The Emu’s Perspective – Part 3.

Image of common emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) on nature background. Birds. Animals.

One morning, years ago, when I had a management job with the Queensland sugar industry, I received a phone call from a fellow in the Department of Environment.  He wanted to run an idea past me.  He started explaining how they had a problem with wastewater at the abattoirs in Innisfail and there was funding available if the local sugarcane growers would consider taking this water to irrigate their crops.  He enthusiastically suggested that it was potentially a win-win with the abattoir finding a use for this waste product and the farmers a subsidised source of water to irrigate their crops.

Before I had a chance to respond he was quoting irrigation costs for the total Queensland industry, and what a 25 percent reduction could mean locally.

When I finally got a word in, I said, but Innisfail is not an irrigation district.  The problem for the farmers in Innisfail is how to get water off the paddock, not onto it. Innisfail has an average annual rainfall of more than 3 metres each year – it is a wet place, even though Australia is generally considered a dry continent.

People tend to generalise and extrapolate from the little they know and understand.

This bureaucrat thought that all sugarcane farmers 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 for fishing.   In fact, sugarcane farmers harvest just once a year, they only plant the crop once every 4 – 6 years with the ratoons growing back after each harvest, and efficient farmers hardly need to weed if they have a good mulch layer.   And outside of irrigation regions they don’t even water their crop.

We have this idea that the dutiful farmer is sedentary, and ever present planting, weeding, watering, harvesting.

But it could be that those Australian Aborigines who planted and harvested where absent in between – gone walking and fishing for extended periods of time.  I have not problems with the idea of a nomad who returns just occasionally to harvest not too concerned if the crop fails.   Does this mean they are not really a farmer, and certainly not an agriculturalist.

The first chapter in Bruce Pascoe book Dark Emu begins with comment that he is writing specifically to refute the notion that ‘Aboriginal people were only hunter-gatherers.’

Indeed, the book is a polemic, and should be read as such.

Bruce Pascoe unashamedly sets out to challenge traditional notions of what it was to be an Aboriginal – pre-European settlement of Australia.   He provides example after example of Aborigines harvesting yam, and example after example of them harvesting grains.

He does include a whole section on the ‘domestication of food plants’ and concludes that ‘Australian grains became dependent on the intervention of Aboriginal peoples, and the wide grasslands, monocultures of grains, were the result of this deliberate manipulation’.

He goes on to discuss the propagation of other bush tuckers.

He clearly states on page 58, that ‘It may be that not all Aboriginal people were involved in these [agricultural] practices.’

It seems that those who have become obsessed with proving Bruce Pascoe wrong can’t image what life might have been like for a people who liked to both wander and plant – they can’t image anything beyond the traditional concept of the farmer who keeps everything within cages and fence lines on land that they own or lease.   That they have control over.

I move a lot and I like planting things.  I’ve a chilli bush, lemongrass, basil, and tomato growing in pots on the veranda of this rented apartment that gives me a view to the horizon.  I’ve already planted, without first asking permission, some of the chilli seeds in a communal garden along one of the walkways to the beach.  I know there are chilli bushes growing in the garden where I last lived, and I planted them.   I like to know that should anything happen to the bush on my veranda I can find replacements – that I would grow again from seed.

I like to plant things, but I don’t have a garden of my own.  Over this summer I grew 15 tall Russian sunflowers for my elderly mother – in her garden.  The flowers were enormous: we harvested so much seed.   She thinks we should work out how to de-husk it and then eat it.   I suggested instead she give it all away, in little envelopes to neighbours, friends and family for them to plant – and there will still be much left over.   I grew the plants from very few seeds bought at Bunnings to make my mother happy – for the flowers – and to see how tall they would grow, which was more than 2 metres.  I haven’t the patience to now shell the seed.  If we worked out how to shell the sunflower seeds, and if we then sold it, rather than giving it all away, would that make us farmers?

There has been some criticism of Bruce Pascoe confounding the spreading of seed as part of ritual with planting of seed for food – with the former apparently meaning they weren’t really agriculturalists.

Before Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu it was not generally known that there existed Australian Aborigines – pre-European settlement – who harvested grain and made it into a bread.   This now seems to be accepted, though the argument is whether they planted it, and if they did, whether they hung around to irrigate and weed it.

via Jennifer Marohasy

February 5, 2022, By jennifer