For traditional Aboriginal Australians, the concept of ‘Wilderness’ was not cause for fond nostalgia, but was seen as a land without guardians. Whether you want to call them farmers or hunter-gatherers, these are “whitefella” words and they fail to grasp how central any country is to all things indigenous.
The first chapter of Bruce Pascoe’s book dark emu begins with a commentary he wrote specifically to refute the idea that Aboriginal people were only hunter-gatherers. Nowhere does it assert that the Aborigines were an essentially sedentary agricultural civilization. It’s not a Bruce Pascoe claim, but it’s the straw man that has preoccupied many recent articles decrying him.
Before Bruce Pascoe’s book black emu, many inland Australian Aborigines were known to harvest grain and bake a form of bread. The discussion now turns to whether they watered and weeded the crop and how much they tilled the soil. It is recognized that in the more coastal regions, they inserted the heads of yams to be sure of a future harvest, but is this agriculture? Some insist that farming is a way of life that is, by necessity, sedentary.
One morning years ago, while working in a senior role in the sugar industry in Queensland, I received a phone call from a colleague in the Department of the Environment. He wanted to give me an idea. He proceeded to explain how they had a problem with sewage at the Innisfail slaughterhouses and that there were funds available if local sugar cane growers considered taking this water to irrigate their crops. He enthusiastically suggested that it was a potential win-win, with the slaughterhouse finding a use for this waste and the farmers a source of subsidized water to irrigate their crops.
Before I had a chance to respond, he was quoting industry-wide irrigation costs in Queensland, and what a 25% reduction might mean locally. When I finally got word, I said, ‘but Innisfail is not an irrigation district. The problem for Innisfail farmers is how to drain the water from the paddock, not sprinkle it. Innisfail has an average annual rainfall of over three meters each year – it is a wet place, although Australia is generally considered a dry continent.
People tend to generalize and extrapolate from what little they know and understand.
This bureaucrat thought that all sugar cane growers irrigated their crops. I explained that this only happened in the irrigation districts; that life was easier for farmers in places like Innisfail – they had a lot more time to fish. In fact, sugar cane growers only harvest once a year, they only plant the crop once every four to six years, the raccoons regrow after each harvest, and efficient farmers hardly need to weed if they have a good layer of mulch. And outside the irrigation areas, they don’t even water their crops.
More generally, we see farmers as hard workers, and the transition from hunting to farming as progress in escaping a precarious existence for a submissive, sedentary existence. But it could be that those Australian Aborigines who planted and harvested were away in between – vacationing for long periods of time, perhaps even fishing, hunting and burning.
I have no problem with the idea of a nomadic people who only return occasionally to harvest. The areas of the interior of Australia designed by “Aboriginal Grain Belt”, first by Norman Tindale, and published since by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, are so vast that it is difficult to conceive the idea of rarity.
The argument over dark emu is very political and very personal. In January 2020, then Home Secretary Peter Dutton attempted to have Bruce Pascoe investigated for falsely claiming Aboriginal heritage. I have no opinion on Pascoe’s lineage, but I do know that through his knowledge of Aboriginal history, particularly their five principles of fire management, and his ability to articulate this, he has practical solutions to tragedies recurrent bushfires in modern Australia.
He builds on that advice in a new book with historian Bill Gammage, titled Country – Future fire, future agriculture. It keeps coming back to January 2020 – when the Australian Federal Police rejected the Minister’s request for an investigation. There is no mention of this incident, but rather of the real and tragic bushfires he was fighting at the time and how they could have been avoided through better land care as once practiced so successfully by Australian Aborigines.
I have written a chapter on the incident of forest fires in Australia since 1851 for the book Climate change: the facts 2020. I started with East Gippsland as a case study and interviewed local firefighter John Mulligan. Gammage and Pascoe also include East Gippsland and John Mulligan’s story in their new book. It’s a fascinating story that includes evidence of how the forests in this region looked ‘parkland’ and ‘bottom clean’ during the era of European settlement due to the Aboriginal fire regime that was maintained. by European settlers until the 1950s. It was then that the Forestry Commission of Victoria put an end to it.
I’ve read articles claiming that if Aboriginal Australians were really farmers, they would have domesticated the bush turkey, for example. But this presupposes a desire for ownership – distinguishing between wild and domesticated. For the Aborigines, the aim was to actively manage the whole landscape, including all its plants and animals. Before European settlement East Gippsland was a mosaic of habitat types and this mosaic was made with fire used as a tool by a people who can only see neglect.
Aborigines have lived for thousands of years in and out of the forests of East Gippsland without fire engines, water bombers, Landcare groups, hundreds of firefighters or the Salvation Army to give them breakfast. It was a very different type of existence. They may not have been farmers in the traditional sense, but they actively took care of everything in their own way, and they ate it too.
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