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Bruce Pascoe and Dark Emu: A Green Library Conversation (Part 1)

In February 2021, Bruce Pascoe published a new book, Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia, co-authored with Vicky Shukuroglou. In the course of our Green Library series, we were lucky enough to chat to the acclaimed author of Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture about this earlier book and his work cultivating Aboriginal farming methods on his farm in eastern Victoria.

The Green Library series was supported by the Berlin Senate, and sought out authors who write about nature and the environment, while reflecting on colonial contexts and power structures.

Lucy Gasser of poco.lit. (LG): Bruce, thank you for agreeing to have a chat with me tonight. Well, it’s tonight for me in Berlin; for you it’s early morning, isn’t it? Could you tell us where you are, and introduce yourself and your background a bit?

Bruce Pascoe (BP): I’m on the Wallagaraugh River, in far eastern Victoria, Australia, on our farm Yumbara. The Wallagaraugh River flows past the farm, and into the lakes above Mallacoota, and eventually out to sea. The purpose of our farm is to use the saline environments as well as the freshwater environments to produce the old foods that Aboriginal people had domesticated, as a way of showing Australia that Aboriginal people had a viable agricultural economy, but also as a way of showing that there is a way of growing food here, which is more kind to the Earth, and much more conservative in water use, because our continent is suffering badly through inappropriate farming. That’s the purpose of the farm, and I’m working from the farmhouse today.

LG: Dark Emu has become a bestseller, and won a bunch of awards, including Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in 2016. Maybe you could start by telling us about the title.

BP: I chose the title ‘Dark Emu’ because in the southern skies, there is a giant space in the Milky Way, which is in the shape of an emu. The shape moves during the year. In the winter season, the legs of the emu are drawn up and that coincides with the period when the male emu is sitting on eggs. The emu is a plains bird, a flightless Australian bird, but it moves great distances across the plains, searching for grain. And as this book is about Aboriginal agriculture, it seemed a perfect image, because whereas Europeans find their constellations in the stars, we find a lot of our significance in the spaces between the stars, in the dark spaces.

I was fortunate that my son showed me a representation of the dark emu in the Warragamba basin in Sydney a decade ago and it meant a lot to me then – not only to see that wonderful image, which is the image on the front of the book – but also to be shown by my son. It was a real moment of passage for us both: him telling me something about our culture, and me having to listen.

LG: In Dark Emu, you turn your attention to setting a few stories straight, correcting a number of false narratives about Australia’s First Peoples. Many of these are colonial myths, such as that colonisers arrived on empty, uncultivated land, and that the Indigenous people living there were ‘primitive’. Could you describe the faulty narratives you wanted to overturn and how you go about doing so in the book?

BP: It was a shock for me to read those things, because I had had an Australian education. I had been told an imperial story, and it was deeply upsetting once I realised that I had swallowed a story that was unbelievable. I’d presumed I had some intelligence, but my acceptance of this unrealistic version of events ashamed me. My desire to write the book came partly as a penance for my inability to see through the colonial scheme. That colonial scheme was repeated around the world by Europeans: by the English, by the Spanish, by the French, by the Germans, by the Dutch, by the Danish. So many groups of people used the device of Catholicism to denigrate Indigenous peoples wherever they were. The papal bull of 1493 stated that Europeans, if they came across a land that was inhabited by other people, were allowed to take that land and kill those people, if those people didn’t believe in their god. Such an infantile ruse to acquire country, it’s hard to imagine that anyone believed it. But such is the power of religious mythology that it’s still being used today.

The lands of the world are suffering because Europeans applied their farming techniques to lands that couldn’t sustain them, and Australia is a really good example of this because the hard-hoofed animals of Europe are destroying our soil and the crops that we grow here are so demanding of water and fertiliser that that is another way of destroying soil. With the combination of soil destruction, some parts of Australia have seen 13 metres of erosion and it seems unbelievable that Australian farmers can watch their soil being washed away in floods and blown away in the air, and still think of themselves as tillers of the soil.

LG: One of the agricultural practices you describe in Dark Emu is the cultivation of the yam daisy, which is explicitly recorded as having been undertaken by women. I’m wondering if there are particular gendered dimensions to the agricultural practices you researched, and describe in the book, and if you could tell us a bit more about this?

BP: A lot of the agriculture was conducted by women, but a lot of it was also conducted in concert with men and children. It seems to have been a community activity. There are many, many examples where a whole village would engage in an activity together. In order to maintain those grain lands and tuber lands, it was important to take out the weeds, which in this case were Eucalyptus and Wattle seedlings, so that the grains and tubers could be promoted. That activity was always conducted by whole groups of people: men, women and children.

It’s obvious that there was a very important role for women in harvesting grain and tubers. It seems, from some observations, that it was a women’s activity, but at the same time, there is evidence that those activities could be conducted by men as well, in tandem with women.

So, I think we need to be careful that we are representing the communities with as much accuracy as we can, and without politicising them too much. The role of women in Aboriginal society was incredibly important. I’m Yuin and in our spirituality, in our religion, women are foremost. We’re told throughout our whole spiritual life of the primary position of women in society, and the importance of childbirth. When we go through lore on Mount Gulaga [a place of ancestral origin within the mythology of the Yuin people], we hardly see reference to men, it’s all about women. The physical representation of the woman is twice as large as the man – some modern men find that difficult, but it is a fact.

LG: For various reasons, the materials for your research were to a huge extent the writings of early European white colonists in Australia, many of which are full of racism. Could you tell us a bit about why these were the resources you found yourself drawing on; where and how you came across them (are they difficult to access, were you the first person to read them in this way); and what your experience of working with this material was like?

BP: They’re really important contact record in Australia, most of them written by so-called explorers – remembering that terms like ‘pioneer’ and ‘explorer’ are very racist, because you can’t ‘explore’ a country where people are already living, because they’ve already explored it. But we rely on those records because they’re written in English, whereas Aboriginal society was, more or less, a non-literate culture. Although, there is symbology that Aboriginal people used, which is a kind of writing, such as the hieroglyphs of Egypt.

I was starting to talk to the press, students, lecturers about my theories, and those theories I got from Rupert Gerritsen, who was an independent scholar – he was only independent because the universities couldn’t abide his radicalism. Rupert was very important in the formulation of my own ideas. But when I was talking about these things, I experienced the same thing that happened to Rupert – that the university community were disdainful of any kind of Aboriginal achievement. I was taken to a meeting, which was terribly polite, with a cup of tea and scones and everyone was on their best behaviour, but I was wrapped over the knuckles by university staff and told that I couldn’t talk to the students or the staff in the way that I had been talking. That I was actually lying to the Australian public.

LG: Did you have a position at a university at the time?

BP: No, I didn’t. I’m now acceptable; I’m a professor, would you believe it. Like Marx the comedian, I thought that I would never want to join a university that would accept someone like me. But that’s happened now. At the time, I was just a writer, a fiction writer at that. What had driven me was my search for my own Aboriginal family. And in doing that, I had to search Australian history, because that’s where my family roots were; embedded in those old documents. So I was finding family, but I was also finding another Australian story. I started talking about it, and ran foul of the university environment and the intellectual establishment of Australia. When I had that meeting – obviously I had offended a lot of people – I thought the only way that it is possible to continue this argument, is to use sources that those people believe in and respect. Those sources are pioneer diaries and explorer journals. And when I turned to those, I wasn’t expecting to find as much material as I did. But it was so overwhelming, there was so much material, of such enormous interest, and I really think that is why the book has had the reception that it has: because the material itself is convincing. I don’t have to say much, I just have to say that Mitchell rode through nine miles of stooped grain, and any Australian whose had the education that I’ve had – and that means all of us – stops in their tracks. If we hear from Lieutenant Grey that the land couldn’t be walked across because it had been tilled (and that’s the word he used) so deeply by Aboriginal people, it stops you in your tracks because it goes against everything you’ve been told about your country.

These are the colonial rules: you denigrate the people, you lie about their expertise and then you perpetrate that myth in your educational processes and your religion. It is absolutely stunning how pervasive that propaganda is; how many Australians had been convinced by this childlike argument – because an eight-year-old could see through it, but an 18-year-old can’t. That was the shame for me. I didn’t come to this proposition through the brilliance of my own mind. I came to it because I was looking for my Aboriginal family. This is no great distinction on my behalf; it’s circumstance, and the fact that my grandmother had insisted that I go to school and she bought me a book nearly every fortnight to ensure that I kept on reading. That is also part of that circumstance: I got an education, which was unlikely for an Aboriginal kid at the time. I had the good fortune to have my mother, the most enquiring mind I’ve ever come across, though totally uneducated. These circumstances lead to Dark Emu – you can draw a straight line directly to Dark Emu.

Read the second part of the interview here.