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Session Detail (plenary)

Keynote 3: One thousand and one coconuts: growing memories in Southern New Guinea

Session presentation

Nicholas Evans, Australian National University

From cathedrals to dreaming sites, every culture needs its monuments. But the landscape and built culture of Southern New Guinea conspire to erase physical memory. In the ever-changing environment of mud, plant and water there is no rock to serve as durable traces of the past, other than a few ‘sacred stones’, traded from far afield, whose location are shrouded in secrecy. Houses are of wood and decay or are eaten by termites within a decade or two. Clearings made for swidden yam gardens grow back after a few years, and even the savannah edge, if not vigorously maintained as open by regular bushfires, is recolonised by forest within a few years. Against this mutable environment, some stability of external memory is given by the thousands of coconut trees planted anywhere that a plant can grow: on beaches, in abandoned swiddens, in old villages, beside houses. Almost every coconut palm serves, to at least someone, as a tab or sign – a prompt to stories of garden-clearings, resettlements, village events, disputes, reconciliations, pledges and intentions. For most coconut palms there is a person with the special knowledge and authority to tell its story. These trees, old and young, distributed through the landscape, form a kind of arboreal history anchored both in their durability and in the clear symbolic and practical intentions that accompany each planting. In this talk I will illustrate their mnemonic value as prompts to local oral history, drawing on hundreds of interviews as part of a project on the wellsprings of linguistic diversification in the region. These interviews were conducted by local interviewers in their own languages – Nen, Nmbo, Idi and others. Responding to the flexible interactions between interviewer and interviewee, they range over a wide variety of topics, from memories of old garden clearances, abandoned houses, or temporary periods of residence in other villages, through reconciliations and peacemaking ceremonies, to girl-abducting teenagers and mid-life contraceptives. In presenting this extensive corpus of material I will weave together linguistic and anthropological analysis, from theme to tense to language choice, to show how a network of communities, linked by marriage and exchange across language boundaries, uses these living monuments to maintain its histories across a broad range of spokespeople.