Yulyurdu: Smoke in the Desert

11 February 2019

I begin this paper with a nod to ‘the beginning’ by linking smoke to fire, and fire to humankind. Bound up in this deep history of smoke and humanity is a dichotomy cleaving humans from animals and the west from the rest. Taking smoke at Yuendumu, a Warlpiri community in central Australia as my subject, I aim to destabilise some of the certainties entrenched in this dichotomy. Smoke, of course, is nigh impossible to pin down, literally as well as conceptually. So rather than trying to immobilise it, I follow in smoke’s own fashion and waft across different kinds of fires and different kinds of analytical approaches. Ethnographically, I draw a narrative picture of the different ways in which smoke at Yuendumu permeates everyday life by considering the smoke of breakfast fires, signalling fires, cooking fires during storms, caring-for-country fires, and the scent of cold smoke on blankets, clothes, and bodies. Analytically, I move from smoke and how it relates to embodied Warlpiri ways of being in the world, to smoke and childhood socialisation, including baby smoking rituals. From there I shift to the smoke of caring-for-country fires, and on to smoke, memory, odourphilia, and odourphobia. I conclude by pondering the potential of a smoke-like approach.