Book Review – Songlines

When I was in Canberra recently, I went to what I feel must have been the prototypical Canberra bookshop. It was a cafe, and it was also a bookshop that seemed to specialise in books on topics that related to a current political theme. While waiting for my coffee, I spied this book, and since it seemed to build upon material I previously read about in The Biggest Estate on Earth or Dark Emu, I was keen to learn more. I wasn’t disappointed.

Songlines: The Power and Promise, co-written by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly, initially seemed to be an explanation of what the indigenous Australians call Songlines, i.e. the stories that follow a track across part of the Australian geography. It was this, but it was actually a lot more.

The book mentions that Songlines is a relatively new term, having been coined in 1987. However, and while there are other terms floating around, it seems to have recently become more accepted as the main word to use to refer to these geographically-linked stories from the indigenous Australian societies. This goes some way to explain why I never learned about them in school, but I hope students of today learn about them as they are fascinating!

The book goes further, and highlights how Songlines are the local example of practices from societies all over the world with a strong oral tradition and who don’t use written language for recording and sharing their laws, morals and facts about the world. It completely changed how I think about creative arts, as in such societies, the use of singing, painting, story telling and dancing are not a separate domain for entertainment but the key means for the society to pass on these laws, morals and facts through history. Songlines prove that this mechanism is sufficient to accurately pass on such information over a stretch of 10,000s years while still be flexible enough to adapt to changes and accumulate new knowledge. In a sense, what we call creative arts in Western Culture are a sort of vestigal organ from earlier knowledge systems. Mind blown.

One part of all this that may be familiar is the use of a memory palace or “method of loci”, where facts are given a longevity boost in memory by tying them to imagination about a physical place. For example, imagining walking through rooms of your house, where each of a series of facts is turned into a memorable image located in each room. In the songlines context, rather than rooms of a house, these are notable geological or astrological points of interest throughout a landscape. In addition, songs with lyrics are more memorable than raw facts, so the same journey represented in song will reinforce the memory palace. There are many more tools in the songlines toolkit that ensure facts are retained and can be easily passed along.

Within the book, there is also a push for the adoption of this mechanism alongside what we’d consider modern mechanisms for recording and sharing knowledge (such as books, TV and the Internet) to form what they call a “third archive” of human knowledge. Certainly, we seem to have lost value and respect for memorising facts given how easily they can be retrieved via digital devices, but this has probably created a vulnerability or fragility in our systems, as it is hard to now imagine life without these devices. In any case, this is the first of a series of books relating to Australia’s indigenous peoples, and if they are all this good, I’m looking forward to reading more.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

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