TUMBY BAY - When an old man or woman in the village says, “I remember when ….”, and starts to hum a traditional song, many young Papua New Guineans switch off and start to play with their iPhones. Little do they realise what they are missing.
I arrived in Australia in 1956 as an eight year old child of migrant parents. I grew up in Elizabeth, the town where the last Australian built car rolled off the production line last Friday.
Elizabeth in those early years was a great place to live. It was an entirely new and modern town full to the brim with optimism for the future.
Nowadays it is a refuge and dumping ground for low socio-economic families.
This contrast between then and now prompted me to start putting together a memoir, Midnight Blue, of those early years and the way Elizabeth shaped my life.
This involved dredging up long forgotten memories, both my own and those of my family and friends.
During that process I learned how deeply memories can be buried in the mind and, importantly, how they can be revived. I especially learned the value of memory prompts or markers in that process.
These markers can be both physical and mental.
From my work with elders in Papua New Guinea and Aboriginal elders in Australia I know the value of these markers in accessing memory and the accompanying knowledge.
Here’s an example.
When I was living in Hervey Bay in Queensland, the local Butchulla people would say to me, “The mullet will be running soon, we should go across to Moon Point ready for them.”
When I asked how they knew this, they would say, “The native pine are nearly ready to flower, the mullet always come when the native pine flowers.”
“But how do you know the native pine are ready to flower?”
They’d look at me as if I was dumb and reply, “The stars are telling us; that star in the east that’s just become visible means the pine trees will soon flower.”
And sure enough, the native pine would flower and people at Moon Point on Fraser Island would catch heaps of mullet.
Those were physical markers. Mental markers are a bit different.
We in the west have long lost the ability to use them because we write things down and don’t need them.
In non-literate societies it is the traditional songs, stories and dance that provide the markers that stimulate the memory and uncover the knowledge buried there.
And that knowledge, like that accessed by my Butchulla friends by observing the stars and plants, can be immense.
It is also an untapped source of great value. Some of the ideas and knowledge buried in the minds of non-literate people have not yet been uncovered or have not even occurred to modern literate people.
This is why it is so important to preserve these markers, both physical and mental, and the objects, songs, stories and dances. Otherwise we risk losing a source of knowledge.
In my own case hardly any of the memories I wanted to explore had been written and I had to go looking for the markers instead.
These came in all sorts of obscure ways, an old penknife found in a drawer or an ancient envelope tucked inside a book. Once discovered these led to other long forgotten memories buried deep in the recesses of my mind.
In Papua New Guinea, as in Australia, non-literate markers are being rapidly lost, both in the passing of individuals whose minds, like unaccessed hard drives, still house vast amounts of knowledge and in the physical markers, like the carvings removed from the lintel of parliament house, that show the way to where this knowledge and wisdom lies.
Next time that lapun in the village starts to hum a traditional tune it might be wise to sit and listen.