Delicious descriptions: Kim Mahood’s desert

Kim Mahood, Position doubtfulI 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.

Samphire Shrubland

Samphire landscape, Central Australia (By Mark Marathon, using CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

10 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Kim Mahood’s desert

  1. I came across this overlapping of systems just recently when I was categorising an Indigenous author of Kamilaroi ancestry. As best I can, I try to keep tabs on which state authors come from so that when I do a post about authors from a particular state, I can include them. But the Kamilaroi range from the Hunter Valley through to the Warrumbungle Mountains in the west and through Tamworth, Narrabri, Walgett, Moree, and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, to Nindigully in south west Queensland. Which state to use? It feels wrong to impose these colonial boundaries over the top of an ancient nation but it’s how our modern maps work…

    • Good example Lisa. You’re right about colonial boundaries. It has caused, and is still causing, so much strife around the world, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s best to avoid state and just use region like SE Australia, though some regions are probably hard d to describe.

  2. Oh the things that get left off of maps! We are very arrogant to assume that all the important information appears on them or even that something can be mapped. Love these descriptions. I especially like “The southern horizon ripples with dissolving light, like wind moving through invisible fields of grass.”

  3. A cousin from Seattle visited me recently in Tamworth. We drove out via Gunnedah and Boggabri and Narrabri to the Mt Kaputar NP and Sawn Rocks. We also went up from Moonbi on the New England Gully Road – to visit Wave Rock and examine some scar trees. When last at this point it was Gomeroi elder Len WATERS (named for his uncle – the first Australian Fighter Pilot in WWII of Indigenous background – a street in Canberra’s Ngunnawal named for him) who pointed out peaks across to the Liverpool Ranges – indicating lines of site and travel by his ancestors – coming down for periodic ceremony – from as far north as the Mt Isa region. Land features and the stars guiding their passage, according to Len – who still speaks language. Raising the issue of artificial “state” borders is absolutely important given the blinkered and territorial blindness it provokes. My cousin’s mother (she is my first cousin) lives in the rural district of Arbuckle – just 30 minutes or so by car outside Sacramento – where until her retirement – she was a Californian State Prosecutor – her mother my father’s older sister. Safe travels…

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