The Edge of Memory
They say you should start as you wish to finish. So on the first day of the new year, I thought I would post a book review - hoping that I will continue to read throughout the year so as to continue to post reviews. In truth, I splurged on myself at the pre-Christmas shopping events - books and coffee are my downfalls. I asked for suggestions, got some great titles by some scholars whom I hold in high regard, and I have spent a pleasant Christmas working my way through the pile.
This title comes from an interview I heard on Richard Fidler’s Conversations program on ABC radio. I have a long drive to and from work each day and this is one of the podcasts that keeps me company (not a paid advertisement but strongly recommend you give it a listen). The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn grabbed my attention because the author has collected stories that are millenia old and tell of the changing environment, encroaching oceans and the drowning of loved ones. In the interview with Richard, he asked the question: what else have we forgotten to remember? I had to read this book.
Professor Nunn is an Associate Director of the Sustainability Research Center at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He has extensive experience in oceanic geoscience, spent 25 years in the South Pacific and is a climate change researcher. All of this is put to great use in his book and I learned as much about oceanic history as I did about indigenous songlines and dreamtime. The first part of the book looked at the importance of oral traditions. Nunn comments:
‘…non-literate cultures utilised oral traditions for a number of practical purposes, ranging from the sustainable use of particular resources to wider instruction in lore for survival. Many oral traditions also focus on history, begging the question as to why societies primarily concerned with surviving needed to know about this, apparently irrelevant, topic. Perhaps it was for the same reason we today learn history.’
He then details a significant number of stories from a range of indigenous Australian tribes regarding the changing shorelines around the Australian continent. He compared these stories with oceanographic evidence to show that the millenia old stories do in fact match up with the science. How and why were such stories passed down? In some cases, for 7000 years? Were these stories so important to the history of the people that they were not forgotten? This is surely the power of oral tradition and rather than dismiss the stories as simply that, we need to look at the evidence. The information about changing shorelines was significantly important to the survival of the people and this is why the story remains - it is the history of the people and the land.
Nunn spends a considerable amount of time outlining the oceanographic evidence. I learned that the coastline of Australia was 60 m lower than today and that the stories tell of the encroaching ocean, the creation of new islands, the disappearance of land bridges and fertile farming land and the creation of the Great Barrier Reef. These stories also tell of terrible drownings, loss of life, punishment by the gods and the consequences of breaking lore. The evidence tells the same story of changing coastlines, rising seas and warner weather. His point is, the evidence matches the stories and this is a significant finding. Nunn comments:
‘…we cannot readily measure the cognitive abilities of non-literate people in a non-literate world by our own - the abilities of literate people inhabiting a literate world. Naturally, we would be inclined to undervalue those of our non-literate forebears. We see such bias…which ha[s] led to an orthodoxy that memories communicated only orally mostly endure only a few hundred years. But what if we could prove that they could last far, far longer? That would stir things up.’
Clearly, the stories have remained and the people survived their changing environment to pass on the lore to protect future generations.
In the last part of the book, Nunn looks at stories from around the world that also detail changing coastlines and environments. He spends some time discussing the mythical Avalon. He looks at volcano stories from the South Pacific as these stories often tell of the destruction of or creation of new islands. He also looks at the history of bushfire in Australia and how authorities are starting to look at lore as a way to prevent mass destruction each summer.
While a large part of the book focuses on Australia, the fact that Nunn looks around the world for compassion makes this an exceptionally grant read.
Go forth and read it!