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In conversation with Bruce Pascoe

By 20/03/2019June 14th, 2019No Comments

Key talking points, and an audience Q&A session with Bruce Pascoe at the 2019 Local Landcare Coordinator State Gathering, 18-20 March 2019 at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. Written and transcribed by our local coordinator, Clare Vernon.

Bruce Pascoe. (Credit: Rachel Mounsey, Gippslandia, 2017.)

Bruce Pascoe, of Bunurong and Tasmanian heritage is an internationally renowned speaker on Indigenous Australian agriculture. Author of Dark Emu, Bruce gave an engaging and insightful look into traditional grassland management for cultivation and the role of Landcaring in renewing and restoring our shared landscapes. Bruce can be credited with redefining the concept of country, and how we – as Landcarers, Bushcarers and primary produces – value this amazing landscape. Below are some of the key talking points from Bruce’s’ presentation at the 2019 State Landcare Coordinator Gathering, either quoted or transcribed from his presentation.

On Kangaroo Grass and cultivation of native seeds

Kangaroo grass is found across Australia, ground for flour and cultivated in vast grasslands. Indeed, compared to the Indigenous and Australian grain belts, nearly all Indigenous people across all nations were involved in some form of pastoral cultivation and grain-based food production (Tindale, 1974). Studies with Melbourne University have looked into the nutritional value of harvesting and converting these seeds to flour – with Bruce reporting excellent taste and texture in 60:40 plain flour to kangaroo grass, and 100% kangaroo grass varieties. Yield per acre is tiny compared to traditional wheat and oat crops. However these perennial native crops, such as bullrush, yam daisies and water lillies are able to survive severe drought through deep rooted systems – in contrast to the shallow rooted annual or seasonal crops currently grown now. Indeed, these crops require vast amounts of inputs (water, Super Phosphate) and tractor inputs for cultivation. Native crops require none, and with the future of climate change together with the potential future carbon markets and government/economic systems to offset carbon emissions and preserve native grasslands, these crops may well be more profitable and shift the Australian pastoral landscape in the near future.

Themeda triandra, or kangaroo grass is widespread across Australia. This plant was cultivated throughout the Australian wheat belt and across the southern portion of the Northern Territory and into Western Australia by Indigenous people for thousands of years. (Credit: user ‘Peripitus’, Wikipedia. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0).

On the lack of awareness of Indigenous cultivation techniques

However, there is a notable lack of schools and university based education to bring awareness of Indigenous cultivation and land management practices beyond cultural burning. Bruce argues this infantalisation of Indigenous culture has perpetuated a lack of respect, and even a disregard for the Indigenous cultivation systems and the complex, intimate Indigenous knowledge of the landscape and native species. The Cry of the Reed Warbler, The Biggest Estate on Earth and Dark Emu all reference Indigenous people tilling the land.

“Aboriginal people were intensively using the land. Not monocropping…. Multiple plants growing in the same ara, and some of them being used to improve the soil”.

Bruce then presented the audience with Indigenous stone tools, used for harrowing, picking and weeding. These specialised tools were created specifically for land and soil characteristics, and targeted at the desired weed species to be removed from the pastoral landscape. According to Bruce, there are three rooms at the Australian Museum with hundreds of stone artefacts. “Every Australian student should know about it [Indigenous cultivation tools] and yet none do.” An on-display example can be found in Dalesford, Victoria. Further examples of complex, highly sophisticated Indigenous culture can be found in 120,000 year-old houses in NSW and Warrnambool, and the oldest human structures on Earth – the Berwonna Goose Traps.

On the term ‘bush tucker’

“[The term] ‘bush tucker’ plays down our Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal people have been cultivating, harvesting and preserving foods deliberately for thousands of years.”

Q&A with the audience

How did a former school teacher become a writer about Natural Australian Landscapes?

“I’m ashamed to say I began in anger… Concerned about my family’s experience …. and our story wasn’t in [the] history books….Not in school books or at university. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not in the history books.”

Bruce’s literary career was a result of this lack of communication, and acknowledgement of the complexity and history of Indigenous people. Angry his culture was not considered alive and worthy of literary and academic recordings, Bruce shifted from a career in fiction to nonfiction writing. In his words: “Dark Emu has had a big impact… It’s because my grandmother bribed me to go to school…. From a family of no schooling at all, all thirteen cousins graduated from uni/college because of that one woman [grandmother]. Because of her we can!”. Bruce continues: “telling stories was the way we communicated [from his father’s side]. It [literary career] was a culmination of accidents to occur.”

How can Landcare bridge this gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous land management, and recognise the methods of traditional owners?

“Realise as a nation, bashing the hell out of the soil… taking every tree out of the gully and having enormous erosion [is not working]. Landcare came in… and people were going into the Creeks of Apollo Bay and …. Planting trees on the riverbank. Simple stuff like that. Not rocket science.” Bruce elaborates, talking about his property on the banks on the Genoa River in far East Gippsland and the Landcare work there (and the extensive involvement of his son). “We don’t own Mother Earth. She owns is.”

On the role of cool burning, Indigenous knowledge and cultivation of grasslands.

Bruce is quick to emphasise that cool burning is critical – but only at the right time of year. Knowledge has been lost, and it is an ongoing process to restore and relearn the traditional methods of landscape management. “We ask the old people and we go back to the literature… [They had] intimate knowledge of when to burn (day length, wind and dew), fires and taking care…”.

On discussing Indigenous food, native grasses as cultivated crops and Indigenous ownership of traditional food resources.

Bruce is enthusiastic to talk about Indigenous people owning and working in the scape of Indigenous food cultivation, harvesting, marketing and sale. He points fo Sharon Windsor of Mudgee, IndigiEarth & Black Duck (Bruce’s’ own food company planning to develop and sell kangaroo-grass flour products next year). He notes that there is substantial work and interest in Western Australia, with consumers embracing traditional foods. “[We’re] trying to organise ourselves so large food companies don’t put a brand on it and dispossess us once again… we don’t want to be dispossessed twice.” Bruce emphasises that Indigenous people must be able to sell, and take ownership of the native food industry and process.

Indigenous stone tools – such as this cultivation pick – are found across Australia, and evidence of the highly sophisticated and complex farming systems of Indigenous people. (Credit: Australian Farmers, 2018.)

What partnerships (government or private) do you believe we need to pursue most urgently to realise real change?

“We need to be in that conversation when they do. We need to be able to guide and implement government policy. If were in there in conversation we can influence that, but Aboriginal groups must be involved…. We had an enthusiastic [non-Indigenous commercial] group on the South Coast, but the only thing they forgot to do was be involved in the local Aboriginal community…. Involve [Indigenous people] at the start of an organisation, not at the end of a project when you [need a box ticked]. Do it at the conception of the idea, and be prepared to be suprised by the involvement of Aboriginal people…. See kids who are real ratbags to turn into real decent people [by respecting culture and including them in agriculture]”.

Next book?

Bruce has plans for a short story and novel, as well as The Young Dark Emu children’s book in June (a rewriting of Dark Emu for a younger audience). Bruce is looking at more books following on from the legacy of Dark Emu, and is working on an Aboriginal History of Australia for 8-12 year olds in collaboration with the National Library of Australia.

Closing thoughts:

“Land and care and love”, and: “we’re starting to look at the old history of this place, 120,000 years… Archeology of Australia and how there is so much coming out now. We’ll be teaching our kids about this in 10 years time.”

Dark Emu, the groundbreaking book written by Bruce Pascoe exploring Indigenous agriculture in Australia.

You can read more and keep updated with Bruce on his website here. Bruce has appeared at TedXSydney, and has established Black Duck Foods to bring Indigenous foods to the marketplace, whilst retaining Indigenous ownership of the entire ‘paddock-to-plate’ process. Dark Emu is available from all good booksellers.

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