Bruce Pascoe

28 April 2014 — May I name an unsung hero, someone who may do more than many to sustain Australia?

An Aboriginal man, Bruce Pascoe, writes adult and kids fiction (and won the 2013 Prime Minister’s award) as well as history, and he’s got that wondrous thing – a curious and courageous mind.

Pascoe’s new book, Dark Emu, meticulously examines explorer diaries as few modern historians have done. He draws on escaped convict stories and writings, and highlights some extraordinary early modern Australia records. The book convincingly shows that Indigenous Australians were sophisticated farmers, grew fields of grain and edible plants, consistently won large and adequate “commercial-sized” catches of fish in inland rivers and coastal waters, made flour and stored it (often to be stolen by explorers), and appreciated and promoted soil fertility, crop rotation and sustainable harvesting of fish, grain and animals.

Dark Emu

It’s likely that the Aboriginal fish traps in Brewarrina, New South Wales are Earth’s first human construction, perhaps 40,000 years old, with stone arches and keystones. An extraordinary photo (held in the Brewarrina Aboriginal Museum) shows a fish almost a metre long with a swallow-like tail being held by an Aboriginal man standing in the traps, but no fish of that variety has been seen since. The book enquires as to the date these fish traps were built.

Details and a widely cast net of research supports analysis. And more – given the violence and betrayals by we colonisers of Indigenous Australians -– the author’s remarkable restraint and understated, finely wrought passion is a delight. Until this book I was unaware several white explorers killed their Aboriginal guides after being taken to their destinations – that is, the explorers got to their destinations using fear and terror.

Not since I read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines as a young adult and began to sense how little I understood my country have I got from a book such a strong idea of Indigenous Australians, our land, food, water and culture.

Pascoe is a person who writes about the past to suggest solutions for the future.

So forensic is the research I’m compelled to agree most history about Indigenous Australians has been substantially distorted.

Pascoe asks a question that may hearten many farmers about to abandon their farm or who are depressed about farming and may not know they are farming against the grain of this country’s soil and climate – that by copying successful Aboriginal farming methods they can return to profits:

He asks, “…what would happen if we tried some of the Aboriginal grains instead of the thirsty and disease-prone grains of Asia and Europe? After studying Aboriginal yields from yam daisies it is easy to imagine a potato farmer turning over part of his farm to yam, thus avoiding the need to use fertiliser and herbicides.

“The yam (Microseris lanceolata) is sweet and crisp and metabolises sugars in a way that is much healthier for our bodies than many current commercial crops… There’s no contemporary market for these grains but I bet a stall in any city market could sell flours from these grains at premium prices to whole foods enthusiasts. Markets are created by entrepreneurs. Set aside a few paddocks and have some fun and I’ll eat my boot if it doesn’t yield a profit.”

People like Bruce Pascoe help me to stay in the game.

He will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 24 May.

But where will the water, food and energy for the Sydney Writer’s Festival come from? Will it use GreenPower, rainwater, food waste to compost back to farm, local food? What can we make of festivals that don’t conserve energy, water, soil, food expended at their functions yet sell tickets to people attracted by writers who write with respect for Earth’s resources?

Seems weird to expect a festival to show spiritual and physical connection to water and land but a growing number do pride themselves on walking the talk of their writers. I don’t’ see much difference between explorers stealing Aboriginal food and festivals today polluting our air and sending food waste to generate methane in landfill, except the festivals should know better.

Thank you Magabala Books for publishing Dark Emu. I hope it sells like hotcakes.

Your cover doesn’t disclose it, but from which trees were the book’s paper sourced? If from Sumatra or China’s ravaged moonscapes or some such then Magabala and those funding the book might hang their heads in shame for the bloodied bodies of the animals and birds that died in the trees for that paper and the soil that pours daily into the ocean from ancient forests destroyed for its pages.

Or maybe, if its stretched resources permitted, Greenpeace could make a video like the one it made to protect Asian forests and do the shaming for you? That’s the one where someone bit into a Nestle chocolate bar and the next image showed blood spurting from an Orangutan killed by loggers who were clearing the way for chocolate ingredients to be grown.

See this story in The Age.

In simple, short, direct language, Pascoe refocuses how we might think about where our culture is going:

“Darwinism and its Medean outlook may provide solace to those unwilling to investigate the colonial past and its decimation of indigenous populations across the globe, but the future of the world and its creatures deserves our most coherent thought and judgement. To wonder about the trajectory of modern civilisations is not to sneer at private enterprise or scientific enquiry but to wish those energies were directed in such a way that they do not destroy the planet…

“Maybe the destiny of mankind is still in flux and the present inculcation, of which we are so rightly in awe, has within its genius some dangerous flaws. The drive towards excellence fuelled by the system of private enterprise has an embedded need for exponential population growth and, as we’ve experienced in the last few decades, this system seems incapable of protecting key resources such as air quality, fertile soils and clean water.

“It’s not the difference between capitalism and communism; it’s the difference between capitalism and Aboriginalism. Capitalism provides a platform for decisions among fellow capitalists but shudders under the load of persuading communities over vast areas of country. If that were not so we would not have reached such impasse with our management of the Murray Darling basin, we would never have considered leaving a state in our Federation without drinking water, we would not have laws which allow coal seam gas miners to ruin a farmer’s land and threaten the very groundwater of the continent.”

Bruce Pascoe will talk to Lydia Miller about his book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 24 May.

Michael Mobbs built Sydney’s Sustainable House in 1996, which provides it’s own water, sewage and energy services in inner Sydney. He has written two books, Sustainable House and Sustainable Food. See