Jay Griffiths

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Wild: An Elemental Journey

Excerpts from Wild on Songlines and Freedom

"I used to think the wild did not have words, that it lay beyond the edge of logic and expression. With her journey and her struggle, Jay Griffiths proves me wrong.  She wanders, she wonders, she suffers, she survives.  Her words are intense, episodic, gripping, and sensual, somewhere between Edward Abbey and Jeanette Winterson-who knew there was such a place?  Wild is the first great nature writing of the 21st century.”
David Rothenberg , author of Why Birds Sing and Wild Ideas

“A book of staggering power, honesty and wit”
BBC Wildlife Magazine

“Remarkable. Griffiths tears out a stupendous style, volcanic yet soft like the sound of a river, cadenced as birdsong, in a book almost onomatopoeic in the use of language to match its view of the world. Her use of etymology to reach into the core of a cultural vision is unsurpassed. A book constructed, through intuitive, poetic associations. Griffiths takes on the Western conceptual lexicon, exposing the misapprehensions on which it is based…. The true wildness at the heart of the book is the author's own. There is a reslessness and a pain beneath every sentence which can fill one with a deep melancholy. But there is also a righteous fury, at the destruction of a world whose every fibre is – for this deeply sensitive writer – precious almost beyond understanding. The result is a paean, a threnody, a work of great sadness and great joy.
Toby Green, The Independent

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Songlines

Australia is renowned for its Songlines. Lines of music criss-cross the land making invisible paths which Aboriginal people can travel along. To me, the idea of the Songlines is one of the most exquisite concepts I've ever come across and arguably there have been versions of it around the world.

The songs tell of the ways the Ancestors took in the Dreamtime: here Caterpillar crawled round this rock, there Possum pissed by the creek. These paths are memorized in the form of songs which describe the land, providing a map in music so you can find your way for hundreds of miles. The line of the story will describe the lie of the land precisely, and people can even travel across country they've never seen, provided they know the song, for it will guide them like a map. Thus wild land is negotiated by song.

The Songlines are a reciprocal enchantment, the singer sings or chants the land, and is also enchanted by it in turn. Partly, this is a literal en-chantment because the land acts as a mnemonic, reminding the singer of the next part of the song. There is subtlety here: the Songlines not only tell of melody, map and land, and hence survival, but also of belonging, language, memory, nomadism, law, knowledge, medicine, meaning – and guidance for the heart as well as the feet.

Possibly the idea of Songlines is as deep within the human psyche as the impulse to nomadism itself. Our eyes are alive to paths on the land and we find them visually irresistible. Similarly with stories, which make paths in the mind to which all humans instinctively respond. All cultures have a long nomadic shadow; our feet were made for walking, our uprightness gave us height to see into the distance. New horizons for the eyes liberate the mind, and to be a nomad in the mind is still within our gift, to move and learn, to be a student always, to discover new lands and leave behind some rock of certainty. And whether it is literal nomadism or the curious, questioning nomadic mind, there is a depth of thinking behind them both: the enchantment of the Songlines, singing the path you take, learning the right song for the way.

In mass tourism, modernity has manufactured its own kind of nomadism in the movement of people from one place to another, identikit, place. The travels undertaken for tourism are an inverse opposite of Songlines. Whereas Songlines celebrate specificity – that exact rock which Caterpillar crawled around – tourism celebrates monoculture, wanting exactly the same burgers and the same beers on the same beach. Songlines can only be sung in one particular place. Tourism delights in universal pop songs, songs of no particular abode, transported on i-pod to Thailand or Kenya, melody applicable anywhere. Although tourists get everywhere (“like ants”) say Aboriginal Australians, they perversely get nowhere, as they shuttle from same to same, a journey without significance, a road without its own specific song.

Anthropologist Steven Feld describes the Songlines of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. “ Tok means ‘path', ‘road', or ‘gate', but as it is used in song, the sense is more that of ‘map.' The device refers to the way that a song, from start to finish, projects not merely a description of places, but a journey. The song is successful when listeners are totally suspended into a journeying mood, experiencing the passage of song and poetic time as the passage of a journey…”

West Papua is resonant with song. The country was invaded by Indonesia in the early sixties and since then there has been a genocide, probably the most under-reported genocide in the world. I went there to research a chapter of my book, and I spent weeks crossing part of the Highlands. The guides with me sang day and night, they sang “to the mountain,” they sang the paths across the hills, and they sang the stories of how people originally came to be there. They also improvised songs of that day, describing people falling over, funny remarks and good big fires. (“Our destination was very hard but we made it, over mountains and swamps, with the girls in grass skirts.”) Song in West Papua can be political. In 1978, the musician Arnold Ap formed a band called Mambesak, which played wildly popular songs of freedom. In 1983, Ap was seized by the Indonesian military, imprisoned without charge, taken to a beach and machine-gunned to death.

The Kogi people of Colombia also have a version of Songlines, subtle songs of the spirit world. Alan Ereira, maker of the stunning documentary film about the Kogi, writes: “The song leads along a path in ‘aluna' – the spiritual world – in the maze of memory and possibility to a point in the real world.”

For the Saami people of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the yoik was a kind of Songline – a way of singing the land which to an initiate could evoke a landscape or people, animals or moods. The song was part evocation and part intercession, for Saami people, believing as they traditionally did that nature had “soul”, would sing a yoik , asking mountain-passes or lake-ice to be kind to a traveller. But when the missionaries came, they said yoik was of the devil, and these good Christians killed people for it. Saami poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää writes: “Even an old man of more than eighty years of age was executed because he was irresponsible enough to yoik .”

In Australia, I met Jackie Margoungoun, who described a song he could follow from Doomadjee to Mataranka, a distance of about 385 miles, and also one he could follow from Katherine to Borraloola, and from Borraloola to the Queensland border. “Only three people left can follow that song,” he said. “The Church stopped the ceremonies so people couldn't practise them and they were forgotten. Four or five songs are gone now and no one can ever find them again.”

Some birds and mammals have their kind of Songline. The migratory marsh warbler, bird of passage, is a singer of passages of other birds' songs. With an exquisite capacity for mimicry, it learns and repeats the songs of birds whose lands it passes through. Thus in its song it tells the story of its journey, an avian Songline, where music makes the map of the bird's path. Whales navigate through sound, they express themselves in sound, they think with musical meaning and remember in song: it seems to me more likely than not that their maps are nothing less than Songlines which they can follow from the Arctic to the Galápagos Islands.

For Aboriginal Australians, Songlines are Law. “The Law is in the ground,” I was told. Both law and song, so different to the Western mind, provide order and harmony. The idea of a universal Law or Way of nature – the Dreaming for Aboriginal people, Wouncage for the Oglala Lakota, Dharma for Buddhists and Hindus – are all expressions of a profound law in nature, a way of being, and a way of thinking. The purpose of indigenous law throughout the world is essentially to ensure that the natural world remains the same. In contemporary Euro-American law, however, exterminating life on earth is legal. Genocide may be officially outlawed (though in West Papua, both Britain and the US condone it by supplying Indonesia with the weapons for it) but acts which destroy the very climate of the earth are not considered crimes at all. If Songlines are lines of invisible enchantment, the vapour trails of planes scar the sky in visible destructiveness.

For Aboriginal Australians, the Songlines, and the story they contain, illustrate morality, and thus they are like parables knitted into the land itself, telling people how they should act. There is something similar among the Western Apache: stories are frequently moral, detailing a wrongdoing and a comeuppance, and each story is tied very precisely to one place – a hill, for example – so whenever you look at that hill, you remember the story which took place there, and its moral. One young woman commented that the site of one story “stalked” her every day. Morality is permanent here because it is located in the land.

Tourism has an omnivorous immorality; always moving on to the next pristine beach, a new “unspoilt” tribe to be chewed up and spat out. Whereas Songlines are associated with belonging, language, tribal memory, law, knowledge and meaning, tourism is characterised by the opposite: a contrived unbelonging, visitors relentlessly unable to speak a word of the local language, a wilful ignorance of the significance of the places they visit. In order to foster its illusions of carefree and simplistic irresponsibility (sun, sea, sex,) tourism must discourage a true relationship to place; complex, profound, demanding. The current American Airlines in-flight magazine runs an article panting about reasons for tourists to visit West Papua. And – ooops – quite forgetting to mention the genocide. Papuans don't need tourists. They do need concerned individuals committed to true discovery, finding out and telling others about the vicious human rights abuses being carried out there.

The Amazon has its Songlines too, sung by shamans. Each plant, say shamans, has its own song, and to learn about and use that plant for healing you must learn its song. The songs come to you in dreams or in trances induced by certain drugs, shamans told me. The songs are a guide, a map; not a map of land but a map of knowledge. Joseph Conrad did the world's forests a terrible disfavour with his insistence on how they can confound the mind, and confuse comprehension. Indigenous people know how to “think” the forests, know that the paths can be songs, making a thread of light, a path of the mind. Each song may tell of a plant's relationship to other plants, and may distinguish between the uses of a stem or leaf or root. There is practical doctoring wisdom here but also psychological wisdom: you find your way and learn how to live unlost, not through the wild forest but within it. The Songlines harmonize people and environment.

I went to the Amazon suffering from deep depression. I went to see shamans who use ayahuasca, a strong hallucinogenic drug which shamans use to treat a wide variety of things including depression. (Ayahuasca is one of the plants which they say can “teach” them the songs and uses of different plants.) I felt the healing power of both the songs and la medicina , as they call ayahuasca, and, together, the experience was an unforgettable en-chantment. The shamans used chants and songs called icaros , an ethereal, wild music. Quiet, occasionally almost inaudible, they are sometimes whistled, sometimes voiced, music half-heard from a source unknown, where melody is more like scent, a sweet resin in the air from an unseen tree, wakeningly strange, dreamingly familiar, airs of music, soft as smoke, curling and rising in the air. A shaman in trance often draws on a reefer of pure tobacco and whistles out the smoke, so you can almost see the shape of the melody in the smoke he breathes. They say that the songs themselves can heal, consoling the mind and creating harmony in the psyche and in the body.

The icaros which the shaman sang were of his locale, the particular stream, particular hills and particular plants he knew. In singing them, he made his land literally en-chanted. The Kuna people of Panama similarly have songs which describe real places in the jungle and they also have “curing chants” which contain their most secret and most profound knowledge. But the younger generation are no longer learning the songs. They have little knowledge of the forests, so the chants are almost meaningless. And without the songs, the land in turn has little meaning. Wastelands are places where there are no Songlines, devastated places unpathed with song, unenchanted, the wastelands of missionary activity silencing earth wisdom, the devastated land whose meaning is destroyed by tourism and other extractive industries.

In wild land, by contrast, Songlines offer meaning not only to locale but also to mind, an inherent reminder that humanity's highest purpose is to be fluent in the streaming cadences of all our world's languages, making our earth more vivid and realizing it in song. For that is how the spirit deep within all life leaves the unforgeable signature of its wild authenticity, in the Songlines of this wild world.

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“Very rarely do you come across a book that makes you want to stand on the street corner with a megaphone and bully every passer by into reading it. But this is how I felt about Wild , really one of the most exciting books I've read for years. It's both a beautiful work of scholarship and a passionate polemic for more love and freedom and joy in today's grey, unsustainable and murderously bureaucratic world.”
Tom Hodgkinson
, author of How To Be Idle and How To Be Free

“An exuberant and erudite exploration of the meaning of wilderness and its place in our lives… Griffiths' love for words and her skill in using them, her easy familiarity with a host of poets, novelists, naturalists and anthropologists, her openness to new experiences and her willingness to reveal so much of herself, make this a fascinating journey.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Dazzling gift and fascination for language ... this is a hungry,brave, all-consuming book, jumping with life, littered with perceptions and understandings, written by a woman who has engaged deeply with her subject and addressed it with warmth and vigour.”
Adam Nicolson, The Spectator

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Freedom , extract from “Wild”

MERDEKA. ELEUTHERIA. SAOIRSE. AZAADI. AZADI. RANGWANG. WOLNOŠC. FREIHEIT. LIRI. SVOBODA. VRIJHEID. ÖZGÜRLÜK. VABADUS. LIBERTADEA. LA LIBERTAD. LA LIBERTÉ. LIBERTAS. LIBERTATE.

The very words for freedom make the air ring. Freedom is associated with air; the airscape is escape, free as the wind. Friluftsliv (literally free-air-life) is a Norwegian term which combines freedom with an exuberant suggestion of how this freedom is essential for vitality, for life.

The Me people of West Papua (also called the Kapauku) so value independence that they consider individual freedom to be essential to a person's life. Without it, they will die, which is why they do not have jails, or any practice of slavery. According to anthropologist Leopold Pospisil, they believe that “the essence of life is a free cooperation of the body and the soul. Any interference in this cooperation endangers the life of the individual. The soul (mind), when unable to control freely the actions of the body, becomes displeased, and tries to sever its relationship, thus ultimately causing death of the individual.”

The Me people live in the western Highlands, which are, like all mountains, profoundly associated with freedom in all its forms: air, wind, the flight of birds and the wings of mind, for thoughts have a quality of glide, up here, and the human mind needs mountains as a mirror for its flight. Joseph Beuys once said that a mountain “taken as inner psychology... represents a high pitch of consciousness.” One peak of Kilimanjaro is called Uhuru, meaning Freedom, and it suits them all, but perhaps nowhere in the world is there a more poignant meeting of mountains and freedom than in the West Papuan Highlands.

One tribal leader said to me: “Outsiders may intimidate us but we know we were born with freedom.” Another man commented: “Freedom is one of the rights from god. It's like love; nothing will stop it.” Ask about sweet potatoes and men will tell you about freedom, merdeka . Mention pigs and they will talk to you about independence. (And if you know anything about Papuans, you will know how dear to them is the wriggly squiggly piglet and the grunting sow.)

Merdeka is broadly defined by Papuans and its meanings include a kind of divine salvation and political independence; it would come like a flash of lightning and strike out as loudly as bells in the night, the chimes of freedom which Bob Dylan could have written with West Papua in mind: the storm at midnight which sets free the oppressed. I never saw this so clearly as the day I was taken to an OPM stronghold in the forest. OPM stands for Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the “Free Papua Movement,” the freedom fighters battling Indonesia's invasion of West Papua and the subsequent genocide of Papuans, a genocide diligently supported by British and American corporations and arms traders. (The Catholic churches can be strongly supportive of the Papuan struggle; not so the Protestant fundamentalist missionaries. The commander said bluntly that the missionaries supported the murderous Indonesian government which, in turn, supports the missionaries. I met dozens of Protestant fundamentalists in West Papua, and only one thought that the Papuans should be free in their own land.)

In West Papua, they say everyone is a member of the OPM: every man, woman and child, in their hearts. But I didn't know what the OPM soldiers would be like. Close to the compound, the Papuan flag, the Morning Star, was fluttering bravely in the breeze. Inside the compound, there was an atmosphere of purity and serenity: it was calm and ordered and the gentle, smiling chief was more a minister than a military leader. Far from visiting a gang of desperadoes, this was like being in church. The commander, poised and charismatic, prayed for money to buy weapons – bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire – because all they had were wooden bows and arrows with which to fight for freedom.

“You don't see many people my age,” said an older man at the stronghold, “because so many people my age have been killed.” He spoke of 1977, when the Indonesian military bombed many of the mountain villages in retaliation for their demand for independence. “Most of my friends were killed,” he said simply. “Our last promise to you is that we will fight for our freedom though we die for it.” Die they do. Papuans call their flag the “Freedom Flag” and the Indonesian military have frequently shot people for flying it. “People do not care if they get shot anymore,” said an OPM representative. “It seems like freedom is already in their hands.”

A man defiantly raises the flag and is shot dead. The scene has been played out hundreds of times – a symbol, the flag, for an abstraction, freedom, apparently so futile a gesture but actually more precious than life in the theatre of the human soul. Bow and arrow in his right hand and the Morning Star in his left, he stares out death down the barrel of a British gun. And he laughs at the bullet, free beyond fear of death. He juxtaposes freedom with oppression, the soaring star-bound gesture and the sullen bully who guns him down. The author of this gestural masterpiece leaves the theatre, contemptuously buying the ticket as he leaves, throwing his own dead body like loose change at the box office clerk.

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Mountains are the quintessential site of political freedom, home of freedom fighters, independence movements and political outlaws all over the world. Resisting the occupation, Papuans have fled to the hills for safety and though the Indonesians have burnt the forests and bombed the villages, they cannot control the Highlands. On north Sulawesi, freedom fighters against the Dutch fled to the volcano Gunung Klabat. The Kelimutu volcano on Flores, near East Timor, was adopted as a symbol of the East Timorese Independence movement. The island of Dominica is very mountainous and for this reason became a stronghold for indigenous people escaping the colonization which took place in all the surrounding islands. The Algerian war of liberation began in the mountain wilderness of the Aurès. In Afghanistan there is a Pashtun saying: “Be tame in the city and rebellious in the mountains.” In the late 1950s, young Cubans went to the Escambray mountains and were later joined by Fidel Castro's fighters; from there they fought the Batista dictatorship. The Pyrenees have long been a refuge for political and religious dissent: after 1968, hundreds of disillusioned French protesters went to the mountains. And, of course, the Zapatista freedom fighters operate from the mountains of Chiapas.

Romanticism understood well the relationship between mountains and freedom-fighters. Shelley, supporter of republican liberty, saw freedom in the mountains, the “chainless winds” in his poem “Mont Blanc”. Byron, watching the mountains at Marathon, dreamt that Greece might be free. (“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”)

Rebels, outcasts, outlaws and freedom fighters – and all those in sympathy with them – know that wild lands are a last stronghold for opposition: mountain wilderness is the objective correlative for all those who demand political freedom. In the mountains, we cannot be controlled or policed or pacified. So cry the rebel yell in all the mountains of the world, and suburbia, malleable clay to fascism, can go to hell.

But “freedom” has been stolen, turned into the F-word. The falsification of it is a huge geopolitical irony, a universal declaration of lies as the US, the land of the free which imprisons more of its own population than any other nation, imposes freedom – at gunpoint. So freedom, naturally the most aerial of words, is now a nasty, heavy term, a double-barrelled, over-loaded, collaterally-damaging shotgun of a word. The Me (Kapauku) people refuse to countenance practices of imprisonment, recognizing that freedom means life itself. In prison terminology, by contrast, “life means life .” How cruel a joke is that?

Politicians and abstract nouns don't mix. They shouldn't be allowed anywhere near them. They corrupt them, twist them, turn them inside out. When George Bush intones his abstract concepts (winning hearts and minds for the Pax Americana while the US has officially joined the list of oppressive regimes) he has his mouth on backwards and the label sticking out of his mind. When he speaks of freedom above all there is indeed an extraordinary rendition – of language. Language is one of the freest things there is. No dictionary can contain it, no academy can cage it. But now language is taken prisoner, the word “freedom” is stripped naked and dressed in an orange jump suit, gagged in a cell at Guantanamo Bay. A tortured word, a word maddened by abuse, a word made schizophrenic by lies, a word given to suicide attempts (“manipulative self-injurious behaviour” according to the prison management.) And a sign at the front of Guantanamo Bay reads “Honor Bound To Defend Freedom.” As if.

The demand for freedom is universal and political, but also intensely personal, and one which can require courage to follow. It can mean loneliness, penury, humiliation, for we live in a world where the caged hate the free. Raw freedom hurls you terror and wonder, writes its ruthless poems in your life. Freedom, uncathedralable, despises any orthodoxy, for its path sweeps lonely to the summit, no map, no guide, no god at your heels.

Do you have the courage for it? Do I? For its pyrotechnics and its unforgiving, for its gambling; the peak or crevasse? Ace or two? If you want to play safe, you should never have come up here, to the site of freedom for both political and social rebels, the freedom of the mad and manic and misunderstood, the misfits and artists, anarchists and poets.

Freedom is not the opposite of Necessity but itself an implacable, electric and sudden necessity: an apparent paradox but the only one which leaves the human spirit intact. There is no compromise. Freedom is not polite. It doesn't knock or telephone first. Its slams its hand down on your desk and says Dance – as the mad fiddler, his fingers bleeding on the strings, plays an elegy at the speed of a reckless waltz till the sky breaks down in tears.

Freedom is absolutist. “I so love freedom,” wrote Montaigne, “that if someone forbade me access to the remotest corner of the Indies I should feel myself a little hemmed in.” Modern, urban, work-oriented societies teach people that freedom is something you outgrow, like Huck Finn, rafting down the river, shining, fluent and free before he is dammed by adulthood. Our innate freedom is dulled and dimmed, deadened and demeaned by detail and deadline and caution and clocks. But roaring underneath all this, still, freedom growls in the dusk. Freedom is because life is, and to be most alive is to be most free.

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Wild is a song of delight, and a cry of warning, poetic, erudite and insistent… a restless, unstintingly generous performance… it carries the mark of true intellectual and spiritual passion”
Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent on Sunday

“A major book by a major writer…powerful and uncompromising… she writes like four kinds of gorgeous, so deep in love with the world that when the right word isn't there she simply births it… a majestic anthropology”
Bill McKibben, The Ecologist

  “Remarkable, impassioned meditation and world-roving travelogue, exhilarating, high-risk stuff, thrumming with unbridled erotic charge, learned and poetically pagan, a geographical and emotional journey of extraordinary range. Nobody can fail to be enriched by this book's wealth of observation and description, a memorable appeal to live for the now, and in the fullness of the senses.”
Jeremy Seal, Sunday Telegraph

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