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Something I Just Learned from the Australian Aborigines

November 13, 2018

Tags: order, food, Aborigines, aging, Amazon, Australia, Australian celery, ballads, bush medicine, China, clams, coast, envy, desert, emu, environment, First Nation, Flights, forest, Freedom of Speech, global warming, Gmail, Google, greed, grubs, immigration, kangaroo, Kardashians, knowledge, land, lizard, lobsters, Maine, midden, mussels, Native Americans, Nobel Prize, Noongar medicine, Perth, philosophy, place, Polish, revisitings, roots, seasonal, Shanghai, sightseeing, Something I Just Learned from the Australian Aborigines, song, spirit location, spirit of place, strength, summer, time, Tokarczuk – Olga (1962-), totem, totem spot, travel, tribe, Twitter, USA, Western Australia, war, winter

Waiting for my transit airplane - already pretty stinky after traveling now for 24 hours, and not having farther advanced yet than from Perth to Shanghai - I find out that China does not allow access to Gmail, Amazon, Twitter or Google – so much for Freedom of Speech . I can as well use this time to write about things I learned in Western Australia recently. I learned about Noongar medicine, from the Aborigines in the South West – bush medicine, that is.

The Aborigines are First Nation of Australia, just like our Natives in the Americas. The Aborigines believe that each person has a totem that is also the place where one belongs to, the spirit of that place, and the linchpin, so to speak, of your life. You see, the place from where you came, and where your soul is bound up, cannot be changed.

That is some heavy stuff for somebody who, at age forty, left everything behind in Germany, and immigrated to the USA. But it is an interesting idea – one with many consequences.

For instance, Aborigines are not interested in waging war, because you can only inhabit your own totem land, never the one of somebody else. His land will never be your land. So there’s no use for war. Nor for greed and envy, it seems. If you always live smack in the middle of the life that belongs to you – and only you – you are always home. You are also always at the most interesting, most fulfilled spot of your life. You wouldn’t have use for the Kardashians …

Traveling – like I am doing now – has a different meaning under this aspect. Aborigines travel across the land according to changing food supplies throughout the seasons. Like Native Americans went from their winter dwellings in the forest to the coast in summer, to gorge on mussels and clams and lobsters – we still have an unexcavated midden near out Maine cabin. The Aborigines had an even harder life, roaming the arid regions of Western, North and middle Australia. They needed to know their seasonal foodstuff well – lizards and grubs and roots mostly, occasionally a kangaroo or an emu. All food is shared. I tried a piece of Australian celery last week. Very tasty. Seasonal is the keyword here. Aborigines don’t do sightseeing; they revisit their spirit location again and again. Because from there, strength and knowledge emanates.

Place is important with such a concept; time is not. The seasons are revisitings. Life is a string of revisitings. Aging is not a problem. Any time you revisit your totem spot, you gain more knowledge, and – like the food – you share your knowledge with your tribe. The knowledge is handed down mostly as songs – long ballads, with repetitive lines. And the song is your totem, too.

It is fascinating that I come to this Aboriginal knowledge just when I am also reading Flights, by the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. I have been told she might win a Nobel – she certainly has written here a profound account of our restless, traveling lives.

Not to hammer in the moral of this Aboriginal philosophy too much – you can do that for yourself. But I have found myself contemplating this new thought. New for me, of course. Very old for the Aborigines. So old that people estimate they have lived that same kind of life for at least 50,000 years. Without destroying their environment in the process. Compare this to our man-made global warming. (more…)

The Lowly Bunchberries

August 28, 2011

Tags: food, berries, blackberry, blueberry, bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, famine, fat, August, meat, Native Americans, pemmican, protein, The Lowly Bunchberries, traveling

Bunchberries are the impossibly red fruit of a low-growing dogwood variety, Cornus canadensis (for all practical purposes, these name should suffice - although there exist slightly different species with different names). They are of such a screaming red that the non-initiated certainly take them for poisonous. They are not!

In August, bunchberries ripen in the woods of Maine, and their beauty can't be overlooked; I always think they are sent from Heaven. They mix well and taste good with any other berry. Yesterday, we were berrying along a path deliciously flanked by branches laden with heavily with blackberries, and we had blackberries plus bunchberries "full" - so full that we decided to skip dinner altogether.

The blackberries'tart sweetness is well-known, they are very fruity, whereas bunchberries seem disappointing on first try. That is, if you try them alone. They are mealy and unassuming. But mix them in with blackberries or blueberries - and you don't consider them bland anymore: they shine. Their red color dazzles among the blue-black, and their taste and crunchiness are unsurpassed and satisfying.

The Native Americans used bunchberries to stretch their berry harvests and used them in pemmican, a mixture of berries, fat and dried meats (for protein) - a food that kept well, and was used for traveling and famine.

But bunchberry is more than a second-rate "ersatz" berry. It is considered an ant-cancer food (as are most plants that aren't poisonous, it seems). Once you have had the mix, you don't want to eat your blackberries without the bright red bunchberries ...

The Egg and I - Revisited

February 9, 2011

Tags: order, antibiotics, Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty MacDonald (1908-1958), books, chicken farm, Chopin - Frederic (1810-1849), consumption, Great Depression, INH, isoniazid, Kneipp - Sebastian, MacDonald - Betty, Modigliani - Amedeo, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Native Americans, Onions in the Stew, Gauguin - Paul, sanatorium, Sebastian Kneipp - Water Doctor, Sterne Laurence, Stevenson - Robert Louis, Stravinsky - Igor, The Egg and I, The Egg and I - Revisited, The Plague and I, t.b., Thomas - Dylan, tubercle bacilli, tuberculosis, Wikipedia, Wolfe - Thomas

In Vermont, at our friends house, I stumbled upon an old book that had been big in the fifties – I saw my mother read it: “The Egg and I.” My mother usually was not a reader (she also was unhappy that she had given birth to this little bookish, red-haired girl that could neither dance nor sing). Our friends generously send the book home with me as a present. And what I found is that her books have aged gracefully; I am still laughing out loud. “The Egg and I” tells how Betty MacDonald as a child bride follows her taciturn husband to the Waof no running water, neighbors miles away, cooking, baking, cleaning, washing without modern amenities – and the dreadful chore of feeding and watering the chicks every three hours around the clock, all the while bears and cougars lurking behind in the woods. The book was a huge success. Because he describes her utter loneliness with a wonderful humor. No self-pity there (or let’s call it: hilariously disguised self-pity). By the next book “Anybody Can Do Anything,” Betty has left her chicken-farmer husband, predictably, and returns to her fun-loving but poor family: a doting mother, three sisters and a brother. This happens during the Great Depression, and they make do. They sing and scrimp and suffer, Betty as a working girl in an office – and all those pains make another sidesplitting novel. Presently, I am reading “The Plague and I,” her third novel, about the time she is diagnosed with tuberculosis – she calls it t.b. - and spends a year in a sanatorium. Hardship and scrimping have made her sick – don’t forget, this was the time before antibiotics, and many people were coughing and hacking and spreading deadly tubercle bacilli. Only in the fifties, the first tuberculocidal (meaning: able to kill tubercle bacilli) drug arrived: INH or isoniazid. Before, they had streptomycin which could not kill the bacilli, but at least helped to wall off the disease. I remember getting twice daily a HUGE syringe full of that stuff in one of my buttocks, until I could not lie on my sides any longer. Many children and adults still died, especially in Europe after World War II, when food was scarce. Out of this gruesome material Betty MacDonald shapes another highly amusing novel. Nowadays, tuberculosis is rare> But at that time, it was a big threat.

The year I spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium as a young girl, and my experiences of the disease, went into the Nora character in “Sebastian Kneipp, Water Doctor.” In the nineteenth century, when Kneipp lived (1821 to 1897), they called the disease consumption. The list of writers, artists, composers who died of consumption seems endless: Laurence Sterne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, Frederic Chopin, Igor Stravinsky were among them.

Betty MacDonalds last novel “Onions in the Stew” shows her finally having reached some normalcy: a husband, a house, and not any longer the constant struggle for survival. Perhaps for that reason I don’t find it all that interesting – but she milks the rainy weather of the northern West Coast for all the laughs she can get out of them.

Critics have argued with her description of Native Americans in the book – and I cringed some, too. She seemed unrepentant and said: ”Drunk and dirty is drunk and dirty.” Yet in “The Plague and I” she describes lovingly Oriental and black characters – a making-good of sorts, it seems to me.

Wikipedia shows Betty MacDonald on its long list of tuberculosis victims, but most sources report that this mirthful writer died of cancer – at age 49. Nobody got as much fun out of hardship as she did. And did you know that she is also the author of the "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" children's series?
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Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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