Starting a contemporary songline

A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary songline to memorise a particular set of information.

songline

Walking my songline with Epsi

For example Naomi wrote:

So Lynne – ‪#‎songlines‬ – time to get down to nuts and bolts. I have just read your chapter walking us through your memory line walking Epsi. How did you do it? Given that you are experimenting with oral memory did you carry a list that you wanted to memorise? Or gradually add to it like building a wall – one item at a time? Obviously it now resembles something organic, evolving and expanding as necessary – but how did you seed the memory line? Thanks in advance.

Kath wrote in part (the full email is at the end of this post):

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. …  For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

Of the 25 memory experiments, the best starting point is using the landscape as a set of memory locations – the classical technique known as the method of loci. Walking the path – be it around the house or garden, around the block or through the bush – enables you to fix the locations. The easiest is to start with a room. I put ten locations in each room of the house – five from the door (included) to a window, then five more more back, including the window and out the door.

So the first ten locations I use are in the front door (which I think of as 0 to match the multiples of 10 for all the doors) and the first location is the (1) sofa, (2) bookcase, (3) desk, (4) corner piece, (5) window, (6) ornament shelf, (7) TV, (8) little table and (9) picture on the wall. The door out of that room goes to the corridor and is number 10. Then the first location in the next room is number 11.

So if I was doing the countries of the world (as I do in this palace) in population order, it goes (1) sofa-China, (2) bookcase – India, (3) desk – USA, (4) corner piece- Indonesia, (5) window – Brazil, (6) ornament shelf – Pakistan, (7) TV – Nigeria, (8) little table – Bangladesh and (9) picture on the wall – Russia. I then head around all the rooms, around the garden, out the front gate and around the block for 242 locations (I include independent protectorates and countries) finishing with Pitcairn Islands when I am nearly back home from getting the shopping.

Ideally to mimic non-literate cultures, I would use no writing. Unfortunately, I have no elders to teach me the songs and stories and the links to the locations, so I must get my information in the way it is handed on in my life – in writing. For countries, that is a list of the countries and independent protectorates in population order. For history, that is the way I want to divide up the walk into dates. For my stone row, that is the author I want to associate with each stone, my set of authors being structured in chronological order.

I then start assigning data to locations. One you have a location – place in a room, a fence post, letter box, tree or gutter, house or shop – then associating the key information to it will initially take a few minutes. You will get quite fast at it, but don’t push too hard at first. Meditate upon the images, have fun, create stories, imagine people out the window, look for shapes in the wood grain or stone, scratches on the letter box, shapes in the branches or on the trunk of a tree …. You will find something which links either to the concept or event you are trying to associate or to a pun on the words.

Attached the item – let’s say Cape Verde to a shop. If, like me, you naturally associate the word ‘verde’ with green, you find something green to focus – in my case a green window ledge. That little ledge will always jump out at me when I look at the shop in question. Everything about Cape Verde is associated with green – such as little green men from the moon wearing capes – the more outrageous the better. You will have no trouble adding layer upon layer of information. The capital of Cape Verde is Praia, pronounced pry-er. So my little green men are prying in the shop window – their leader, the Chief Pryer, is now my main character.

Do I have everything written down? No. I only have the list of countries in descending population order, their capitals and the population. Once I have the concept linked to the location, I add more just from memory. I hear or read that Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, so I imagine Pryer landed from the moon, trying to get to Africa – he missed. He keeps jumping from island to island, but never getting to the mainland. On the news, it was reported that Cape Verde was a very poor country, but has achieved political and economic stability. That is unusual in Africa, so I add that to the story because Pryer can’t take over through money nor politics.  He tries, though. That leads to some interesting questions about the nature of colonisation, the original Portuguese colonisers and slave trading, and the story gains more depth. And so it goes on.

You don’t need to add the information to the sequence of locations in any particular order, because the sequence is grounded in the landscape. You can never run out of space or story to add an infinite amount of information to every single location.

And everything you ever hear about Cape Verde from now on will make you see little green men from the moon wearing capes. I promise. Sorry about that!

______

Kath’s email in full:
Dear Lynne,

I am partway through your fascinating book, which I borrowed from the new books’ shelf at Yass Library last week. I read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’ many years ago, and found that very interesting too. Before that, I had never heard of songlines nor learnt much of Aboriginal culture, other than the pathetic smattering we received in primary school in the 1970s and 80s.

However, like most things I have read in my life, I have forgotten most of the book! I therefore found your explanation of your memory experiments both amazing and inspiring.

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. For instance, my main hobby/interest outside of work is tai chi and qigong. (If you are not familiar with the term qigong, pronounced chi-goong, it loosely translates as ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘energy work’. Tai chi is one form of qigong). I have read a lot about the subject, which I practise for about two hours each day, but like everything else, the information goes into my mind and almost straight out again. Each week my teacher, who is a veritable font of information, tells us more, which also goes into my notebook and then straight out of my head.

The knowledge of the art of tai chi, which is rooted in Taoism, is incredibly deep and complex; it’s the kind of thing that once you start learning, you realise there’s no end to it. I was reflecting that it’s a bit like the encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous societies that you write of. Much of the knowledge is stored in the movements themselves and the guiding principles behind the movements. But much is also written down, or presented as symbols or drawings. Like you were saying about the ‘simplified’ versions of Dreamtime stories in books for non-indigenous readers, there are levels upon levels of knowledge. You might hear the teacher say the same thing every year for ten years, and each time you hear it, you understand it in a different way or on a deeper level, depending on your amount of experience and knowledge. Some of the knowledge is also ‘secret’ in that it can only be told orally from teacher to student, and not written down. I never knew why, but from your book I can now guess that it’s to prevent corruption of the knowledge/Chinese whisper effect.

So I guess what I am asking, if you are able and willing, is for a few pointers on how I can begin to memorise and therefore gain a deeper understanding of this complex art.

For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

All the best, and I am looking forward to continuing your book.
Kath

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13 Responses to Starting a contemporary songline

  1. John Seed says:

    Hi Lynne, I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants, for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like.

    I’m fascinated by the Universe Story and will begin my first songline memorising The Cosmic Walk http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/cosmic.htm one of the processes I facilitate in my experiential deep ecology workshops http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/schedule.htm

    Speaking of workshops, I see mention of workshops in the thread above, are your workshops about building memory palaces? If so, I’d dearly like to attend one.

    The other thing I’d like to learn is the map of the Milky Way, I wonder if it would be possible to use the night sky itself as the palace that helps one to remember the names of stars and constellations and then begin to populate these with facts about them, distances, sizes and the like?

    love your work

    • lynne says:

      Hi John,

      Thank you so much for this comment. It is such an important question (set of questions!) that I am going to reply in a full blog post.

      Meanwhile – the answer to the bit about improved memory overall is definitely yes. I am not sure if it is confidence, concentration, making hooks, all of the above … but it is certainly vastly better. I have a lot more to say about this, so will write a blog post. I hope to have it done in the next 24 hours or so.

      Thank you again,

      Lynne

    • lynne says:

      Hi John,

      I have answered the questions about workshops and fading memory with age as a post in its own right. It is now the front page post on Memory and Ageing. It took me much longer than I expected. Doesn’t everything?

      I am very keen to hear how your songline goes – your ecology workshops and philosophy is so impressive.

      I am also using the skycape as one of my memory experiments. Most, if not all, Indigenous cultures use the night skyscape much the way they do the landscape as a memory place. The characters created by the patterns in the stars are used to tell stories which encode information about the changing star patterns over the annual cycle which is used to run a calendar. But they are often much more than that – the characters also tell other stories to ended different genres of information.

      Please let me know how you go with your memory experiments.

      Lynne

      • John Seed says:

        Thanks Lynne, not quite sure how to start my experiments before attending one of your workshops so look forward to you scheduling that. You’ve clearly done a lot of experimenting so why re-invent the wheel?
        Maybe I could help organise one near Sydney for that matter? Do you have other people up this way who have expressed interest?

  2. Erin Kelly says:

    Hi Lynne,
    I’m making a ‘songline’ as you described in your book and it’s true, it’s very easy and the images stick in your head like magic! I’ve got 190 so far, nearly done, but with no other information other than country names for most of them.
    I just had a quick question – do you find that eventually you can remember your songline path without actually walking it? I’m making a ‘countries of the world’ one but I can only remember a lot of the locations if I actually walk the street I am using. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed that you start to internalise the streetscape so that you can ‘walk’ it mentally.
    Oh another question – how do you work with numbers, such as populations? I’d love to add markers every so often so that I can get a ballpark figure of the population of the country in question.
    Thank you for taking the time to teach us these techniques!
    Erin

    • lynne says:

      Hi Erin,

      I’m really pleased to hear that you have found creating a song line as effective as I claim. I’m still constantly surprised by it which I shouldn’t be given that Indigenous cultures have used this method for millennia. 190 is amazing! What’s also important – and I’d love to hear your reaction to this after you’ve had them in place for a while – is the way this gives you a structure which is firmly grounded to add more and more information to over the years and in no particular order. If you want to add the capital of Fiji for some reason, then you don’t have to do all the countries before it first. Once the structure is in place you can add information according to whatever happens to capture your attention at any given time.

      As for remembering my songline path without actually walking it, yes I do that most of the time. But the critical thing is that you must know your memory palace well before you start encoding to it. My first 120 countries are around the house and garden so they are easy. From then on I head off down the street and I’ve carefully marked every fifth location in some way. I also recite those countries in a sing-song way which gives me a rhythm that prompts the correct song and indicates immediately if I’ve skipped one or somehow got out of sync. I absolutely internalise the streetscape (what a lovely way of putting it!) and it becomes very precious to me. We’re just glimpsing this method. Can you imagine what it would be like if that streetscape and all the associated information was part of your heritage of thousands of years and been part of your life every day since birth? And then imagine what would happen if some coloniser put a fence across it and shot you if you went there? It was simply horrific what was done to Aboriginal cultures.

      With the populations I do exactly as you suggest, ballpark figures. I attach them to every fifth country which helps with the rhythms and making every fifth country standout because it’s one that has a population attached. I have done approximate populations for the first 20 countries because they reduce so quickly, but from then on it’s only every fifth country. As long as the 100 million, 10 million, million and 100,000 are clearly in place, then you only need some kind of figure in that gap. For example, I have Bahrain on the corner with a lamppost which has two side branches on it. That gives me 1.2 and I know that it’s a bit before the 1 million location and so I know its 1.2 million. But it’s not worth remembering the populations too accurately which I tried to do it first. They keep changing so much depending on when the census was taken and their level of birth control. So now I just have a vague idea. I assume they have all gone up a little bit from when I encoded them. I just checked and Bahrain has had a new census and population growth and is now at 1.3 million. But I certainly have them in order and I would never consider Bahrain as having, say. 10 million people.

      I hope that answers your questions, but if not please just ask again. I’d love to hear how you go with this!

      Lynne

  3. Julie says:

    Hello Lynne!
    Thankyou very much for your reply. I might just start on my own anyway and wanted to do Australian or even Victorian wildflowers but cannot find a comprehensive list. Would you mind telling me what source you used? There are over 400 angiosperm families and I was getting overwhelmed. Failing that I will try for Australian trees but would love to do wildflowers..

    I will contact you next February anyway.Meanwhile all the very best with your travels and lauunches. Congratulations!
    thankyou
    Julie

    • lynne says:

      I have used the list of local species from the local field naturalists. I figured that if they didn’t include them, then they were too rare or insignificant to be relevant initially. 400 Angiosperm families is a huge number.

      The system is always expandable later. You can add any new family to the one nearest to it taxonomically (I would do them in taxonomic order, not in alphabetic) either by finding some new significant location to add in, or by adding the new family to the nearest family already there through a story.

      I am going interstate next week and going to start moving up from the 408 birds for Victoria to end up with all the birds for Australia, way over 700. I know there are about 40 of those which are vagrant or rare in Victoria. I’ll add new families to gaps or by adding to the story of another family. I’ll add new species to the stories, but somehow indicate in the story that I am now out of Victoria, and then some way of indicating if they ever venture down here. I am not sure how I’ll do it exactly yet – that is the fun I’ll have next week. But the beauty of the system is that you can always add more – I know it is possible so the method will come to me when I start with the first new family or species.

      I am not sure if that is any help. Please stay in touch. I am keen to know how you go.

      Lynne

  4. Julie says:

    Hi Lynne
    Your book Memory Code is amazing and I really want to do your next workshop. But I’m not on facebook. Can you let me know?
    thankyou!

    • lynne says:

      Hi Julie,

      Thank you so much for commenting and saying such lovely things. At this stage I have no plans for further workshops because I have a lot of presentations coming up. The I will be going to the US and UK in February for the launches there. So I won’t be doing any workshops until at least March next year. Please feel free to check again there, but I will also make sure I mention it on the blog and not just Facebook. I am worried that by then I will forget who to contact and would hate to let you down by promising to contact you.

      Thank you again for your comments and interest. It is much appreciated. I am sorry I could not be more helpful.

      Lynne

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