didgeridoo, dreamtime and sustainability

The Didgeridoo, Australian Aboriginal Myths and potential links with your curriculum and education for sustainability.

The didgeridoo is a musical instrument that comes from the North Eastern parts of Australia. It is most often made from a hollow eucalyptus log, with no side holes. Didgeridoo is a western, onomatopoeic word name for what is known by many names in aboriginal languages (of which there are many), such as yidaki or thambaljig.

Some Aboriginal folks say that every yidaki has a spirit inside, which wakes up when someone who ‘lives on the land and breathes the air’ breathes into the dij in the right way, resulting in the characteristic drone sound.

Yidakis have been played by Aboriginal men for at least 2000 years. Some would have it that the yidaki has been played for 40,000 years, yet this suggestion has not been proven by scholars. Nonetheless yidakis have been very much part of social and ritual gatherings in aboriginal society for hundreds of years. Didgeridoos are ‘men’s business’ and so have not been traditionally played by women, though things are changing and some aboriginal societies are not so strict about this now.

Non-sustainable Didgeridoo production

Since the mid 1990’s dijes have become the ‘must have’ souvenir to bring back from Australia, being symbolic of Aboriginal Culture. Traditional Australian aboriginal culture is inherently part of the natural systems of the land, and in its way dynamically sustainable in its impact on that land. Sadly, recent demand for authentic didgeridoos has brought the sustainability of production of didgeridoos into question, as their harvest is now out of balance with the natural systems where the wood grows. Many souvenir didgeridoos are now being produced outside Australia from woods other than eucalyptus!

Dreamtime Myths and Sustainability
The Dreamtime is the Aboriginal understanding of the world, of its creation, and it’s great stories. The Dreamtime is the beginning of knowledge, from which came the laws of existence. For survival these laws must be observed. The Dreamtime is the time before time when things came to be and it is also right now. Dreamtime Myths work on many different levels, sometimes within the same story, giving the listeners a physical and moral/spiritual landscape to exist within. Yidakis have been around long enough for yidaki creation myths to be told. One dreamtime story tells us that when the first hollow log was played as a yidaki, the termites that were hollowing out the log were blown up into the night sky and became the milky-way.
So how does this story relate to sustainability and what can we learn from it?

Well, for a start, stories such as this one impart a sense of wonder and awe at features of the natural world. Anyone who finds the world wonderful and awesome, in an innocent or intellectual way (or both!), is more likely to want to live in a way that is sensitive to ecological systems. We also learn that termites are the creatures that hollow out the logs. Termites are of crucial importance in the natural systems they are ‘meant’ to live in. One of their jobs is to convert plant matter into nutrients that go back into the soil directly, via the compost heaps they grow their food on, or indirectly through food webs. Termites are tasty! The termites show us that even small, seemingly insignificant creatures are of equal importance to all others in the web of life – a vital perspective to have in the vision of sustainability.

The characters within aboriginal myths are often creator spirits. These spirits are everywhere and in everything, though now not necessarily in the same form they were way back then, in the time before time, when the stories were first told and the events occurred. Many of the characters in the Dreamtime stories are seen as our ancestors and if not our direct ancestors then certainly our relations. We see that all kinds of natural phenomena have come about through the actions of creator spirits. The Dreamtime is still going on now, and so we also learn that we humans are changing the world around us through our actions, in all kinds of ways, often unforeseen at the time. The stories show us that one of the only unchanging laws is that everything changes! They also instil a connection with the landscape that is so personal, so intrinsic, that traditional aboriginal societies see themselves as part of natural systems, part of the landscape, part of the ongoing mythical landscape in the same way that a rock formation, billabong, kangaroo or honey ant would be.

Another story, Why the rocks are red, tells us that the rocks are red in the centre of Australia because the blood of a human dreamtime creator spirit, murdered by his jealous sibling, seeped into the earth, turning the rocks red. Stories such this one show us that the bodies of the ancestors come to rest all over the landscape, and thus pretty much everywhere is sacred. If all living things have a counterpart creator spirit, then the physical landscape is also a spiritual landscape. When almost every landscape feature has some kind of ecological, spiritual or sacred significance it hard to justify any large-scale architectural development or ‘progress’ because of the impact on the interrelated dreamtime and ‘presentime’ ecological landscape.

The story of Tidalik the frog, who drinks all the water on earth and wont share it,  shows us that greed affects all creatures, all our relations and that laughter is the solution to many of our problems! Human greed, seemingly unquenchable thirst for resources is causing an unprecedented shift in the balance of nature, with the resulting catastrophic loss of biodiversity. What people may need, more than things, is fellowship and laughter and light heartedness to achieve a balance more in balance with rest of nature. It also points to the future, where precious resources may be fought over as they become scarce. We are already seeing this with oil, and prices are rising steadily. The practice didges I use are made of plastic that is made by the petrochemical industry.

Contemporary didge production in the uk.

Didgeridoos are now made from all kinds of materials:  pottery, glass, plastic, metals, but the most sustainably produced material is wood. Didges made in the uk are made from local timber. They are usually made by bandsawing down the length of the timber, hollowing out each side, and sticking the two halves back together. Making one can be a lovely process in which the maker gets to harvest, process the wood and create a beautiful musical instrument using local sustainably produced materials.

Some curriculum links.
RE –  Creation Tales
Literacy – Storytelling skills
Music –
Citizenship –
Art –
Science –

With these few stories we can see several ways in which the dreamtime myths and the yidaki relate to the rather large topic of sustainability. Achieving a vision of sustainable living on this planet may require the adoption of alternative ways of seeing ourselves, and the landscape we live in. We may need a completely different set of values in relation to land, fauna and fauna, possessions, happiness…the list could go on. Traditional Australian aboriginal culture may hold clues on an alternative value system.
However, Traditional Australian Aboriginal society is not a perfect model for sustainability in the 21st century.  I am not suggesting that we should be adopting their way of life, only that we could learn something from it, because, left to their own ways, traditional aboriginal cultures are inherently more sustainable than our own because of their value systems and the way these people see themselves in relation to natural systems.
 (It may also have to do with living in a landscape with limits to growth without crops that are able to be stored and thus support larger tribal systems, but that is another story…)