Depends on Your Perspective

My first linguist job was at Strelley Station during a Uni vacation when I spent three-plus months living in a remote community learning the indigenous language.

It was a hot summer in the outback – no air conditioning, rudimentary shelter and water had to be carted from the overhead tank each day. I’d learnt the skills at Uni to drive into a community and start transcribing the language with the help of the locals. At Strelley they assigned me a particular family. The elder in this family was Monty, a true language academic. The end game was to start a dictionary and a grammar for the community to build on and use in the newly created independent school.

I returned to Uni, finished my degree, then completed a teaching degree and came back to the same community to continue the work as a teacher linguist.

After a few years, I was appointed to the position of School Principal at another nearby Indigenous School located in an outback station – called Warralong Station.

The station is a massive cattle station near Marble Bar in the Pilbara region of WA.

Warralong was quite famous as it was fully owned and run by the local Indigenous Community. The community ran the station and ran the school, which was independent of the Government. They were incredibly self-sustaining and self-determining.

One of the self-service things they did, which was incredibly important to their cultural well-being, was to bury their own dead. They had their own cemetery.

As the Principal of the school, you had many roles and one important role was to do all the admin tasks not only for the school but also to do with the running of the station. This meant things like getting in supplies, organising equipment and transport for cattle musters and placing orders for a few coffins so that you were ready for the next funeral.

It was a small community, so funerals weren’t all that often, but we liked to keep a stockpile of plain pine coffins. We had a safety stock level of around six.

Pretty early on in the job, I had to place an order for six coffins and a month or so later they turned up. We offloaded them, stood them all up against the wall while we offloaded the rest of the truck and sort through the other supplies before we packed everything away in the shed.

On one of my return trips to the truck walking past the coffins resting against the wall, I notice that each one of them had a label pasted on the front in a large bold sans serifed font:

Malcom Brown, Warralong Station.

My name was even spelt correctly.

I must admit it knocked me about a bit. I suddenly had flashes of the endgame. I was only in my mid-twenties, but I was abruptly presented with a sign of my mortality.

In a split second I went through this cycle of sadness, gloom, doom, sense of pointlessness, and then cycled out of that to a sense of positivity. My life was put into perspective.

It was a jolt to the system. Whatever was preoccupying my mind became so tiny and so insignificant. It was with sudden clarity that the important things became important. The essentials bubbled to the top. The Top Four emerged and became obvious.

I regularly speak to my team about keeping a sensible perspective. The mental health challenges we’ve all experienced over the last recent times are often all about losing perspective.

I encourage my team to seek out locations or experiences that encourage a sense of perspective. Taking a walk along Cardinia Dam, do a bit of bushwalking to the highest peak. Elevation seems to provide a sense of perspective.

And so did those coffins with my name on them.