My recent journey to the Northern Territory promised to be an adventure but turned out to be so much more than I ever could have imagined or hoped for. The outward purpose of the journey was to learn about how fibre is processed and weaving techniques while immersed in indigenous culture, but the purpose for my world within would be the powerful outcome of the journey.
Collecting Colour in the Bush.
My adventure begins with collecting colour. Priscilla is our guide and as she sits in the front seat of the four-wheel drive, her sharp and practised eyes are scanning the bush for signs of plants that will become dyes for our fibre. The bushland here is different from where I live in Queensland and the types of trees seem to be in pockets; changing as we drive along.
Priscilla directs us to the visitor centre where she knows there are some ‘pink dye’ plants. Armed with bags, we set off into long spindly dry looking grass with bunches of tiny seeds at the top. This is what we are collecting to make pink dye. When we have collected as much as we can find, Priscilla uses the shovel to show us how to harvest the roots. As they are lifted, the shovel grazes the surface to reveal a rich red/orange colour. Such beauty hidden in the earth! These roots will make ‘brown dye’.
This is only our first stop in collecting colour, but already I have the sense that this is so much more than the ‘outer world’ story I am telling here. I am aware that whereas before I wouldn’t have noticed the little black seeds, my eyes are open and are keenly seeking them out. I am aware of the environment around me and how my body feels as I work with my companions. I am grateful for the feeling of awe when I see the truth of the colour of the roots as they are lifted from the earth.
Driving on towards Gunbalanya eyes are peeled for kapok trees with their spindly tall thin trunks with green pods riding at the ends of the branches. “There’s some! … and some more!” … but I can’t see them! It isn’t until we stop and walk a little way from the road that I see what has been described to me and now they appear everywhere.
Harvesting is as easy as shaking the tree or pulling the branches down and plucking the pods – that is, unless they have been colonised by stinging green ants. I noticed that the pods on this kapok plant look rather ‘hairy’, being covered with the ants, and Priscilla is timely in rescuing me from their stings as she says it’s better to choose one with no ants!
With a dilly bag full of kapok, we are now looking for yellow dye; the root of another spindly looking plant with yellow flowers. In the Northern Territory heat digging out the roots is no easy task, but we dig down to the roots and follow their contours to chop out the biggest parts. Black dye comes more easily in the shape of shiny green leaves nearby.
The white fibre and seeds from inside the pods are crushed exposing a brilliant yellow colour.
Sylvia is chopping ‘pink dye’ plant roots for brown dye.
Dye cooking on the fire.
Pink dye seeds. Pink dye cooking on the fire and pink dyed pandanus fibre.
Yellow dye and green dye cooking on the fire.
Being out in the bush collecting these resources was new to me; different from the walks I love to take in the bush. We were there with a clear intention, and the dyes we would be able to make depended upon what we found and could collect. But it wasn’t only the feeling of achieving our purpose and learning about the plants and how to collect.
Driving past nondescript bush and taking it for granted is no longer an option. I know there is a treasure trove of things to be discovered there! I have acquired an acute awareness of ‘being’, of feeling grounded and feeling connected to the land and people. It is as though the very earth has become ingrained in my spirit and will stay with me forever.
Interested in Rene Bahloo’s journeys? You will find all the information about her workshops and journeys to Arnhem land on her
website: http://weavery.com.au/ or join her on
Injalak Arts has cultural information: http://injalak.com/
Look out for my next story of Arnhem Land !
Blessings to you