You yourself shall keep the key of it

There are times when I wonder if my father straddled two worlds. He was a learned man, and his knowledge was no doubt hard-earned through books and teachers, but I discovered as a child that there was more to his knowledge than what he had stored in his head.

“Answers are lying around everywhere, G,” he would tell me with a smile, “You just have to find the right questions.” And then, when I would assume my usual puzzled look, he would explain that answers were like locks that could only be opened by the right keys. It was the questions you had to look for, not the answers.

It all made sense in a way, but my teachers didn’t see it that way. “First you have to start with a question, G,” they would say, “Then you search for the answer…” And they would look at me as if I was a little slow; maybe I was, but my father wasn’t. I began to think there might be two types of knowledge, though: one was stored inside the head, but the other was out there in the world. I could never quite understand how that worked and so throughout my subsequent education I resorted to the standard model and left it at that.

But recently, as the raw surface of years began to wear away the corners of my cerebral acquisitions, I again began to wonder about my father’s wisdom. What had he really been trying to tell me? What had I been missing about the world?

Then, as these things happen, I stumbled upon an essay by Stephen Muecke, a professor of creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide, with the thought-provoking title ‘What Aboriginal people know about the pathways of knowledge’. For some reason, it hinted at things my father had told me so many worlds ago. Of course, I had to read it; I had to wonder what I might have missed all these years. Had I finally found the right question to ask to unlock it…?

Muecke had done some walking with Aboriginal people in the far North-West of Australia and was told that ‘Knowledge didn’t originate with individuals, and the concept of mind was irrelevant. Knowledge was on the outside; it was held in ‘living Country’.’ Naturally, he wondered how knowledge could be transferred without a concept of mind; he was assured by his aboriginal companions that much of knowledge was environmentally embedded and needed to be activated by ‘skilled practices’. There is agency in nonhuman extensions.

But, the agency is often local -not universal: it applies to things important to those who live in the area -those who have come to know and appreciate it. ‘Each territory has its own nature, and living in that place teaches you that you are part of it: you breathe its air, drink its water and share its nutrients. And they compose your own living tissues in the same proportions.’

Many of the answers that are lying around out there -much of the knowledge that is waiting for the right questions- is territorially bound. Culturally specific. After all, finding the correct question to interrogate a mathematical answer, usually requires a mathematician. You have to be able to understand what type of thing it is an answer to, before even looking for the question you need to ask.

Was that what my father had been trying to tell me? Had I just been too young to understand? But still, here in my vale of age, his wisdom continued to elude me despite Muecke’s brave attempt at explanation. I needed to clear my head.

My father used to take me on long walks in the woods, I remember. There, he would point to something -a leaf, say- and ask me what question it answered. Anybody overhearing us, would have thought him mad perhaps, but at the time, I merely thought it was a game; I don’t think I ever suspected he was attempting to teach me something profound beyond my years.

But a walk in the woods seemed a fitting antidote to the confusion knocking about in my head. There’s something soothing about the sound my shoes make walking along a trail littered with fallen leaves and needles from the trees. It’s almost as if I am given the gift of composure as I move along the path; I am as much a part of the forest as the birdsong in the trees, and the snapping of twigs deep inside the bushes hiding in the shadows. I become the woodland metronome for a time, and the world around me listens for the rhythm.

There’s more to a walk than its cadence, though. There are the colours that defy a settled pattern as the wind slowly sifts through the myriad needles of a cedar and settles tentatively on the trail ahead. Or the silhouette of a group of twigs now bereft of leaves. Or even the appearance of a boulder waiting around a corner like a naked table waiting for a cloth and dishes.

I thought of all these things, and more, as I lost myself along a trail I hadn’t taken for years. Much had changed, and yet for a while there was something familiar that growth and time had not yet erased. There was the old cedar, still monarch of the bushes over which it towered, and the nearby overgrown meadow slowly filling up with alders and other acolyte flowers . On the far side, though, the winding path narrowed to a deer trail crowded on either side with aspiring saplings eager for a breath of sun, as little birds flitted away at the sound of my passage. A raven chortled noisily from a distant hemlock, then squawked a warning to the denizens of a world which I could never hope to enter as anything but a threat. Or was it warning me, I wondered, lost for a moment, as I extricated my feet from a dense bush that had claimed the way?

And then, as the trail widened briefly, I saw something that perhaps the raven had taken upon itself to guard: a huge, granitic boulder from some forgotten ice-age blocked the path -or perhaps, to which the path was meant to lead. And at its base, like an offering, was a pile of smaller stones fashioned into the shape of a person -an inukshuk…

It seemed like an odd place to construct a statue -who would ever see it? Why would anybody come here? Even I, who knew the trails, must have taken a wrong path -made a mistake.

Or did I…? As I turned to leave, I could hear my father’s voice falling softly on my ear; I knew it was no mistake -it was an answer…

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