When the Earth is so thin a man becomes a kangaroo

Two weeks ago I watched a man become a kangaroo. I was in Kurri Kurri, New South Wales, Australia; an area that was once occupied by the Awabakal and Wonnarua people. I was in Kurri Kurri for an Environmental Education conference on land that is now occupied by Hunter TAFE, a technical institute.

When I had arrived at the campus late the previous evening I was beside myself with excitement on seeing several kangaroos within 10 metres of the car park. The next morning it was apparent they were everywhere – wondering in from the bush in order to feed on the grass. It was an extraordinary sight to see large wild mammals among classrooms, grape vines, construction sheds and machinery.

On the second night of the conference we experienced an Aboriginal smoking ceremony, led by four men, in which we each had a turn at being enveloped in the smoke of a smouldering eucalyptus branch. The men then performed a series of dances, and that is when it happened. Almost all the dances involved the men moving like particular birds and animals. Then, in one dance, suddenly, one of the men was no longer a man – instead we were in the presence of a kangaroo, a magnificent animal of extraordinary grace and alertness. His arms became short front legs that allowed him to balance on the ground as his powerful back legs propelled him forward with seemingly no effort. When he stood up, he looked around with the relaxed intensity I’d seen in the kangaroos around campus – I am taking it the world in, he seemed to say, but it does not surprise me.

Of course you had to be there – and maybe you had to have recently watched and been enchanted by kangaroos as I had been. But what I felt, in that moment, was that I was in the presence of a “thin place” on Earth. Thin places were described to me by the wonderful and wise Rod Oram as a place “where the boundary between Earth and heaven seems particularly, well, thin… a place where one can sense the divine more readily.” Rod talked about experiencing thin places in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (northwest Spain) and in Amritsar, the spiritual centre for Sikhs.

Well, for that minute in Kurri Kurri, I felt as if I was in the presence of the divine. The divine I experienced was a glimpse into the temporality, almost arbitrariness that defines us a person or an animal or a tree or the wind. I saw the world as fundamentally all of the same stuff, and our being – as people or animals or whatever – as merely manifestations of that stuff; manifestations that can, in certain intersections of place, time and mind transform into a different shape. It was as if those of us watching the dancers had been offered the chance to “slip through” on the coat tails of people who had learnt from their elders how to observe the land and its life forms then somehow resonate them through their own, human, bodies.

The next morning, I tried to run back up to the circle where the dances had taken place, but there was a large, male kangaroo lying in the middle of the path that did not move away as I approached. This was the first time in three days I had seen a kangaroo that held its ground. A signal I thought, that this thin place was not mine to re-capture without the grace of the people who had created it. 

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