicinal properties of ironwood and the endemic species of the area from a local ranger, who explained through gestures and broken English the process of boiling down green ants to make a paste for the healing of the body and ironwood tea for strength. These holistic practices were passed down to her from her mother and her mother before her. Traditions and scientific knowledge blended in my mind, forming a fond connection to the land and the people.

I befriended the village boys, who took me around the outlying areas of the campsite to the rock paintings of their ancestors. Lying on our backs under the overhanging rock face, they told me stories of these animals and drawings; their small hands tracing outlines as they explained the significance of the stories – the dream-walking of their tribes and the great rainbow snake. Animals that are now centuries extinct are alive still in these rock paintings and legends, handed down generation to generation.

Running ahead in excitement of their knowledge and willingness to share, they cried out, “Ay Christina Brown,” my name now fused with that of the American pop artist, our two cultures becoming interwoven in a strange merging of humanity. Having grown up in the township, they were comfortable rediscovering their own aboriginal heritage, now blended with the American pop culture of youth today; clashing in a mix of Volcom logos and traditional body paint, these two distant cultures blazoned the backs of these wild children.

Hip to hip with the aboriginal women, peeling and chopping the rough flesh of onions, I helped prepare dinner. As their unabashed laughter pierced the noises of the firepit at our backs, where fresh kangaroo meat cooked, we exchanged stories of our lives. One of the older women in the group, her voice rising and falling in a mix of broken English and aboriginal language, revealed she was part of the Stolen Generation, the young aboriginals who had been taken from their families in the 1940s by the government. These children were kept in townships and forced to assimilate into white culture and religion. Family ties were cut, and cultural identities deliberately erased, the heartbeat of the land slowly fading.

Their culture evolved with the landscape. These people, so free of material possessions – even pottery – lived on and off the land, hunted for their food, and led a subsistence life. This is a culture starkly different yet not alien from my own. The thread of humanity runs between people in its purest form, drawing us together in communion. Far from Virginia, this freedom is unlike anything I had experienced – exhilarating in its age-old simplicity.

The field work ended in late July, the end of the early dry season. Soon the humidity would climb, hanging the parched and burnt land into a winter of rain and vibrant life. The land I had come to know as sun-scorched dust would flood with verdant life as water inundated the streams, awakening the landscape with its effervescent embrace. This land of dream-walking, so different from what I know, yet holding the intrinsic value of humanity and kindness that spans civilizations and society, forming a bond between lives and worlds, connecting me to this land and these people.

As I boarded the helicopter to fly out, I took with me images of an ancient landscape and a resilient
and remarkable people – souvenirs that cannot be ­purchased.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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