I wanted to use this Descriptions series to share a couple of Mahood’s gorgeous descriptions from her memoir, Position doubtful, which I reviewed recently, but I’ve decided to share one about maps and relationships (and you’ll probably see why), and a description.
From a mapping expedition:
The shortcomings of my prototype map soon become evident. The first lesson in the overlapping of knowledge systems is that Aboriginal knowledge doesn’t confine itself to the square dimensions of the canvas. Traditional jurisdictions extend to Well 50 in the west and to Jalyuwarn in the south. The ancestral dingoes who created the lake came down from the north and Kiki, the falling star, fell from the sky in the east. All these places and events are off the map.
– Puttem, I am told. You can fixem up later.
I puttem, and the edges of the canvas became congested with names that belong to the country outside the square.
She goes on to describe the process of capturing stories and knowledge, how “each site has its attendant stories – dreaming stories and traditional ways of living, accounts of the station days and mission days and first-contact encounters.” So fascinating – but these maps can be fraught with risk too.
From a trip to Lake Ruth, 2008:
… The anthills on the plain are small and crenelated, like urban skylines. Ahead of us the horizon feels unstable, as if we are approaching an edge of some kind. The sandy soil becomes littered with limestone pebbles, and the anthills morph into the massive conical forms of cathedral mounds. Abruptly, the salt lake is before us, a negative space boundaried to the south by another unstable horizon. …
Between the salt lake and the limestone ridge where we have halted is a low red dune, an arc of sand created by wind and waves when the ephemeral lakes were substantial bodies of water. Stunted ti-tree grows along the dune, and red and gold samphire spreads out onto the salt crust, which is buckled and crisp. The southern horizon ripples with dissolving light, like wind moving through invisible fields of grass.
These descriptions of the desert are so vivid, so true. They show that Mahood is not just a mapmaker and artist, but a writer too.