the bush comes alive
with dreamtime stories
. . . . . . . Madhuri Pillai
Haiku selection and comments by Nathan Sidney
Growing up as a child I was lucky enough to be exposed to some of the Dreamtime stories of Australia’s first people. I would go so far to say that in 2017 there is a better knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal culture amongst the non-indigenous population than there has been in the past, and school library collections of indigenous folklore probably play a large part in this awareness as they did for me. But I think it’s fair to say that these stories are not as well known in Australia as they should be. This knowledge adds to my interpretation of a haiku that I feel can be sad and frightening or hopeful and joyous.
The first line starts with a thrill, the experience of the wind at night which could be a chilling winter gust or a cooling evening breeze on a summer night, either way it has a palpable presence, a living thing in its own right. This is an experience which will be familiar to pretty much all our readers and produces a feeling of intimacy with the haiku. And then the bush comes alive. Eerie and wonderful at once. We hear the leaves and branches whispering to us, just on the edge of comprehension. The fact that the “bush” comes alive with “dreamtime” stories locates the action of this poem very much within an Australian context, and this physical location is very important for our understanding of the poem.
The sadness this poem elicits in me comes from a recognition of the dangers that the first people faced through the British colonisation of Australia, a very real threat that it could have been only the wind left to tell these Dreamtime stories. In this sense we must face up to years of violence, neglect and oppression that the first people have had to endure while keeping their culture alive. The fear I can sense comes from the nature of the Dreamtime spirits, many of whom were, at the very least mischievous and in some cases outright dangerous. In this reading the bush is a place of foreboding, somewhere to be avoided, especially in the dark. It is a cold and bitter wind blowing on this moonless night.
But my own experience of the bush and of Dreamtime stories informs a different reading of this poem. This is a world where we are not frightened of the spirits and the stories that the wind and the bush are telling us, stories of life and living, stories that show us how we fit in this place and remind us of our obligations to the earth and all its creatures. A world where magic is still possible and nature is imbued with a powerful and generous spirit. This spirit is speaking to us through the wind, the shared breath of creatures and plants, mountains and oceans, reminding us to live and to honor all life. We are asked to carry the stories on through our own actions and through the raising of our children. There is great joy and deep belonging for the person who can see the Dreamtime happening right now, and it is the job of the artist to point out the creation that is taking place right in front of us. Madhuri’s poem does just that.
First published: The Heron’s Nest, Volume XIX, Number 1: March 2017