Edited by Hilary McPhee and Catherine McInnis
[…] For a time the Southern Cross adopted the gleam of bullion, and caught the fever that accompanies the search for paydirt. As if the association with the Eureka gold diggers wasn’t sufficient, a Western Australian town founded on a gold rush was named Southern Cross and, in what passes for poetry in surveying, the town’s streets were named after stars.
This gold-tinged constellation became all that the Northern Hemisphere hadn’t been for those fortune seekers: the spirit of the fair go, a sloughing off of the past, a brushing together of the hands before stepping off the boat a pastless person. Beneath new stars anything was possible. But in throwing out the net and hauling in this constellation, those symbol seekers put their past onto it: You’re not visible back there, and so, to us, you represent this place here. Of course, the constellation wasn’t a blank slate awaiting inscriptions of meaning any more than those people were, or the land that they were occupying was.
The Southern Cross, in cycling the sky, sings ancient melodies to the land. Indigenous elder and Ngarinyin Law man David Mowaljarlai has explained that ‘everything under creation is represented in the soil and in the stars’. There is a doubling; everything up there is reflected down here, not just the stars in the water but also the patterns and movements of the constellations in the cycles of the land.
One of the Australian peoples who knew this was the Boorong, and there is a written record of their attempts to impart their star–land knowledge. One hundred and fifty years ago, in north-western Victoria, they observed a pale, inappropriately clad stranger clearing the mallee scrub, erecting fences and running sheep. They invited him to sit by their campfire and, over time, told him something of their complex astronomy.
[…] Perhaps the Boorong interpreted that newcomer’s readiness to sit by the campfire and listen to the lessons in the stars as a willingness to take up some of the practices that would keep the land in robust health. If so, he and those who followed were not good students. The mallee has been cleared ferociously, which has caused the salt laid down by an ancient sea to be propelled ever closer to the surface and the malleefowl to become vulnerable. But the Boorong did have an effect on the newcomer that is visible from this distance in time: at first, he named his station after the village of his birth. Later, though, he renamed it Tyrrell Downs—Sky Downs, after what the Boorong called the nearby lake. At night the lake looks as if the sky and all its stars have toppled into it.
Read the rest of this essay online at Meanjin.