Sample G04 from Eugene Burdick, "The Invisible Aborigine" Harper's Magazine, 223:1336 (September, 1961), 70-72 A part of the XML version of the Brown Corpus2,074 words 299 (14.4%) quotesG04

Copyright 1961 by Eugene Burdick. Used by permission 0010-1690

Eugene Burdick, "The Invisible Aborigine" Harper's Magazine, 223:1336 (September, 1961), 70-72

Note: Australian words [0750, 0990, 1330, 1640]

Header auto-generated for TEI version

Suddenly , however , their posture changed and the game ended . They went as rigid as black statuary six figures , lean and tall and angular , went still . Their heads were in the air sniffing . They all swung at the same instant in the same direction . They saw it before I did , even with my binoculars . It was nothing more than a tiny distant rain squall , a dull gray sheet which reached from a layer of clouds to the earth . In the 360 degrees of horizon it obscured only a degree , no more . A white man would not have seen it . The aborigines fastened upon it with a concentration beyond pathos . Watching , they waited until the squall thickened and began to move in a long drifting slant across the dry burning land . At once the whole band set off at a lope . They were chasing a rain cloud .

They went after the squall as mercilessly as a wolf pack after an abandoned cow . I followed them in the jeep and now they did not care . The games were over , this was life . Occasionally , for no reason that I could see , they would suddenly alter the angle of their trot . Sometimes I guessed it was because the rain squall had changed direction . Sometimes it was to skirt a gulley . Their gait is impossible to convey in words . It has nothing of the proud stride of the trained runner about it , it is not a lope , it is not done with style or verve . It is the gait of the human who must run to live : arms dangling , legs barely swinging over the ground , head hung down and only occasionally swinging up to see the target , a loose motion that is just short of stumbling and yet is wonderfully graceful . It is a barely controlled skimming of the ground .

They ran for three hours . Finally , avoiding hummocks and seeking low ground , they intercepted the rain squall . For ten minutes they ran beneath the squall , raising their arms and , for the first time , shouting and capering . Then the wind died and the rain squall held steady . They were studying the ground . Suddenly one of them shouted , ran a few feet , bent forward and put his mouth to the ground . He had found a depression with rain water in it . He bent down , a black cranelike figure , and put his mouth to the ground .

With a lordly and generous gesture , the discoverer stood up and beckoned to the closest of his fellows . The other trotted over and swooped at the tiny puddle . In an instant he had sucked it dry .

The aborigine lives on the cruelest land I have ever seen . Which does not mean that it is ugly . Part of it is , of course . There are thousands of square miles of salt pan which are hideous . They are huge areas which have been swept by winds for so many centuries that there is no soil left , but only deep bare ridges fifty or sixty yards apart with ravines between them thirty or forty feet deep and the only thing that moves is a scuttling layer of sand . Such stretches have an inhuman moonlike quality . But much of the land which the aborigine wanders looks as if it should be hospitable . It is softened by the saltbush and the bluebush , has a peaceful quality , the hills roll softly .

The malignancy of such a landscape has been beautifully described by the Australian Charles Bean . He tells of three men who started out on a trip across a single paddock , a ten-by-ten-mile square owned by a sheep grazer . They went well-equipped with everything except knowledge of the `` outback '' country .

The countryside looked like a beautiful open park with gentle slopes and soft gray tree-clumps . Nothing appalling or horrible rushed upon these men . Only there happened -- nothing . There might have been a pool of cool water behind any of these tree-clumps : only -- there was not . It might have rained , any time ; ; only -- it did not . There might have been a fence or a house just over the next rise ; ; only -- there was not . They lay , with the birds hopping from branch to branch above them and the bright sky peeping down at them . No one came '' .

The white men died . And countless others like them have died . Even today range riders will come upon mummified bodies of men who attempted nothing more difficult than a twenty-mile hike and slowly lost direction , were tortured by the heat , driven mad by the constant and unfulfilled promise of the landscape , and who finally died .

The aborigine is not deceived ; ; he knows that the land is hard and pitiless . He knows that the economy of life in the `` outback '' is awful . There is no room for error or waste . Any organism that falters or misperceives the signals or weakens is done . I do not know if such a way of life can come to be a self-conscious challenge , but I suspect that it can . Perhaps this is what gives the aborigine his odd air of dignity .

The family at the boulder seeing an aborigine today is a difficult thing . Many of them have drifted into the cities and towns and seaports . Others are confined to vast reservations , and not only does the Australian government justifiably not wish them to be viewed as exhibits in a zoo , but on their reservations they are extremely fugitive , shunning camps , coming together only for corroborees at which their strange culture comes to its highest pitch -- which is very low indeed .

I persuaded an Australian friend who had lived `` outback '' for years to take me to see some aborigines living in the bush . It was a difficult and ambiguous kind of negotiation , even though the rancher was said to be expert in his knowledge of the aborigines and their language . Finally , however , the arrangements were made and we drove out into the bush in a Land Rover . We followed the asphalt road for a few miles and then swung off onto a smaller road which was nothing more than two tire marks on the earth . The rancher went a mile down this road and then , when he reached a big red boulder , swung off the road . At once he started to glance toward the instrument panel . It took me a moment to realize what was odd about that panel : there was a gimbaled compass welded to it , which rocked gently back and forth as the Land Rover bounced about . The rancher was navigating his way across the flatland .

`` Do you always navigate like this '' ? ? I asked .

`` Damned right '' , he said . `` Once I get out on the flat I do . Some chaps that know an area well can make their way by landmarks , a tree here , a wash here , a boulder there . But if you don't know the place like the palm of your hand , you'd better use a compass and the speedometer . Two miles northeast , then five miles southwest that sort of thing . Very simple '' .

He was right . The landscape kept repeating itself . I would try to memorize landmarks and saw in a half-hour that it was hopeless . Finally we approached the bivouac of the aborigines . They were camped beside a large column-shaped boulder : a man , his lubra , and two children . The sun was not yet high and all of them were in the small area of shade cast by the boulder .

There was also a dog , a dingo dog . Its ribs showed , it was a yellow nondescript color , it suffered from a variety of sores , hair had scabbed off its body in patches . It lay with its head on its paws and only its eyes moving , watching us carefully . It struck me as a very bright and very malnourished dog . No one patted the dog . It was not a pet . It was a worker .

`` The buggers love shade '' , the rancher said . `` I suppose because it saves them some loss of body water . They'll move around that rock all day , following the shade . During the hottest part of the day , of course , the sun comes straight down and there isn't any shade '' .

We drove close to the boulder , stopped the Land Rover , and walked over toward the family .

The man was leaning against the rock . He gazed away from us as we approached . He was over six feet tall and very thin . His legs were narrow and very long . Every bone and muscle in his body showed , but he did not give the appearance of starving . He had long black hair and a wispy beard . The ridges over his eyes were huge and his eyelids were half shut . There was something about his face that disturbed me and it took several seconds to realize what . It was not merely that flies were crawling over his face but his narrowed eyelids did not blink when the flies crawled into his eye sockets . A fly would crawl down the bulging forehead , into the socket of the eye , walk along the man's lashes and across the wet surface of the eyeball , and the eye did not blink . The Australian and I both were wearing insect repellent and were not badly bothered by insects , but my eyes watered as we stood watching the aborigine .

I turned to look at the lubra . She remained squatting on her heels all the time we were there ; ; like the man , she was entirely naked . Her long thin arms moved in a slow rhythmical gesture over the family possessions which were placed in front of her . There were two rubbing sticks for making fire , two stones shaped roughly like knives , a woven-root container which held a few pounds of dried worms and the dead body of some rodent . There was also a long wooden spear and a woomera , a spear-throwing device which gives the spear an enormous velocity and high accuracy . There was also a boomerang , elaborately carved . Everything was burnished with sweat and grease so that all of the objects seemed to have been carved from the same material and to be ageless .

The two children , both boys , wandered around the Australian and me for a few moments and then returned to their work . They squatted on their heels with their heads bent far forward , their eyes only a few inches from the ground . They had located the runway of a colony of ants and as the ants came out of the ground , the boys picked them up , one at a time , and pinched them dead . The tiny bodies , dropped onto a dry leaf , made a pile as big as a small apple .

The odor here was more powerful than that which surrounded the town aborigines . The smell at first was more surprising than unpleasant . It was also subtly familiar , for it was the odor of the human body , but multiplied innumerable times because of the fact that the aborigines never bathed . One's impulse is to say that the smell was a stink and unpleasant . But that is a cliche and a dishonest one . The smell is sexual , but so powerfully so that a civilized nose must deny it .

Their skin was covered with a thin coating of sweat and dirt which had almost the consistency of a second skin . They roll at night in ashes to keep warm and their second skin has a light dusty cast to it . In spots such as the elbows and knees the second skin is worn off and I realized the aborigines were much darker than they appeared ; ; as if the coating of sweat , dirt , and ashes were a cosmetic . The boys had beautiful dark eyes and unlike their father they brushed constantly at the flies and blinked their eyes .

`` That smell is something , eh , mate '' ? ? The Australian asked . `` They swear that every person smells different and every family smells different from every other . At the corroborees , when they get to dancing and sweating , you'll see them rubbing up against a man who's supposed to have a specially good smell . Idje , here '' , and he nodded at the man , `` is said to have great odor . The stink is all the same to me , but I really think they can make one another out blindfolded '' .

`` Here , Idje , you fella like tabac '' ? ? He said sharply . Idje still stared over our shoulders at the horizon . The Australian stopped trying to talk a pidgin I could understand , and spoke strange words from deep in his chest .