The panels tell how women make string for hunting and fishing nets from the Casuarina needle-like leaves by rubbing them on their legs. To avoid the pain of pulling leg hairs while rubbing, the women remove the hair by using the leaves of the 'Tam'nun' or Sandpaper Fig trees which are close to the artwork. Mothers tell their children that if lost they should sit under a stand of Casuarina trees until they are found. The bed of leaves will protect them from snakes.
A long time ago, men used to make string for hunting and fishing nets. They gathered the fibres of a stringy bark tree, or the inner bark of the fig, or the Kurrajong, or even the leaves of the Gymea lily, and they twisted them together by rubbing them on their thighs. This is how the string was made.
But men are impatient creatures. They did not like sitting around all day twisting fibres by rubbing it on their thighs. They felt they could be doing better things, like hunting kangaroos or wallabies, or using the fishing nets made from the string. Besides, twisting the fibres hurt them. Men have hairy legs and twisting the fibres on their thighs pulled the leg hairs out by the roots.
The men decided that they didn’t want to make string anymore and they went to the women and threw down the fibres. “We must do the hunting now,” they said. “You will twist the fibres to make the string for nets and the fishing lines”.
The women looked up at the men and tried not to smile. “But you wanted to make the string” said the women, “You told us that it was too difficult for us poor women to do.”
The men told the women that it was not as difficult as they had first thought and that, although they really enjoyed making the string, they had other duties to which they had to attend. They could not sit around all day long making string when there were boomerangs to make, spears to sharpen, kangaroos to hunt and fish to catch.
The women gathered up the fibres and sat around in a circle and divided the fibres amongst themselves. They began to rub the fibres on their thighs and burst into laughter as they realised the real reason why the men did not want to make string any more.
"What more do you expect from the men?" said Naali, the oldest and wisest of the women.
"They would rather chase after kangaroos, running through the bush, getting all hot and bothered, cutting their toes on the sharp rocks and not catching even a small lizard, than sit here in the shade and suffer a bit of pain."
But one of the women, the mother of a son who had just been through an initiation ceremony, had an idea. She had made his bull-roarer. The bullroarer when flown made a sound that called the men together. She used the leaves of the Tam’nun (sandpaper fig) to sand the wood so that the bull-roarer was smooth. Gracefully she got to her feet and went to the tree and took some leaves from it.
She gave one of the leaves to each of the women and showed them how to rub it on their legs to remove the hairs. Now while this was happening, the men were delighted with themselves. They had given the women the duty of making the string and listened expectantly to hear the cries of pain as the women rubbed the fibres on their legs.
But instead all they could hear was the laughter and chatter of the women. The men, hidden behind trees, peeked out, expecting to see the women lazing around doing nothing.
Instead, the women were sitting in a circle, busily twisting the fibres while they talked amongst themselves. The men shook their heads and wandered off, puzzled. They thought they had tricked the women into doing a painful duty, but, it seemed they themselves had been tricked.
This is how it came about that the duty of making string for hunting nets and fishing lines fell to the women. It was a duty that the women loved. They sat around in a circle and discussed the events of the day, their husbands, their children, whatever came to mind.
As the women sat around talking, the children would gather and listen to them, enchanted by the stories they told of when they, themselves were children. As they worked, pieces of the fibres fell to the ground forming a soft mat upon which the children liked to sit. Sometimes on a cold day the children snuggled into the warm fibres and listened to the stories and the chatter. Sometimes they fell asleep. If they awakened suddenly out of a nightmare the old women comforted them and scared the nightmare demons away.
When children were lost they listened for the chatter of the women and found a mat of fibre to sit on and await the arrival of their mothers.
And so, mothers instructed their children that if they became lost, they were to listen for the chatter of old women making string and to go to them for safety.
Eventually the old women died. Because of their kindness to the children, the Creator spirit turned them into trees, tall, straight trees. Trees with leaves like no other. Leaves that when they fell, looked like the pieces of fibre that the women dropped as they worked, leaves that formed a mat on the ground. If you sit under these trees and listen carefully, you will sometimes hear the chatter of the old women.
These trees became known as the Dahl`wah. Mothers teach their children that if they should become lost, they should seek out the trees and remain there until they are found. They know that the old women who are now trees will look after them, sing them to sleep and protect them from monsters in the night.
© 2002. Frances Bodkin.
Intellectual Property of the Bodkin/Andrews clans of the D’harawal Peoples