Look down, look down

Threaded through the yarns in Bill Bryson's Down Under is a quite earnest consideration of Aboriginal Australia: its amazing pre-history, troubling history, and present predicament. As an outsider, what he noticed was the invisibility of Aboriginal people, compounded by the tendency of white Australia not to look. Sitting in a cafe in Alice Springs, he felt as though he were watching two different countries overlaid, each unconscious of the other.  Bobbi Sykes,  who died last November, captured this assumed unconsciousness simply: “Moving along Main St. / Whitesville / Digging all them white face / (Staring, or ‘not staring’).” “Not staring” (I've done it) is both cause and symptom.  Looking isn't everything, but it's a start. The meeting of gazes begins to look like equality.

In the 1960s, Oodgeroo's stirring “Song of Hope” began “Look up, my people.” Contemporary poet Elizabeth Hodgson, who won the David Unaipon Award for her 2008 collection Skin Painting, calls for some reciprocity. Her poem cries: “Look down, look down,” urging us to see another country; to see this one the way someone else does and has. 

When you walk this land do you notice
the tracks of my people?

Look down, look down
see the footprints criss-crossing your path.
Look down past the concrete and bitumen
gardens choking with imported flora.

Look down, look down
See where you plant your feet.
Can you fill the footprints of the past?
When you cross a river, a mountain range,
do you know you've walked into another country?