Di Cousens reviews Walking with Camels: The Story of Bertha Strehlow by Leni Shilton

Leni Shilton, Walking with Camels: The Story of Bertha Strehlow. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, Crawley, 2018. ISBN:  9781742589701

 

Di Cousens

 

Bertha Strehlow accompanied her more famous husband, Ted Strehlow, in the deserts of Central Australia for six years. Ted – the son of Lutheran missionaries whose first language was not German but Aranda – was an anthropologist and collected the stories and histories that make up the landmark book, Songs of Central Australia. During this field work he mapped the interior landscape of the deserts, travelling on camels, staying in tents, remaining in contact with the peoples he knew as a child. While Bertha found the conditions harsh and had four miscarriages, she also typed her husband’s manuscripts and provided different kinds of support such as simple medicine to the local people. In turn they assisted her and Aboriginal women provided herbal medicine which stopped her bleeding after the first of her miscarriages.

Walking with Camels: The Story of Bertha Strehlow is a long narrative poem, made up of separate poems, mostly not more than one page in length. The author, Leni Shilton, who has also lived in central Australia for many years, conveys the atmosphere of the landscape through evocative imagery and countless tiny details. Her research into both Bertha and Ted’s lives is joined with her own deep encounter with the land in these beautiful and remarkable poems.

Ted’s parents, Carl and Frieda Strehlow, were Lutheran missionaries at Hermannsburg from 1894 to 1922. In addition to his missionary work Carl became one of the most important anthropologists in the field of Aboriginal studies, aided by fluency in Aranda, Dieri and Loritja languages. He also worked to protect the local people from squatters and police. Ted’s work echoed that of his father’s, and in addition to his anthropology he obtained the position of Patrol Officer in 1936 with the intention of protecting the local people. It would be too simplistic to characterise these as typical ‘white-black’ relationships as these were not of one type. The poems also record many unexpected moments such as when the Aboriginal cameleers command their camels in Arabic.

This is some of the complex backdrop to Bertha’s biography. The book is written in the first person in the form of a journal of poetry whose many layers have been disguised by an elegant simplicity of language. For example, of Bertha’s first miscarriage, the poet writes:

I feel calm – safe

we confess old secrets

our sins punished

 

we here alone –

our baby gone now.

 

Her tiny, hardly formed body

buried by the tree

where I have cried myself empty.

(62)

Shilton suggests a more sublime experience during Bertha’s first trip to Uluru.

I might die here,

for love, for beauty

and the moment would pass

so quietly.

In a very different style of poem, ‘I speak from under the earth’, Shilton presents an evocation of the pain of the land and the people during this time of loss. The people are sick, the cattle trample the waterhole, the birds are silent. But this bleak outlook is crossed by a sense of wonder and purpose.

The night a black blanket I can’t find the edge of, the dingoes call loneliness in the dark; they cry like they are hurting and I shiver knowing people die here. The mopoke calls late and distant from across the hills. Can you feel it? I must speak from under the earth to be heard, with a voice no longer mine. The desert is its own animal, alone and desperate. Enough it snarls, barely glancing at me as it performs its night ritual. The stars save me, their distant glowing buzz a thick light like white paint splitting the sky. My night dreams wander; here I see the stories, the land maps that roll across the country, and it is a comfort.

(65)

This is an extraordinary ventriloquism and the source for each poem is richly described in Shilton’s Notes.

In 1942, after the first of three successful live births, Bertha returned to her Anglican family home in Adelaide. Shilton conveys the sense of Bertha’s longing to return to the desert and her inner conflict:

when does the red

stop falling from

the pockets and hems

of my clothes,

 

when does it

finally wash from my body?

(104)

There are many complex relationships here – between Bertha and Ted, the desert and the city, Lutheran and Anglican families, the Strehlows’ engagement with Aboriginal people, anthropologists and their sponsors.

After spending most of his time in the field Ted returned to Adelaide to teach at the University of Adelaide in 1946. Ultimately Ted found love elsewhere and left Bertha in 1968. Bertha’s important contribution to Australian anthropology through her editorial work was not acknowledged in the prefaces of Ted’s books but that work and her own remarkable encounter with the land and the people of the desert has finally been given life in this wonderful long poem.

 

Di Cousens is a Tibetologist, poet and photographer who lives in Melbourne. Her academic publications are on Tibetan history and engaged Buddhism. Her poetry has been published in anthologies, journals and chapbooks. Her most recent book is the poetry chapbook, the days pass without name,  launched in April 2018.

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