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Nomads' perspective on destruction of the planet

No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet. By Robyn Davidson. Quarterly Essay, issue 24, 2006.  Website.

In one of those curious juxtapositions that occur from time to time in a reading life, I had just finished Kiran Desai’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Inheritance of Loss when I started Robyn Davidson’s essay No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet, in issue 24 of the Quarterly Essay series.

Both the novel and the essay open in the Indian Himalayas. Davidson, who now lives part of the year on 400 acres of land that she is nurturing back in to existence as an oak forest, describes a land so ravished by the demands of a growing human population that "Dispossessed peasants must join the drain of rural people heading to the city. Usually they will live in poverty and squalor there, scraping enough to get by in menial jobs, or begging in the streets."

That describes almost exactly the plight of Diju, in Desai’s novel, the son of a cook who goes to New York City and works illegally in a string of menial restaurant jobs until he decides to return, near the end of the novel, to see his father during a Nepalese uprising in the 1980s.

In their different ways, Davidson and Desai are getting at the same problem: the destruction of habitats, ecological systems, societies and ways of living at the hands of political processes and material progress.

Few Western writers are more qualified to write of the nomadic experience than Davidson, whose 1977 book Tracks, about her 2000-mile trek with camels from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, became an international bestseller and set the tone for later books, including the novel Ancestors, the book of essays Travelling Light and the story of her travels with Indian nomads, Desert Places.

She synthesises much of the experience that went into those books in No Fixed Address. As she says in the preface, she has lived or travelled with "traditional nomads in various parts of the world, on and off, for 30 years. Wherever I have looked, I’ve found that the traditionally nomadic ways of life are under enormous pressure … and will, I believe, soon disappear."

In addition to the Indian Himalayas, her essay covers Stanley Park, the cattle station where she grew up in western Queensland; Tibet, where she attended a horse festival on the Chang Tang Plateau, Rajasthan; and Gujarat, in India, where she spent a year travelling with a family of Rabari and their 500 sheep and 20 camels.

Davidson recalls feeling as a child in Stanley Park that something was missing. "And whatever that something was, gave the land a mournful quality. All that blinding, drenching light, yet you got the sense there was darkness in it. Like the backing on a mirror." It would be 20 years before she met an indigenous Australian.

Nomads view on the destruction of the planedIn Tibet she despairs that the steppe, "symbolic of a kind of wild, marauding freedom, which in all time has not been marked by a physical fence, is to be parcelled up into stock enclosures and paddocks, and planted with improved (introduced) grasses. And all nomads are to be housed."

In Gujarat, she admires the Rabari people most for their humour in the face of physical hardship, and their ability to sing themselves into intoxication. "It was as if they took a spiritual bath in the music, their troubles washed away with songs as old as the Subcontinent. And I was struck once again by their intimacy with each other – the bonds continually strengthened, like calcium laid down in a bone …"

Far from a romantic indulgence (Davidson points out that she would have died at the age of 12 without modern medicine), No Fixed Address is an anthem to the nomadic lifestyle, and a plea for its preservation, at least on a spiritual level.

Davidson concludes that it is impossible to return to previous modes of living, but she argues passionately that one key to our survival could lie in the application of the kinds of knowledge acquired by nomads who did far less damage to the planet in 200,000 years than we have managed in the past 200.



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