This is my submission for this week’s competition
Whom do I admire?
“I know it’s around here somewhere, quite close I think.”
The hot, dry January air of the Blue Mountains hit my skin like a blast furnace as I left the air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle. Miles Little unfolded his long limbs from the driver’s seat, and stretched the stiffness from his arms. Shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun, he scanned the dense bush to the side of the rough track.
“Ah, yes. Just through here: that tall stone was my landmark. Just be careful as you go, and look out for snakes along the path.”
Miles’s charmingly precocious nine-year-old daughter Phoebe (‘Flea’ to her family), oblivious to the heat and to the warning, bounded from the car and made straight for the almost invisible opening by the tall red rock. Miles followed more cautiously, calling another warning, and I followed his footsteps with mixed excitement and trepidation. His delightful wife Penny stayed behind in the cool of the car: she had seen them before, she said.
Taking the lead, Miles guided us some 40 metres into the bush, pushing aside the low, scrubby indigenous vegetation, until he found an area of flat stones beneath the shelter of a tall gum tree.
“Here it is. It’s a long time since I’ve seen this one, but it was one of my favourites. What do you think?”
Carved deeply into the stone was an image of a strange creature; the nearest thing I could relate it to was a hedgehog. It was 18 inches across, with a pointed snout and finely detailed markings on what I presumed was its back. Small patches of yellow-green lichen were dotted over its surface. “Wow, that’s beautiful. What is it?” I asked.
“I know,” cried Flea, as she traced the deep carvings with her finger. “We did them at school. It’s a spiny anteater. It’s got a proper name, like ‘edika’ or ‘kinder’, something like that. That’s right Daddy, isn’t it?”
“Well done, Flea. The word is echidna. It’s a very unusual animal, because it’s an egg laying mammal. This one and the platypus are the only ones still extant, and there aren’t many depictions of it in aboriginal art. This one’s a very fine example, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
I was dumbstruck by the revelation of the magnificent carving. “It’s beautiful. How old would this be, Miles? And how on earth did you find it?”
Miles laughed. “Well, it could be anything from 5000 years to the 19th century. There are plenty of ancient carvings that have been dated, but some nomadic aboriginal peoples continued to produce stone carvings until only a few hundred years ago. In more recent times of course the multicoloured paintings depicting their natural environment are much better known. What we don’t know is why they would choose to carve this particular creature in this particular site. We believe they probably mark a mythological event of spiritual significance, to do with their relationship with the land.”
Flea wandered off to explore the bush, maybe hoping to find more carvings. I wiped the sweat from my brow, waving my bush hat at the ubiquitous flies circling my head, as Miles went on to describe his former explorations. Over the course of many summers as a high school pupil and then as a medical student, he had set about rediscovering carvings and cave paintings which had been described in a Victorian work he had found in an antiquarian bookshop. Using the landmarks the 19th century explorers had described, he painstakingly hunted in the bush and found several pieces which had lain hidden for over a century. These he photographed and sketched, and his first academic publication was a highly regarded paper on these lost aboriginal works of art, in the Australian Journal of Ethnography. And today I was privileged to be one of very few people to benefit from his work.
But Miles was not by profession an ethnographer, nor was this the reason for my visit. He was at that time Professor of Surgery at Westmead Medical School 16 miles west of Sydney, and I was in Australia as a visiting professor. We shared the same surgical specialty interests, and also an early interest in computers, and had published some papers together on statistical risk prediction in patients with jaundice. I am 10 years Miles’s junior, and felt privileged to be invited to his department and indeed to share his home and his lovely family for several weeks.
Miles retired from surgical practice 20 years ago now, but his intellectual contribution was not to be stifled. He was invited by the University of Sydney to found and direct the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, a unique institution in the world of medicine and education. I was invited to contribute to his retirement Festschrift, and was even then in awe of the assembled intellects in the fields of philosophy, psychology and linguistics, gathered to mark his achievements. When I returned home to the UK, I bought a copy of his recently published book, ‘Restoring Humane Values to Medicine’, and discovered to my shame that I didn’t even understand some of the words in his chapter titles, like epistemology, hermeneutics and semiotics! However, I devoured the contents with admiration, and I think I even absorbed some of its important messages.
One chapter in the book was entitled ‘Does reading poetry make you a better clinician?’ This reflects yet another facet of this remarkable man. He has published poetry in a number of literary magazines, and his small collection ‘Round Trip’ contains at least one poem which moved me to tears. He continues to write, but not to publish.
His work at the University has continued undiminished well into his retirement. I visited him again a couple of years ago, at his new home with Penny in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. Their children are long since grown up, ‘Flea’ now directing an art gallery in the UK.
Need I say more then, to explain why I admire this man? The words ‘polymath’ and ‘Renaissance Man’ are certainly overused, but I know of no other in my experience who more roundly deserves these accolades. Saving your blushes, Miles Little – poet, philosopher, surgeon, educator, statistician, ethnographer, explorer – I admire you.