Bruce Pascoe on aboriginal horticulture

Interview by Andy Paine with Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu.

Bruce: My name is Bruce Pascoe. I’m a Yuin, (indistinct) and Bunurong man. Our heritage goes from Tasmania to the south coast of New South Wales.

Andy: And you’re an author … you’ve written over your life, mostly novels. But quite notably, in the last few years, you wrote a history book, Dark Emu? What was the inspiration of moving into the realm of nonfiction?

Bruce: Well, it was the fact that I couldn’t find any Australian histories which describe the experience of my own family. And so I decided I would have to write a history which talked about how Aboriginal people actually experienced colonialism.

Andy: And as part of this history, it involves digging up, I guess, elements of Aboriginalculture that haven’t been covered in history before some of the technology and the agricultural techniques and things like this, that were a part of Aboriginal life, but I’ve been not recorded by traditional historians. Is that right?

Bruce: That’s right. I wrote a book on the contact wars of Australia before ‘Dark Emu‘ called ‘Convincing Ground‘. And the information I was finding out there, while not particularly relevant to the contact wars, was really disturbing me because I were talking about what explorers and Australian farming pioneers, so called pioneers, were witnessing of Aboriginal peoples’ land use. And so much of it was a complete culture shock to me.

Bruce: I was ashamed as an Aboriginal person not to have known this. So I was finding out about Aboriginal people tilling land that was so vast that reached to the horizon, stooking and harvesting grain. Stooks which went across country for nine miles, all of these things which just didn’t fit with the hunter gatherer myth that we’d been told by our forefathers and our educators. So I was more or less stuck with having to write that book.

Andy: So, you said that it was almost by accident that you came across this in the accounts of early settlers. Was it difficult finding this information?

Bruce: No, that’s the best the shameful thing. It’s all on the public record. And most of the things I found out, you can walk into your local library and find out because they’re in the major explorers journals. There are some other things which I had to dig a little deeper for, but even if he does read the explorers journals, that information is there.

Bruce: The two examples I gave you are in Mitchell and Sturt. And the thing that really worried me was that I wasn’t the first person to have read these accounts. So other people had read them before me, and not considered those facts, significant for Australia. I think, perhaps my advantage was that I was looking at it from an Aboriginal point of view. So itdid interest me anyway. But it’s still depressing to think of all those professors that went before me reading those things. And not seeing it being of any interest to Australia. You know, our history, as taught to me when I was at school, and university was pretty boring. You know, you get enough of wheat, wool and gold. And, you know, this other information would have been fascinating. And, when I start … when I talked to young Australians about it, between the ages of 5 and 25, they’re fascinated, because they didn’t know it … it interesting stuff in its own right, it talks about human development, that goes back a long, long time. Long, longer than any other place on earth. And naturally, people are interested in it, because it talks a little about the human experience, the human history.
And I’m just glad that we’re now starting to have that conversation.

Andy: You said that for you as an Aboriginal person, you’d never heard this before and it was new information. Is that the case for most Aboriginal people across Australia that these histories are lost, even to them, or there’s some places have a memory of …

Bangarra’s Dark Emu

Bruce: Yeah, most people, most Aboriginal people didn’t know this stuff, because they’d had an Australian education. And they’d lived under Australian political rules. So you don’t find out these things, because the whole myth of the colonization is against you being able to learn these things. So since I’ve been speaking about it though, Aboriginal people have contacted me. And this happened after ‘Convincing Ground‘ as well, because I, I learned a lot about massacres that had never been recorded, and what … including ones that’s, you know, an hour and a half drive from where I live, which involve members of my own family. And that was very disturbing. To know that I was living on country that had that experience for my own family was very disturbing. But Aboriginal people started writing to me before and after dark gave me a comment with incredible information about how people manage the land, and how we managed crops and how we managed food production, how we managed food preservation, and food storage. And these things you just don’t hear about in years one and two at university, you know. And we ought to. It’s Australian history, and our young people ought to know these things … it shouldn’t be hidden from them. And it has been, deliberately hidden from them.

Andy: What are the implications for Aboriginal people now learning this information?

Bruce: Well, I’m very, very impressed by young Australians. And I’m very impressed by young Aboriginal Australians to and these are people who are more likely to be worried about plastics in the ocean, degradation of the sea and degradation of the land and more worried about what we’re doing to refugees. So these people, both black and white, are interested in these ideas from a social justice point of view. So it’s a refreshing conversation for someone as old as me to have this kind of discussion with young Australians, because my own generation is pretty hopeless. And, you know, to be cheered up at this end of my life.

We’re speaking with Bruce Pascoe, author of the book, Dark Emu, let’s go back to that interview.

Andy: You said that it’s been deliberately hidden, these ideas. Obviously, it was in the interests of pastoralists and things like that, to not say that the land had previously been worked by somebody else. What, what do you think are the forces behind this are hiding of history,

Bruce: Greed, land greed, and land greed is the thing that has devastated the world. Aboriginal people have been here for 120,000 years. And in that time, we developed the law, which everybody would get fade. Everybody would have a house and everybody would take part in the culture and when they’re old, they’d be looked after and that land war was forbidden. That’s the culture that began we don’t know when, but sometime around 100,000 years ago, and it was picked up by the new generation every year, every generation readopted this law.

And that’s incredible because the rest of the world was in chaos and turmoil with one king, assassinating another king, one coin, having another coins head, cut off all of this kind of rubbish, which is all about greed. It’s not about justice. It’s not about law, not about looking out for the people. It’s about ambition. And here we have young Aboriginal people adopting the law that their forefathers set down. And I’m sure that it was done. Because of the intrinsic fairness, how could you argue with a law, which said that everybody would be treated equally? It’s the longest live social development on earth, and was probably the first where people began to live together

and make laws together in an organized way. And Australia doesn’t think about these things. But I think is vital. This is probably our greatest export, the export of generosity and peace.

Andy: Do you think that Dark Emu contributes to Australia’s notion of national identity by shining a light on a bit of our pre-colonial history?

Bruce: It certainly does. I speak to so many Australians, both black and white, who say the book changed their life, well, it changed my bloody life to have just had an enormous impact on me. And not all of it positive because I’m running around like a hearing code all over the country. And it’s impacted on on me, but I can’t withdraw from this battle. This is a gentle battle, but I can’t withdraw from it. Because it’s my responsibility now. And the story came to me out of the ground, it wasn’t didn’t come out of my own genius. Because if it had come out of my own genius, I would have thought of it, I would have challenged the things that my teachers told me, but I didn’t. Because I’ve got only normal intelligence. But when I started reading these things, at the behest of my elders, and from an Aboriginal point of view, it changed everything. That’s the only two things that are different. And so people come up to me with tears in their eyes and say, the book changed their life. And I say, well, this great land changed both our lives.

Andy: There has been a response, it seems like it’s grown steadily in the years since the book came out a couple of years ago. The notoriety and the influence of the book, is that how you felt it developing?

Bruce: Yeah, it’s totally word of mouth. The book virtually had no publicity. It’s come out of one of the smaller publishing houses in Australia, an Aboriginal publishing house, which has had trouble getting traction for its books. But this book has been built by word of mouth. And a lot of it is due to young people. It’s young people who ring me up who email me who send the book onto each other. And they’re the promoters of these ideas.

Andy: Have you seen the dance inspired by the book by Bangarra company? What did you think of it?

Bruce: Look, I love that .. I love the whole experience. I loved it. When Steven Page said he was going to do it, I couldn’t believe that he was going to do it. I didn’t know how he was going to do it. We had quite a few meetings with the dancers and with Steven and the choreographers and all of that. And they kept on saying to me, what do you think? No, I say, Well, look, you’re the dancers. You’re the choreographers. I’m a writer, you know, I don’t care what you do just on the book. And I know your will, because every other thing you’ve ever done, and I’ve seen every Bangarra dance, every time they’ve honored the culture, and in Thrall of Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australian all around the country and overseas. I knew they’d do a good job. So I was just on a bloody picnic, really. And I took my daughter and granddaughter to see the show. And there was a little bit of free champagne. You know, what’s not to like about?

Andy: Some of the things that I’ve seen you say imply that you’ve had some trouble with, I guess, academia about some of the ideas in the book. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Bruce: Yeah, well, I was taken to task by some well-meaning academics who thought that I was trying to pull the wool over Australia … trying to exaggerate Aboriginal performance and achievement. And it inspired me actually, because I was on a track and I was writing essays and telling these stories to anyone who would listen. But when I was upgraded and wrapped on the knuckles, by Australia’s senior academics, I thought, right Oh, yeah, the gloves are off. Now. Let’s have a go.

And so I, I then really devoted myself for five years to the research. And so I’ve got to thank those people because they, they turned it into a much better book than it would have been if I’d been left to my own resources. But they inspired me because I realize how pernicious this inability to read the history had been.

They weren’t bad people at all, they gave me a really good cup of tea, they gave me a lovely bit of cake, though very common. They weren’t, you know, Tony Abbott in any way. But they’ve had an Australian education, just the same education I’d had. But somehow Rather, they hadn’t looked at the documents that we’d all read, in the same way that I’velooked at them.

And I had this advantage, in that.

My elders had been disgusted by my ignorance of Australian history, the history, and they had been so patient with me over 20 years, over 20 years, I put up with my stupidity, the way I clung to what I’d been taught, because when I was university graduate, I thought I knew everything I thought, you know, I felt kind of apologetic for Aboriginal Australia to a certain extent. And they just persisted and persistent and eventually the light went on. And I could see that I would have to write the history of Australia that they wanted, and that my family wanted and told from an Aboriginal point of view, so I blame my grandmother, because she kept on buying me books when I was a child, made me read, and she was the one who made me go to school because I didn’t really like school at all. And I didn’t seem to get out of it, including running away with my dog several times. My grandmother straightened me out.

Andy: We have been talking with Bruce Pascoe, author of the book, Dark Emu, about Aboriginal civilization before colonization, and also a bit about the experience of writing that book and entering into the public realm with a controversial opinion. Let’s go to the last part of my chat with Bruce Pascoe.

Andy: So since the books come out, I mean, there’s been, I suppose, controversy from predictable elements, conservative elements, but it hasn’t been much issue around the facts in the book.

Bruce: Now, a few people have queried you know, details in the book, like, where was stood exactly on this particular day, things like that. And I, you know, I was actually wrong on in one of those cases, I, I’ve written down the coordinates incorrectly. But I know that, you know, the conservative elements have had a go, but I haven’t read it. You know, someone said to me the other day are, you know, those people had a bit of a crack at you a few years back? Well, I didn’t read it. And I’m not gonna read it. I’m just not interested in that argument. It’s a data argument. You know, it’s done and dusted. Let’s get on with being a real country. And, you know, really honoring our land. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about looking after the land, and we’ve done our very best to destroy this land. And now’s the time for people to come together and really treat the country like it was Australia, and not as if it was caned with all the terrain, on rich soil. We’ve got to love our mother, and respect her and not be ashamed that she’s not as fertile as England, not as fertile as the Great Plains of America. She is who she is. And she provided very, very well, for people over the longest period of time on Earth. We’ve got to respect that she can do it again. She wants to do it again. As long as we look after her and keep her health good, because we’re trying to destroy the poor old girl.

Andy: You’re a writer and historian. But also, in recent years you you’ve tried to put some of these into practicing farm some native yams. How’s that process going?

Bruce: Well, look, it’s going as well as you could expect for men with no money. I’ve been trying to get those government departments, you know, whose heart bleed for Aboriginal people and want Aboriginal people to have jobs and they want them to be off the dole and they want them to do this and want them to do that. And I said, there’s a chance to employ Aboriginal people just give us a chance. Well, of course No, mine was forthcoming because it was all hot air. It was all hard on slave stuff and no my hand in pocket stuff. So we’re doing it on our own. I bought a rundown poor old farm and that have been either stopped and abused and I’m gradually I’ve got some crops planted of the stock the place of hard off the animals.

And as a result, the country has come back incredibly, and I’m gradually converting it to Australian crops, with the help of my son and family, local Aboriginal people, where we’re getting somewhere, it takes a long time. Like, just before I spoke to you, you know, I had a water problem. You know, that sort of thing that happens to you when you you know, your plumbing is half assed, you know, because you haven’t got the money to do it properly, or will do it properly.

But I, you know, when I did it, I didn’t have the money to do it. I just needed water in a hurry. And so now’s the time to repair what I did before. I’d love to do everything properly once but, you know, I didn’t have the money in those early days. And I still don’t have it, but at least on I’m getting somewhere, I suppose.

Andy: Do you see a potential as a commercial crop of native yams or other things that Aboriginal people had once farmed?

Bruce: Yeah, my oath, we’re getting so much interest from bikers and restaurant tours and airlines. They want this food. You know, Australia has changed his mind. It wasn’t changed by the 60 year olds and the 70 year olds, it was changed by the 30 and 40 year olds, you know, the people who are now in charge of restaurants and airlines, and bakeries, they’re the people who, you know, for them, it’s just a no brainer. Why aren’t we growing Australian grains, you know, that Australian grains don’t produce as heavily as wheat and barley andthings like that. But their advantages. They’re perennial, they sequester carbon in the soil as a result. And being Australian. They love Australia. They love the amount of water they get from us. They love the fertility of the soil. They can’t see anything wrong with Australia. They want to grow here. Whereas Wait, you know, you have to look after it like it’s a winching bomb. Because it is used to luxury. And we bring it over here and the poor old thing has to struggle as gutted, and we have to support it with extra fertilizer, extra water, we can’t afford that anymore. We’ve proven that, you know, flogging the country and then pouring on Super phosphate is not the way to go without agriculture. We’re gonna look after this old girl. And you know, she had these plants, she nurtured these plants, Aboriginal people domesticated these plants, and that’s the future.

Andy: All right, thanks very much, Bruce. Anything else you want to leave us with?

Bruce: Just look after the country. You know, don’t despair. Think of the wiles and think all those long haired hippies that got such bad press, who were absolutely responsible for the return of these whales coming up and down our coast now without them. And without the opprobrium they survived from older Australians and other other nations in the world.
Without them, we would have lost our whales. So there’s your inspiration. And all of those long haired hippies were young. They weren’t 60 and 70 year old, the people who did the hard work, who put up with the water cannons, who went out to sea in the southern oceans, and that they’re all young, and I have a hell of a respect for him.

Andy: All right. Thanks very much, Bruce.

Bruce: Good on you.

Bruce Pascoe is a writer of Bunurong/Tasmanian heritage. He is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and was awarded the 2018 Australia Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Dark Emu (2014), a history of Aboriginal agriculture, won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award.

Transcribed by Ian Curr

Ian Curr 
M: 0407 687 016

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