continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 3.2 / 2013: 22-27


Bronwyn Lay


This piece, included in the drift special issue of continent., was created as one step in a thread of inquiry. While each of the contributions to drift stand on their own, the project was an attempt to follow a line of theoretical inquiry as it passed through time and the postal service(s) from October 2012 until May 2013.

This issue hosts two threads: between space & place and between intention & attention. The editors recommend that to experience the drifiting thought that attention be paid to the contributions as they entered into conversation one after another. This particular piece is from the BETWEEN INTENTION & ATTENTION thread:

Jeremy Fernando, Sitting in the Dock of the bay, watching... * R.H. Jackson, Reading Eyes * Gina Rae Foster, Nyctoleptic Nomadism: The Drift/Swerve of Knowing * Bronwyn Lay, Driftwood * Patricia Reed, Sentences on Drifitng * David Prater, drift: a way

* * * * *

Australia, Summer, 2012.

…. essential humanity exists, and runs its course, within a system whose first principle is the preservation of balance. And arching over it all, is the logos of The Dreaming. How shall we state this when we fully understand it I do not know, but I should think we are more likely to ennoble it than not. Equilibrium ennobled is abidingness.”1

On return to birthplace I write. Caught between jetlag and surprise, a relentless sun cracks my skin. Upright words fall under cockatoo roars. The attempt to settle, to be attentive, is shaken. Some kind of Dreaming surrounds and elements intrude without consent. Homeless at home. Exhausted, I fight sleep’s hard currents. Their victory would confuse the body clock, so the in-between wins. Half-there — half-awake — here in this place — I am driftwood.

Driftwood: wood floating in or washed ashore by a body of water. A severed limb set adrift from the birthing body. Tossed from home it’s cast into processes of wind, water, sand, bacteria, decay and movement. Driftwood is orphaned members at the mercy and agency of weather, currents, submersion, and being thrown into dry world. Driftwood — singular plural.

White man got no dreaming.
Him go ‘nother way.
White man, him go different
Him got road belong himself.


photo: Bronwyn Lay


The old man comes from the northern rivers. A while ago, he could no longer pay attention to wage slavery, so retreated north to be with dead redgum that lay abandoned in dry riverbeds. Derived from driftwood peoples tossed here by the sea, he followed the fragile river veins of his birth. He walked along water bodies and through country’s lungs. Some kind of displaced ancestral song compelled his leathered hands to pick up centuries old driftwood from flood plains. It emerged from under muddy creeks, was flung up by salt soaked coves, pushed underground by cracks in the claypan and lay embedded in mud and salinized soil. Smoothed and grooved in equal measure, the branches were marked by an organic alphabet that preceded him. As he held the wood, he touched decomposing circles that started with a blast and never ceased writing into abandoned flesh. When the ute was full the old man returned home having been away with the stuff that ‘growed him up’. His shed filled with red sawdust and the sound of tools at labour. His hands sculptured driftwood. History carved into itinerant skin.

I sit opposite the old man. His body no longer holds the repetition of carpentry. He can no longer gift driftwood its detail. Outside redgum bits lie scattered around the fence line and beside the dam. He crouches over an unreliable computer researching the massacres of indigenous peoples that occurred along the same river veins that ‘growed him up’ long ago. Staring into the remnants of frontier resistance that he and I inherit, his eyes nurture fire. He discovers severed limbs and the slicing of tribes. In the ashes of sentences he sifts the lies that smoulder into our histories.

In the 30’s the anthropologist Stanner said that due to certain factors — lack of change and isolation — the ideal and real come very close together in indigenous Dreaming. They are a people who were able to defeat history.3

“If the Ideal and the Real drift too far away from one another (as they did at the end of the middle ages and seem increasingly to do this century) men face some difficult options. They have to change their way of life, or their philosophy, or both, or live unhappily somewhere in-between.”4

Stanner says Indigenous Dreaming is blackfella thinking.5 Dreamtime is not ethereal, not utopic, or otherworldly. It’s fused with the real and it’s not mine. I might never understand, but it’s the substance of my home. This here place ‘growed me up’. Is driftwood the unhappy in-between? Is it a radical itinerant written upon by currents? Where are we? The settler restless?

Weathered old Eucalypt trunk EUC7485

photo: Alison Pouliot


I return to the bush late one night, tired from high talk in city cafes, to find the old man at his computer. He’s either researching his white farming ancestors, or tracing unrecorded massacres of blackfellas. I laugh, “You know Dad, if you were indigenous you might go out by the dam and sing up your ancestors rather than try find them on a screen.” He peers over his glasses. His stare delivers an ancestral scold. He’s white man. Of course he archives. This is our way.

One may see that, like all men, he is a metaphysician in being able to transcend himself. With the metaphysician goes a mood and spirit, which I can only call a mood or spirit of assent, neither despair nor resignation, optimism not pessimism, quietism nor indifference. The mood, and the outlook beneath it, make him hopelessly out of place in a world in which the renaissance has triumphed only to be perverted, and in which the products of secular humanism, rationalism and science challenge their own hopes, indeed their beginnings.”6

The clinamen sometimes comes abstract — the rarefied swerve of possibility. But in the place we gather &mdash where this text has landed — in the heart of settler colony denial — the clinamen reminds of familiar violence and goes maximum. The earth’s swerve. Topography’s tip. Physics gone violent. Here, drift is initiated by the tear of flesh, scurvy voyages, frontier blood and the deracination from belonging. Here, war precedes drift. We all got tossed.

Here. Pay attention. The country has its own gaze. ‘Lest we forget’. The seasonal turn on aborescent substances starts with a fall, an upwards rupture, a drop, a cut, a storm, a violence, a loss, forced migration, refugees, agricultural imperialism, settler wheat and poisoned rations. Pay attention to aftermath debris. Don’t drift too far from the real. History hasn’t settled into the water. It still tosses limbs back and forth. Surrounded by the backdrop of Dreaming country the old man archives and dreams. Both ways of settling into the real. But lest we forget, time, in this place, has no textual tick — tock. Our bodies know this, even though we persist with shipwreck illusions. It’s difficult being here.

Here. Pay inattention. I walk through eucalyptus, over dried out clay pans and under kookaburras. It’s been two years in-between. This time country speaks strong underfoot. Forget books, forget texts, forget other lands and times, beginning and end. Be here. All falls raw. Leaves drop and refuse to compost. Bark untethers quick. Light denudes worlds. The heated horizon melts monoliths. It’s enough to make Cartesians shiver. Awake. Refuse the temptation to run. Have enough courage to drift into here.

Love with a gum tree. Stand with her whole and dissolving. She moves light between our limbs, tossing them to wind. She — the original romance — is the dream that dares touch flesh and reaches over nightmares with elemental desire. I gaze and lose me. There’s no distance. The land that ‘growed me up’ speaks with symbiotic breath. There’s no division, no separation, no other. The gum is plastic arborescence. You be my body for me, always were.

…..but I wake to driftwood histories and recall slaughters. Drifted, wicked fellow citizen — the other is someone else’s blind sleep. Betrayal maintains the other as mine. Archives reveal this place doesn’t belong to me. Body articulates that it became here. Gumtree cares not………her arms take me in anyway.

“Like all men he is a philosopher in being able to use his power of abstract reason. His genius, his metier, and in some sense — his fate is that because of endowment and circumstance this power has channelled itself mainly into one activity, making sense out of social relations among men living together.”7

The old man excavates seven generations of settler ancestors. They’re an ordinary lot with written-upon skin. He records genocides that occurred alongside his peoples fertility. Bodies rise from riverbeds like sovereign sacrifices. It hurts. It disrupts. He labours at the past with gestures that might go unnoticed in a country suffocated by rich amnesia. Inside walls, he seems attentive to historical details. Outside he seems inattentive to time, lost to us and embedded in a family of active matter — the bush. His driftwood skin appears around my eyes - grooves of experience, the rush of cruel sun, the push of blind winds, and the love of everything. The sovereign’s reluctant children are thrown here by, with and through blood, but country gets in and sculpts us here.

Driftwood love

photo: Chris Corrigan


“But his abstractions do not put him at war with himself.”8

The kangaroo family appears at dusk. When the sun is soft I follow the old man into the back paddock. Children skip behind us. In-between generations, I step into the old man’s driftwood leanings. My feet find traces of his understanding – the archivist that reads trees. Here, on home dirt, inattention and attention collapse as we wander into where we are. The roo family gaze at us. Through the grass the old man’s wooden finger articulates kin’s details. He points to the head male, the mother holding a joey in pouch and the young warriors side by side. My children, quieter than ever, meet the laser - eyed silence of another family. In half-light Dad, me, and the kids mirror the kangaroo constellation and stand gentle together. At the bushblock’s limit we encounter ancestral desires.

White peoples are subject to driftwood histories. We’re severed limbs attempting to fuse here now, with what was, only to discover our skin becomes racked and embedded with the weather. Into the shelter and fissures of this difficult and ambiguous inheritance, I fall into dream light until balance saturates.

Light breaks when the kangaroos move. They bounce someplace else without effort or impact. We turn and tread through the dark towards home. It’s time to sleep. Driftwood skin covers the country. Dreaming is still.


photo: Bronwyn Lay



  1. W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays, (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2009), 72.
  2. Ibid., 56. Stanner is recalling one intelligent old man who said to him, “with a cadence almost as though he had been speaking in verse.”
  3. Ibid., 60.
  4. Ibid., 69.
  5. Ibid., 58.
  6. Ibid., 67.
  7. Ibid., 68.
  8. Ibid., 59.