Lightning Man Cometh

In Greek mythology, it was Zeus who sent thunderbolts and lightning crackling through the sky. In Norse mythology, Thor with his mighty hammer claimed that role. Here in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia, that power is wielded by an important creation ancestor called Namarrkon, aka Lightning Man. But whereas Zeus and Thor show off their flashy talents at will, Namarrkon has a special mission. Depicted with stone axes on his head, elbows and feet, he splits open the clouds and releases the rain to signal the arrival of the wet season. The young Aboriginal ranger who led our rock art tour at Kakadu National Park laughingly described Namarrkon as the “anti-Thor,” and in early November he stepped onto the stage.

Namarrkon as depicted at Kakadu National Park

Namarrkon makes his entrance in a transitional period known as the “build-up” that stretches from roughly from September to mid-December. During this time, the heat and humidity steadily increase to sweatbox conditions, clouds billow into the previously all-blue sky, and the rain ramps up from sprinkles to showers to short downpours. By October Namarrkon should be hard at work, electrifying the air with thunder and lightning and dumping rain by the bucketful, drenching and re-greening the parched land. The storms grow more frequent and violent, culminating in mid-December when the full-fledged monsoon rains kick in. Then, we are told, we can expect monstrous black clouds and rain so thick you can barely breathe.

This year, based on record high temperatures in July, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) had predicted an even earlier start to the build-up. Indeed, it was hot (low 90s) when Corroboree tied up in Darwin in August and proceeded to get hotter (high 90s). By September, as scheduled, the humidity and clouds crept in. Though Corroboree doesn’t have air-conditioning, between cabin fans, sun shades draping the deck, and the afternoon sea breeze, living aboard was mostly bearable. Once the sun set, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and with a cool night breeze flowing into the forward cabin we slept well. Nevertheless, in anticipation of the sweltering conditions to come, we lined up housesitting jobs for almost all of October-March. Oh, lovely A/C and ice-cold orange juice!  

September – Bright blue sky in Darwin. Corroboree is on the right.
October – Clouds come and go

Meanwhile, Namarrkon was a puzzling no-show. Apparently, he didn’t read that BOM memo about his early arrival. Though the clouds continued to mount, in all of October the only precipitation Eric and I experienced was a few fleeting rainfalls. Then on 2 November Lightning Man finally revealed himself, waking us at our current housesit with rumbles of thunder. We sat up in bed in the pre-dawn dark, listening to the volume escalate from a low grumble to a loud complaint to a percussive, cannon-sized boom that felt right overhead. The next instant rain exploded onto the roof and wind whipped at the windows. We couldn’t see from our bedroom window whether Namarrkon was flinging lightning as well. He kept at it with his axes for an hour, followed by a less tempestuous but persistent rainfall for an hour more. By afternoon, the sky had cleared.   

My understanding is that the Aboriginal people do not have a single, overall deity. Moreover, as our Kakadu guide explained, each language group throughout Australia has its own stories. So while versions of Lightning Man may overlap from one group to another, his manifestation as Namarrkon is specific to this part of the NT. What I find most telling about Aboriginal beliefs is that creation ancestors like Namarrkon didn’t just bring the landscape into being. They taught the people how to live with the land so they could become wise keepers of it. The elders continue to pass on this knowledge today.

November – The clouds get bigger
…and bigger

It’s timely, then, that while we’re experiencing this dramatic weather in Darwin, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference is underway in Glasgow and that the Climate Council has ranked Australia last among the developed nations on climate performance and pledges. The Australian government responded by calling the report “misleading and complete rubbish.” The prime minister, Scott Morrison, says the country will tackle climate issues “the Australian way” by leaving it to scientists, technologists, engineers, entrepreneurs, industrialists and financiers to “chart the path to net zero.” The federal government’s job is to “back” these entities while they determine the future. In short, the government will not lead, only follow.  

In the coming months, we’ll see what Namarrkon has to say about that. I realize that many of the climate promises and goals set by other countries may be hollow or over-ambitious, and they, too, need to be held to account. But of one thing I am sure. Abdicating responsibility is not the Australian way, and most of the Australians of every background that Eric and I have met are concerned about their environment. Between ancient wisdom and ingenious modern technology, the answers and the tools are at hand. We can do this..

7 November – The sky at our housesit. The clouds continued to merge until the sky was solid gray…
…then the rain came down. Though I did not see Namarrkon, this is his handiwork.