NPA Book Club Review Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu

Review by Meron Wilson and Anne Dickson

Our land is not something to be tamed, made efficient and converted to a European concept of farmland, but something to be understood and nurtured. The emerging effects of a changing climate challenge us to rethink where and how we produce our food. Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, in his book Dark Emu, gives us some insight into what Australia was once like, and what we can learn from the economy, culture and agricultural methods of Indigenous Australians.

Pascoe draws on first hand accounts from colonial journals to dispel the myth that Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers and that the land ‘discovered’ by the British was untouched landscapes and inhospitable deserts. Rather the land was intricately managed to provide food resources for the people living there, utilising what was locally available.

In many parts of the country before the arrival of sheep and cattle, yams were cultivated; seeds were selected, planted, and reaped; game animals were herded and harvested; water was stored; land was irrigated and the soil was rich, friable, and retained its moisture. Sustainable agriculture.

The whole of Australia was managed by many different language groups who shared basic understandings of how things worked. One of their tenets was sharing with visitors to their country. Visitors were expected to take what they needed and move on. Reciprocity.

They perceived bounty as something to share. Custodians of the NSW High Country invited surrounding groups to feast and celebrate when it was Bogong Moth season. Generosity.

They were mindful not to exploit a resource to the disadvantage of others. Fish traps were designed to allow a portion of the catch to continue downstream for others to catch, or stocks replenish. The intriguingly engineered inland fisheries were highly productive and dependent on a cooperative social and economic organisation Sustainable economy.

Pascoe challenges our view of Australia and the nations who lived here for tens of thousands of years. He demonstrates that economy, culture and agricultural methods are intertwined. He asks us what would happen if we ate emu and kangaroo rather than sheep and cattle? He challenges us to think about plants bred over thousands of years for Australian conditions. Think about yams rather than potatoes for dinner and native grasses and grains as the next superfood. He leaves us with the challenge of how do we incorporate ancient values and methods into our present way of living? How do we achieve a national, nay global, paradigm shift?
“Recognising Aboriginal farming is fundamental to our understanding of country,” Mr Pascoe said. “If we are going to survive climate change we need to have a better understanding of the country because we have already run out of water.

“So, we have to learn to conserve water, we have to learn to conserve soil and we can learn from the Aboriginal past about how the people who lived here for hundreds of thousands of years used both and still maintained an agricultural economy.”

He argues the ancient farming techniques were more sympathetic to the land because they used Aussie plants — such as native millet, kangaroo grass and murnong — and animals like kangaroos and emus.

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