Bruce Pascoe, image courtesy Linsey Rendell
Recording date:


Award-winning author Bruce Pascoe delivers a call to care for our earth through agriculture. As detailed in his book Dark Emu, he provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers which suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

Bruce Pascoe is Bunurong/Tasmanian Yuin man and an award winning author and story teller. His book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident, a history of Aboriginal agriculture, was published by Magabala in 2014 and won both the Book of Year and the Indigenous Writers Prize (joint winner) in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
In 2018 Dark Emu was transformed into compelling contemporary dance performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre, touring nationally. Other books include Night Animals, Shark, Ocean, Bloke, Cape Otway, Convincing Ground, Little Red Yellow and Black Book. Bloke, Chainsaw File, Fog a Dox, and most recently Mrs Whitlam. In 2018 Bruce Pascoe was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Literature Award by the Australia Council. 

The Eric Rolls Lecture was established in 2010 as a bi-annual lecture, organised by the Watermark Literary Society and funded by Elaine van Kempen, the widow of Eric Rolls and executor of his estate. The Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture is supported by Elaine Van Kempen in recognition of the contribution of poet, historian and naturalist, Eric Rolls. The lecture aims to continue the work of Eric Rolls, highlighting the work of Australia’s environmental scientists and writers.

Image: Bruce Pasoce, courtsey Linsey Rendell

Bruce Pascoe Eric Rolls Lecture


*Speakers: Kevin Bradley (K), Tyrone Bell (T), Bruce Pasco (B), Adam Van Kempen (Ad)

*Audience: (A)

*Location:  National Library of Australia

*Date: 28 November 2018


K:        Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the National Library. I’m Kevin Bradley and it’s my pleasure to be the Assistant Director General responsible for Australian Collections and Reader Services. Welcome to the 2018 Eric Rolls lecture. As we begin I invite Tyrone Bell to welcome us to his country this evening. Tyrone.


T:         Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tyrone Bell, I’m a descendent of the Ngunnawal people and it’s my privilege this afternoon to welcome you to the country of the Ngunnawal people. To begin I would like to let you know that traditional Aboriginal law requires any visitors to the country being made welcome. This customary tradition has been passed on by all our generations. This ritual forms a part of our belief system, its purpose is for visitors to acknowledge whose country it is and then in turn being acknowledged as visitors and made welcome. This welcome custom has happened for thousands of years and we use it as protection for country against bad spirits. The country on which you stand today is that of the Ngunnawal people. Being a Ngunnawal traditional custodian it gives me pleasure to invite you onto the country of my people. [Speaks Aboriginal language]. In the language of my people means this is Ngunnawal country, welcome to our meeting place, enjoy.

We call country the mother because as a mother cares for her children so does the land cares for us. This is why Aboriginal people have such close ties with the land. On behalf of myself and my people I send a warm welcome to everyone here, I’m proud to be Aboriginal and one of the traditional carers of this land. I want you to feel welcome while on our country. We wish to express our sincere thanks to the organisers for acknowledging that this is Ngunnawal country and for the recognition, respect and courtesy paid to us by this acknowledgment. Personally I would like to acknowledge those that have come to this area for the first time and warmly welcome you. For those that have been here before welcome back and of course for those that live here please continue to enjoy and behave.

We want you to feel welcome while visiting Ngunnawal country and ask that you respect the land that we have done so for 60,000 years plus. So in keeping with our Ngunnawal tradition and the true spirit of friendship and reconciliation, treat everyone and everything with dignity and respect and by doing so do so it is our belief that your spirits will be harmonised <inaudible> 2:45 on our lands. It is our belief our ancestors will then in turn bless your stay on our spiritual land. May the spirit of this land remain with you today, tomorrow and always. Once again on behalf of the Ngunnawal people I welcome you to our traditional country. [Speaks Aboriginal language]. Thank you.


K:        Thank you, Tyrone. I’ve heard Tyrone give the welcome a few times and every time I feel that great sense of being welcomed and blessed so thank you. And of course caring for country is at the heart of Eric Rolls’ life and work in whose honour this lecture is named. Eric Rolls was a poet, historian, environmentalist, farmer philosopher and a prolific author. Amongst his work is a two-volume history of Chinese immigration and of course his classic work, A Million Wild Acres, a history of the conquest and destruction of Australia's wilderness. Eric was once described as the finest historian of our natural landscape and deservedly so. He died in 2007 and the Library is proud to be the custodian of Eric’s personal papers as well as oral history recordings, photographs and publications.

Eric Rolls’ Lecture was established in 2010 as a biannual lecture organised by the Watermark Literary Society and funded by Elaine Van Kempen, widow of Eric Rolls and executor of his estate. The lecture aims to continue Eric’s work by highlighting the contributions of Australia’s environmental scientists and writers including our guest today, Bruce Pasco. Bruce Pasco is a Bunurong Tasmanian Yuin man and an award-winning author and storyteller. His most recent book, Dark Emu, was published by Magabala in 2014 and won both the Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in the 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. This year it was transformed into a mesmerising dance performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre. Last week Bruce was named 2018 Dreamtime Person of the Year awarded to an individual who’s made a significant contribution to the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of the past 12 months and who has inspired those around them. Please join me in welcoming our 2018 Eric Rolls’ lecturer, Bruce Pasco.


B:        And I thought I’d give you a real treat tonight so I handwrote my speech. I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and the country and the elders here and those who’ve passed and the non-Aboriginal people who are here and interested in the history of their country. I’d like to thank Eric, Elaine and the Rolls family. Eric was a visionary, he looked at land as an organ of the earth when most farmers were looking at it as a mine. Eric also has an unpublished manuscript which really deserves to be published and so if there are publishers in the room speak to Elaine.

Eric paved the way for Bill Gammage and his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth and now Charles Massey whose wonderful book, The Call of the Reed Warbler – my grandmother paved the way for me by bribing me to stay at school. A fountain pen to finish grade 6, a watch to finish form 3, a parcel of shares in an Australian securities company to finish Year 10, a company that was so secure they went broke. Although the director sailed away in a yacht just slightly smaller than Queen Elizabeth II.

Everyone has been terribly excited by Dark Emu. Government departments trip over their words and blush, they are so enthusiastic. They promise support, they promise to fulfil their charter, to support Aboriginal business. Right up to the pointy point they are gushing. Right near the bit where they are having to pay. I was talking to my brother before about government departments whose job it is to actually support Aboriginal people and who get you to fill in one form after another form after another form, to listen to one of their promises after another promise, after another promise before eventually you go and do something else. Those organisations charged to help Aboriginal people negotiate land purchase for instance, an organisation with not one Aboriginal employee because she resigned and said to me over the phone I’m sorry, I’m sick of the bastards. And those people fail to buy the land they extolled as if it was the Garden of Eden.

So I bought it myself, broken gates, broken land, buggered house, hammered paddocks and I had the company of the very grumpy farmer for four tortuous days because he wanted to tell me how disgusted he was that an Aboriginal man could buy land.

The first couple of nights I spent on the farm I could hear a dog howling and I just presumed it was dingoes because I used to live just downstream from there and two or three times a year we would hear a pack of dingoes howl to each other up and down the river, a call that’ll easily travel four or five miles or whatever that is in kilometres. And I just presumed this was a dingo until one morning I heard a chain rattle underneath a tank and I realised that there was a dog there, a beautiful kelpie, absolutely gorgeous animal and I coaxed her out and she kept on looking back over her shoulder because she lived under that tank. And I got her on a chain and I took her for a walk and she was constantly turning back to the tank and I realised that that’s as far as she’d ever been and I had to coax and wheedle that dog to walk around the paddock with me and she was constantly looking back over the tank. And I said to the farmer when he came back – because he’d you know he’d had his six months to get all his gear off the property but he decided to leave it until two days into post-contract settlement, and I said oh there’s a dog under the tank there and he said yeah, I’m going to shoot it.

And I said no, don’t do that you know we were never going to go shearing together, this bloke and me and so I was trying to be you know I was trying to get him off the property just so we wouldn’t have the argument that would be an embarrassment to the male of the species. And I said don’t do that, I’ll have the dog and I was leaving next day you know servicing the book, Dark Emu so - because this is the conversation that Australia seems to want to have and we’ve been begging for this moment for 230 years so I have to go away. My brother, he has to go away too because we cannot ignore this need for conversation in our nation. And I said don’t shoot the dog, I’ll look after the dog, knowing full well I was going the next day. I said to a neighbour of mine, I said my sister, will you look after this dog for three days for me? And she said yeah, I’ll look after the dog. Anyway I came back after three days go and get my dog, this beautiful dog and she said oh I’m sorry, I can’t give her back. So I lost my dog.

And there was a black calf on the property and I said to the angry farmer, I said what about the calf? He said oh look, it’s wild, it jumped out of the stock crate, I couldn’t get it to go back in the stockyards – because he’d hit it with a steel pipe and you know once you’ve hit something with a steel pipe, whether it be man or beast, they’re reluctant to do whatever you want from then on. I’ve seen dairy farmers who had to haul their cows into the cow bales because the cows are terrified of that man who’s just an angry, violent person. And I’ve seen other dairy farmers with a different attitude to life who whisper to their cows, come on, Strawberry, in you go, darlin’ and of course their milk yield is 30% higher than the man who hits them with a steel pipe. A terrified cow doesn’t let down very well.

But this calf was wild and I said what about the calf? He said oh I’ll shoot it, I said no, don’t shoot the calf, I’ll look after the calf. And then there was an old white horse there, silver horse and she’s actually beautiful horse. Once she’d been curry-combed she’s closer to an Appaloosa than anything but you couldn’t tell that because she was so full of Bot fly and old hair and scabs that you couldn’t tell and she was all ribs. I said what about the silver horse? ‘Cause I’ve got to – mate, I couldn’t finish the sentence – he said I’m going to shoot the horse. I said don’t shoot the horse, I’ll have the horse and I knew that there was a girl down the road you know when I say down the road, like an hour-and-a-half away, who desperately wanted a horse so I you know and this bucket of bones that went by the name of horse was going to be her first horse. I said don’t shoot the horse, I can look after the horse so that beautiful old horse – now you wouldn’t recognise her because she’s on good feed, she’s been combed by this girl, she’s been looked after, she’s had the vet, she’d her feet fixed. She’s 34 years old and she looks a million dollars and can completely roll over. When I first had her on the property she could barely walk and now she does a full roll, she’s fit as a trout.

And I can hear all the chooks squawking and I thought oh no so I went up the back to the chook yard – this bloke’s supposed to be gone days ago – I go up the back and I [mimics chickens] and I said mate, I’ll have the chooks. So I got a whole lot of chooks that I didn’t know what I was going to do with but the people of Gypsy Point who live downstream gradually took two or three each, you know? And they were the fiercest most unruly hens you’ve ever seen and they fought with everyone because that’s what they knew about life, life was just violence and – but gradually they calmed down because they were introduced to a different way of behaving and – I’m not going to say they’re the best chooks in Gypsy Point, they’ll always be the second-best chooks in Gypsy Point but they’re not violent hens anymore.

But when I was affronted by the fact that my own family’s history couldn’t be found in any Australian history book I began – to my great shame I didn’t believe my elders when they told me the history of my family, I thought they were making it up ‘cause you couldn’t invent a story like that. I went to the library to check up on them and even though I was a university graduate and a history teacher by that stage, believe it or not, I went into the library and I read there that what they’d told me was exactly right. In fact they’d sugar-coated the evil truth and then I realised that the history of colonial Australia was not being told to our children and to lie to a child is a true crime. And so I wrote a book called Convincing Ground about the contact wars. But after that I got a lot of letters from readers and I’d written 20 books by that stage, mostly novels and fiction and had barely had a letter so when I was getting letters about Convincing Ground I was pretty excited. A lot of them to my great joy were from Aboriginal people.

When I first started promoting Australian Aboriginal writers publishers where I tried to publish these stories and novels, they said there’s no readership in black Australia ‘cause Aboriginal people don’t read. These are the biggest publishers of the land who were convinced there was no Aboriginal readership. After Convincing Ground which was published by Aboriginal Studies Press it went pretty well and a third of the letters I was getting were from Aboriginal people, there was a readership alright, it’d just never been serviced. And those people were telling me individual stories about what had happened to their families but they were also telling me incidents in the life of their families and every now and then I was getting these stories about Aboriginal people being engaged in harvesting grain and tubers and building dams and once again I go what? I didn’t learn that at school. Mind you, I went to school on King Island so that’s another surprise but I thought how come I can be a university graduate and have no idea about this story?

So once again back to the library – thank God for libraries – and began combing the literature and I didn’t comb very far, in fact I didn’t comb tonight but you know when – I started to read information about these crops that had been grown in Australia by our people and I started talking about them which was a mistake because I was taken aside by some learned gentlemen in this city who said Bruce you know we know what you’re talking to our students about but it didn’t happen you know Aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers you know knock, knock, get it into your head, we don’t want you talking to our students about events that didn’t happen. That was a mistake because if I have any good qualities one of them is stubbornness and so I got in my car and I started driving back to Mallacoota and I was driving through the suburbs of Canberra and I was looking you know I’m a country boy so I’m just driving in circles you know concentric circles and eventually I pass a bookshop, a second-hand bookshop and I go in there and I walk right down the back ‘cause that’s where Australian history always is, not up the front, I walk right down the back and I’m looking for an explorer’s diary and I see Sir Thomas Mitchell, Journeys into Tropical Australia.

And so I bought that, cost me eight bucks, the country still owes me that eight bucks and I started reading it in the car and I got up to about page 80 and I read there that Sir Thomas Mitchell rode through nine miles of stooked grain and I just went like this, not because I thought it was terrific that Mitchell rode through nine miles of stooked grain, what was terrific about it was he wrote down the word stook which is a British agricultural term and nine miles of it. This is agriculture, can’t be anything else and a stook is a sheaf of grain stuck end on which we now know was a device to allow the grass to drop its seed but I just thought how come as a graduate of Melbourne University I never read the word stook in our history books. Because it tells you something, I kept reading after that point, I knew then I had a book and I knew then I couldn’t be stopped. And I didn’t gloat because I was too busy, I knew I had all this work in front of me so I started reading explorers’ journals and diaries and the first entries – first European entries into country and things like that.

And I came to the second worst explorer in the world, Lieutenant Grey, who was a rich Englishman and is – they’re insufferable <inaudible> 21:35 who was a rich Englishman who decided he wanted to be an explorer and he had the wherewithal to become an explorer, to fund the expedition, buy the horses, buy the boats because an Englishman could do that in those days ‘cause they were – it was the – that imperial mind that the world was their oyster and we’re lucky for Grey because he could write and he wrote quite well and he wrote frequently. And even though his expedition was an absolute disaster because he was incompetent it made him have to walk back to Perth and in walking back to Perth he came across these vast fields that stretched from horizon to horizon to horizon to horizon and he’d walk around one ‘cause he could see a little rise in the distance so he’d walk you know he knew he had to get over there and it’d take him a day to walk around it to get there ‘cause they lost all their horses, that’s another story. You know losing one horse is an accident, losing two is bad luck, losing three is bloody incompetence you know ‘cause a horse is [following] 22:48 but they drowned them. Read his journal.

And Grey would come to another one of these things, horizon and horizon, roads all the way in between them, wells every kilometre or so, houses in the corners of these fields and they were so – this is what he wrote – they were so deeply tilled he couldn't walk across them. Tilled. You know I felt sick in my guts. As an Australian university graduate how come my country had never let me know that this land had been tilled? It’s such a blatantly agricultural word. The hillsides of Melbourne were terraced by Aboriginal people harvesting murrnong. Terraced. You know? How come my grade six English teacher didn’t tell me exultantly what my country was capable of, what my countrymen and countrywomen were capable of? And when Charles Sturt, probably the mildest of the explorers in Australia, so-called explorers, was looking for the inland sea such was his fascination with that inland sea and the willingness of Australia to pay for an expedition to look for it that they towed a whale boat halfway through South Australia. They were confident.

But when Sturt was dying – that had a fair bit to do with the whale boat – and his horses were virtually blind and could only walk in a straight line and they’d been walking over sand dunes for four days, they came to one last sand dune and they were hailed from the valley below by 300 Aboriginal people who were engaged in a harvest in the ephemeral stream of that valley. And the people came forward urging the explorers to come down. They recognised humans in distress and they urged them to come down and they held out coolamons of water for the – so the men could drink. And then they turned to a horse and allowed the horse to drink even though they’d never seen a horse before. And the whiskers of those horses touched their fingers as they held the coolamon there. Sturt says this is one of the greatest acts of courage he’d ever seen.

And then they were fed roast duck and cake. These explorers are dying and these people are living a life so prosperous, they eat roast duck and cake. And they – the explorers were then offered a new house in the estate that was being built on the river, a house. All of these things were hidden from us.

So after I’d collected that information I started to wonder about the plants that the old people had been growing. I started to think about if Sturt was eating cake what was it made from? And there was so little information about it but I suspect from other information that you’ve you know you’d be stupid not to buy Dark Emu but in the back of it there’s all this information about where I got information from. Peter Latz, for instance, was a great – is a great Australian writer and geographer and there are a few people like that. Bill Gammage himself wrote an essay - I’m not sure that it’s been published – called Galahs which - talking about the grain fields of Aboriginal people and the plant that probably saved Sturt’s life was Panicum decompositum or native millet.

Mitchell, when he extolled the virtues of Aboriginal bread was probably eating flour from a grain called Mitchell grass. Obviously our people had a different name for it but it was called Mitchell grass. And Mitchell, even though he’d only shot a dozen or so Aboriginal people, which was pretty good in you know comparison to many, Mitchell was dreaming – when you read his journals he’s dreaming of great towns, great villages, great roadways and yet he’s riding through, he describes riding through great villages, great roadways, great civilisations but he’s there to replace them. Even one of the most goodhearted people, one of the most well-educated people in Australia at the time, he’s talking about replacing this culture.

And Sturt, this other mild explorer, he’s – all the while he’s exploring he didn’t just do one exploration, there were many – he was a good bushman, Sturt, so was Mitchell but Sturt’s brother is following along three days behind pegging out the land. So Sturt, with his good heart, his genuine humanity knew what he was doing, he wasn’t there to describe Aboriginal life, he was there to replace it. So these are the things that spurred me on because I realised that we had been told a giant furphy about our country.

And I was interested in the plants, I was interested in the murrnong and in reading about murrnong. It started with the sheep from John Batman’s party being offloaded near Williamstown and it’s a shallow bay and in order to get the sheep ashore they were thrown over and they swam or walked or clambered onto the shoreline but they immediately started to eat. Because of those flat lands, those volcanic plains around Melbourne that stretch almost to South Australia, the best soil in Australia, some say, the sheep just kept walking. You didn’t need to herd them, the shepherds just dawdled on behind because the sheep weren’t going anywhere.

The herbage that they were eating was so rich they were just gradually eating their way – so the shepherds didn’t need their dogs, they just walked along ‘cause the sheep weren’t going anywhere, they had too much to eat but gradually, gradually, gradually those sheep ate their way through the great crops of Aboriginal people and the dentition of sheep means that they can pinch the heart out of a murrnong and that killed the plant more or less instantly. But the tilth of the soil as we know from some of the first agriculturalists’ journals, the European agriculturalists, the tilth of the soil was so great that a sheep could nose out the roots of a murrnong.

So another one of the men of Melbourne said that you could run your fingers through the soil of Melbourne like that. Try doing that now ,you break all your fingers. And that same man reported that soon after the sheep had arrived they compacted the soil, the water started to run off the land and cause floods which astounded Aboriginal people who’d barely seen a flood. They’d seen rivers rise, they hadn’t seen it erode the land. The sheep compacting the land had allowed erosion to occur and all the murrnong disappears so there’s no cover on the land anymore. And you know those early farmers, European farmers talk about there being grass that was above the level of the saddle on their horses so the men are virtually obscured, the horse can’t see where it’s going, the grain is so high. And – but gradually, gradually, gradually – and my grandfather talks about this – the farmers noticed their crops getting smaller and smaller and smaller and you know and down here it’s still a good crop, you’re still able to harvest grain but why is that happening? Why is the productivity of the land decreasing? And it’s compaction and sheep did that to our land.

Charley Massy wrote that book, Cry of the Reed Warbler, his family are long, long-term sheep farmers and Charles knows what a sheep can do, his book is really worth reading too. But I was shocked by the impact the sheep had had and that piqued my interest in these other grains and I didn’t know enough about it to be very sensible about it and I – one of the few people I could talk to was an old lady called Beth Gott who’s 97 years old now, still going to university every day at Monash University where she’s got an indigenous garden. And Beth wrote the only book that I believe has ever been written on murrnong on the yam daisy, Microseris lanceolata. It’s a little tuber, only that big and Beth wrote that book in defiance almost of her colleagues who believed that nothing could be gained from studying the economy of Aboriginal people because it didn’t exist.

And the reason archaeology in Australia has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last 20 years is because we didn’t do much of it prior to this century. When I was at school I was told that Aboriginal people had been on the land for 5,000 years. By the time I was at Mornington in High School I was told that it was 15,000 years and they were working on Cow Swamp then and they came up with the year 15,000 years. By the time I got to university it was 40,000 years because of - carbon dating was being used and – but no-one told me and I didn’t know that the limit of carbon dating is about 40,000 years so why do you choose 40,000 years? Because that’s the limit of the science and then you know it becomes 50,000 years then it becomes 60,000 years and then last year the results of an examination of a midden at Warrnambool became known and the paper published it on page 38 next to Nick Riewoldt’s knee reconstruction or just after his reconstruction ‘cause that was important and they published the results of the examination that the Gunditjmara had been begging to be done for 33 years.

And I remember a time when I was living down in that district and we’d been pushing for this examination and you know how Australian research grants are parcelled out? I’m sure plenty of people here have applied for them and we were knocked off by an examination of the convict dormitories in Tasmania because the very important investigation of convict tobacco tins and boot buckles was necessary for the development of the nation. Anyway we – it took us until two or three years ago for this midden, so old that it had become stone to be examined and the news comes out that it’s 60 to 80,000 years old. And I knew one of the archaeologists working on that dig, a woman and that’s a significant fact because most of the archaeologists who’ve bothered with indigenous information have been women. The you know I’ve got millions of yarns about that you know Jeannette Hope is a terrific archaeologist and a terrific person and has terrific relationships with Aboriginal people, she just happens to be unemployed.

The age of the midden is 60 to 80,000 years old and I spoke to one of the archaeologists and she said to me – I said to her look, that’s fantastic, isn’t it? Sixty thousand years old and she said Bruce, 60,000 years be buggered – ‘cause that’s how she talks – it’s 80,000 years or nothing. And now having examined other structures around there they believe it’s older than 80,000 years. Now the out of Africa theory until recently was talking about people leaving Africa 70,000 years ago so clearly Aboriginal people were very lost. So archology in this country is pretty new. I have people argue with me that Cow Swamp was excavated in the ‘70s and things like that but really it’s quite new.

And I became excited by another event where an Aboriginal grinding dish was discovered by accident fairly deep in the soil. The archaeologists were actually looking for dinosaur bones ‘cause once again they’re much more important than people but this grinding dish was later examined, it had been in the Australian Museum for about 10 years. Eventually it was examined and the starch in the crevices of the grinding stone were found to be 35,000 years old and I thought gee, that’s terrific. And being a modern man I Googled the invention of bread and I found that bread was invented 17,000 years ago by the Egyptians and being a mathematician I realised that there was a discrepancy in the dates. And in a way I you know I went back, I thought you know I’ve got to be wrong you know my people can’t be right you know I’m wrong, search, search, search and no, the thing is that Aboriginal people have been grinding grain into flour 17,000 years before anyone else. I thought that was terrific, I put it into Dark Emu, I was that excited.

And you know people thought it was wonderful you know and I was telling people oh you know when you go overseas tell the French that you come from the country that invented bread and see how you get on, see if you get another glass of red wine, you won’t. But the very next year that excavation of a cave in Arnhem Land turned up a grinding dish where the starch in that grinding dish was 65,000 years old and people you know in this city and others have said to me oh no, no, no, the Africans were using grinding stones you know 30,000 years ago. Yeah, they were, to smash vegetable matter into a pulp, they were not using grain and you know so 65,000 years ago some woman examining the grass seed in her district decided that she would harvest some and she looked at it, she probably went to bed and thought about it and dreamt about it and got up next morning and think I’m going to grind that and see what happens and she turned it into flour and then looking at that product she thought you know what? I’m going to put water on that and once she’d done that she’d made the paste and she thought and now I’m going to stick it in the fire. So this alchemist, this chemist, this physicist had invented bread.

And I was talking to a young Koori woman down in Melbourne recently and she’s a fabulous person. Jody Barney, some of you might know her you know she has a speech problem, she’s profoundly deaf. We’ve always got on ‘cause so am I so we can have a conversation that neither of us understand and everyone can hear.


B:        Thank you. It is funny. But Jody was telling me a yarn about when she was a little girl. Because she was so profoundly deaf and had this speech problem she couldn’t go to school so she had to be with the old ladies and up – in Barkindji country she saw the old women picking a berry off a saltbush, probably the fruit off a saltbush, we don’t know but she says a berry and putting it in water and leaving it overnight. And when they were making their bread they poured that - juice of that berry into the bread to help knead and that you know I could have cried because we’d been looking for the ferment, we’d been looking for the yeast that the old people had been using to make bread rise and there Jody just tells it in an offhand manner, actually wrote it down on a bit of a paper for me, you know? That’s how she communicates, that lovely girl.

And so there we get this little jewel and another – so I – all this time – for six years I’ve been looking for a loaf of bread that the great artist, Judy Watson, the Murray woman from Queensland had been telling me she’d seen at Yarrabah Museum and the whole contents of the Yarrabah Museum were dispersed after Tony Abbott, the great supporter of Aboriginal people and now our consulate or something, Tony cut the funding to all Aboriginal museums in the country along with most of the health services and kindergartens and you name it. And everything was dispersed so the bread that Judy Watson had seen is gone. I looked for it for three years, no, no-one can find it.

I get a phone call from Melbourne from one of the people who knew that I was looking for bread and she said I got this catalogue entry for bread at Melbourne Museum and I was really excited and we go down there, we open the drawer, empty, gone. And you know I thought I’m doomed never to find this product, that if we do find it we can test chemically to find out what grain was used, what yeast was used, what temperature it was cooked at and you know the whole recipe for it is bedded in that bread. And you know I left the museum and I was devastated. I couldn’t tell the young girl because she’d done her very best.

Anyway one of her mates rang me up about six months later, I found your bread and I thought oh yeah, good on you. So I’m trudging to the museum like this, you know? And she said look, we’ve got them in there and I heard the plural then. I’m still in disbelief. Anyway I walk into this room and there they are on trays, these beautiful breads, all different shapes you know one looked like a chappata, another one looked like a Cobb loaf, you know? And I’m looking at them and I couldn’t move because I was thinking that’s not what I was expecting, I was you know because of the education I’d had I was expecting something primitive, you know? Shame on me, shame on me, brother for thinking that my people would be primitive but there they are and you can stick them up in Brumby’s on a Saturday morning and people’d say I’ll have two of them and a couple of them buns, you know? They just look like bread you know and how come our people you know when Australians talk about Aboriginal bread they say damper. You know what? I don’t really know what the answer to that is but I refuse to use the word damper because I want people to say – I want people to cough up the word bread. I want it to be described as it is, it is bread, it is a risen loaf.

And so I was so grateful to that young woman and now we’ve got these breads, now we can examine them and now we can try and replicate them and their recipes so that’s what I’m doing on this broken down farm with the black calf, with the old horse, with the chooks, with the dog, we’re growing these grains or some of them and we’re growing the murrnong or some of them because my desperation in doing this because - I need another job like a hole in the head – because we are being hounded by food companies all over Australia who want this bread, who want the flour, who want the tuber because they are so in demand all of a sudden by people who are interested in their health. Surprisingly Australians don’t want their bread made in Ireland and shipped over here as a dough which is what Coles will deliver you because that – the process for making you know Coles white bread takes about two hours. It is designed to kill you.

I hope Coles – I’m glad Coles’ share price has dropped recently ‘cause they’ll leave me alone, they won’t sue me but you know bread is meant to – what do they call? Prove, prove overnight and go through a process where the gluten is extended and expended and – but the beauty of our grains, most of them are gluten-free and the beauty of our grains is that they have this active interaction with the gut that is probiotic. It is good for you.

Now kangaroo grass, which I talk about a lot, is a really difficult plant to work with, not because it’s difficult to harvest but because it’s difficult to separate a little [orm] 47:05 from the seed and I got a photograph today from my son. He’d been – he’s done 11 experiments with kangaroo grass trying different system to get rid of that orm. You have to get rid of the [orm] because when we mill it up with the [orm] still on you can feel that [orm] in your mouth because it’s sharp. You can feel it on your tongue so no-one’s going to eat that but the old people had a method of getting rid of that obviously because they were making a beautiful bread out of it.

And my son, good Aboriginal man, with a four-week old baby in the house conducts these experiments after he gets home from work yesterday to find out you know what might be the method the old people used. And I’m begging someone – I’m sure there’s educators in this room but I’m begging someone to do a literature search in the Australian public record to find out all those occasions when Aboriginal people were noticed handling food plants ‘cause you’ll get information on murrnong, you’ll get information on the grains and we’ll learn a lot, we’ll learnt a lot about the yeasts, we’ll learn a lot about the harvesting technique, we’ll learn a lot about the grinding techniques and all of these things which will become a boon for Australia because these plants grow in Australia. This might seem like a radical view for you to grow Australian plants as food, Australian plants that are adapted to Australian conditions that only need the water that falls in this country, only need the nutrition of our notoriously poor soils, don’t need pesticide, don’t need herbicide, this is a very radical idea but our old people came up with it. They were working with their country, not against it.

And farmers you know when I address farmers’ groups, the first time I wore a plastic shirt because I thought I was going to be you know had missiles of eggs and tomatoes thrown at me for talking about Aboriginal agriculture but the farmers came because they were desperate. They’ve been living on their bones for – you knew what I was going to say, didn’t you? But I didn’t – they were living on their bones for years and years and years because the country was drying – Tony Abbott doesn’t believe that but – the country was drying and their crops were failing so farmers are not the people who don’t believe in climate change. Farmers know the climate is changing and they are desperate for plants that don’t need as much water and who don’t need the products that are turning farmers into bankrupts. That is the products that Monsanto creates and pushes hard at farmers. You will get a bounce out of superphosphate, the bounce won’t be as big the next year but you will get a bounce the next year but you have to pay for it, you have to pay them.

And you have to buy hybrid seed from Monsanto and they will – they’ve impoverished Australian farmers and farmers are saying now look, you’re writing about these grains, how do we get them? How do we plant them? How do we turn them into flour? How do we do this? How do we do that? And I say look, it’s – we can send people to the moon, we’ve landed a thing on Mars yesterday you know surely we can mill these grains into flour but I said please remember that these are Australian Aboriginal domesticates, was - our people domesticated these plants so just think about it So just think about it, just be a little bit patient and say this is our opportunity to include Aboriginal people in the nation, to make sure that Aboriginal people are part of this multi, multi, multimillion dollar industry. To make sure that Aboriginal people get the thing that they don’t have now which is land. So that we can all grow together on the back of this industry.

You know people say you must be a fool to rely on the goodwill of Australians and I say to them the goodwill of Australians is all we’ve got. Depending on how good it is will determine the future of the country but it is all we’ve got because you know many Australian farmers will have kangaroo grass on their property. We cannot demand that they not use it now, now that are we learning about this product so we have to rely on the goodwill of Australians, the goodwill of people like Bill Gammage, Charles Massy and so that we allow Aboriginal people to take part in this industry – like my brother is here who’s busted his guts and getting no assistance from Australian government very much growing these old plants, growing these Aboriginal domesticates, trying to create an industry so that young people can earn their money so that two young people working on one of these farms growing Aboriginal products. A girl over there and a boy over there, they look at each other and they go mm and you know what mm leads to? Children and they grow up their children on the back of their traditional foods. That is my dream for the country. It doesn’t mean that other dreams have to take second place, I just want our people to dream like the rest of Australian dreams, about having a house, having their children go to good schools, having their children in good health, having a doctor nearby, having a teacher nearby. That’s like the Makarrata, eh? The Uluru statement, so modest. What’s your modest dream?

My dream is that when my child is sick I can carry that child to the doctor, I don’t have to watch my child sicken like Barak’s son died in his arms because the mission-holder at Coranderrk would not lend him the cart. One of the most tragic incidents in Australian history because Barrack was an old man. That boy, David, who could have been saved was going to be the next big man and we lost David because that missionary, that Christian, that follower of God refused Barak the horse and cart so Barrack has a broken leg. He carries his son to the hospital in Melbourne all through that night, all through the next morning and David dies.

There’s a woman – funny, that – Ann Bon – no-one knows the history of Anne Bonn but worth reading this wonderful woman’s history. She was a Victorian Parliamentarian, white woman and she was a farmer. Her husband died on her – that happens too – but Ann Bon takes on the farm, she is the best farmer in Victoria. No-one on Spring Street wants to know about it. She also employs only Aboriginal people and she takes up Barak’s cause in parliament and she loses. She’s the only woman in Parliament obviously and she’s outvoted obviously but she was the friend to Barak, the only friend he had at that stage ‘cause he’s in Melbourne, he’s left Coranderrk, he’s gone all the way to Melbourne walking on a broken leg with his dying son and she’s his only friend. And this is an Australian story that we don’t know about, one of the many Australian stories so I knew I’d cheer you up eventually. Well just think of the puppy that was saved, the old silver horse, the chooks and the little black calf. But really it’s within our capacity as Australians to have a better future, a more inclusive future, a kinder future.

You know we had our great New South Wales politician, Aboriginal woman, Linda Burney, and she was asked as every politician is asked in their maiden speech, what are your ambitions? And she said – and she’s the only person to ever have introduced herself in Parliament like this – I want a kinder, gentler Australia. Such a modest ambition but such a powerful statement of humanity. And I think we can do it, I really think we can be a better country, we can treat our country better, we can look after mother earth and we can insist that Aboriginal people are part of that country. Perhaps we started in 1967 when we counted Aboriginal people as people. Didn’t give them the vote in 1967, we counted the Aboriginal people for the first time as part of the country and then – [mobile phone rings] is that me? No. Someone’s stolen my phone.


B:        Then Kevin Rudd does the apology and you know I was very suspicious of the apology like a lot of Aboriginal people and I saw Marcia Langton on TV the night before crying and I thought – well I’d never seen that before and I thought if Marcia Langton can cry this is fair dinkum and I’ll support it. And I didn’t go to Canberra ‘cause I didn’t think I could bear it and – but when I watched it on TV I was terribly moved because it was a step that Australia had taken. And we had this other step last year with the Makarrata from Uluru which we didn’t take but we might take and I’m relying on the goodwill of Australians because I know it’s there. You don’t fill an auditorium like this talking about chooks without there being an enormous amount of goodwill so I don’t think it’s too foolish to rely on goodwill and I think we’ll make a better country for it. Thank you.


K:        Clearly you agree with me, that was an enormously inspiring presentation and brilliantly, brilliantly given to us. We have some time for some questions so would you – if you’d like to ask a question raise your hand and wait for the microphone so we can hear you on the hearing loop or hear you on the sound recording. Any questions? One here in the middle.

A:        Hello? Is this working? Yes. Bruce, I saw you in Braidwood a few years ago, you were launching Dark Emu and I told you about the murrnong, the wild murrnong that grow outside my place and they didn’t grow this year. A couple grew and weren’t very healthy. Have they gone forever or will they come back when it rains again?

B:        You might find they’re there next week because of all the rain we’ve had but it might also help to burn that section because they respond to fire. We used to burn them when the leaves were dead – this is information I didn’t have but I’m gradually learning it and the reason that we thought that was going to be the case because in areas in Victoria where there’s a lot of murrnong, a slightly different variety than yours, the response after the fire in areas in ’83, I think it was, was enormous because people were expecting all the grasses and the weeds to come up, it was murrnong and it was almost a monoculture or murrnong and bulbine lily so I think flame is part of it. It’s a really tough little plant and it loves being weeded because that’s what our old people did you know the more you weed it, the happier it is. It’s a domesticate you know it’s used to people handling it.

A:        Bruce, that was inspiring. What can you tell us about the method of tilling or – in Perth area or anywhere? Is much known about how it was done? How often it was done? Who did it? Men, women or children? What can you tell us of that, please?

B:        Well I don’t have an enormous amount of knowledge but I have learnt some from books but also from our old people. There’s a plant that Lieutenant Grey saw which was a true yam, Dioscorea hastifolia which a lot of our historians and geographers were searching for the source of that plant anywhere but in Australia. They would think oh the Dutch brought it over from Mauritius with them on their ships and – ‘cause Aboriginal people wouldn’t have you know have been able to grow it, it had to be the Dutch or it had to be this group of people, had to be that group of people had brought it to Australia. And then a man called Rupert Gerritsen – I haven’t mentioned Rupert tonight and that’s a great shame. Rupert wrote a book called the – Australia and the Origins of Agriculture – I’m ashamed of myself for not mentioning Rupert – and in that book he reveals this gradual discovery of knowledge that – that Dioscorea hastifolia which is not native to that part of Western Australia, had been brought from Kakadu. Aboriginal people had brought it down to Kakadu and planted it and developed it into a crop. There are palms in Palm Valley which were thought to be freaks of nature you know left over from the ice age, had been brought there by Aboriginal people and planted.

In my country the Cabbage Tree Palm is said to be a relic of the ice age but there’s every chance it was brought into country by Aboriginal people. Men and women both worked in those fields but it was mainly women and women had a digging stick like that with a spatula end and a point at the other end. And there’s a lovely drawing by a fellow called Andrew Todd of Aboriginal women near Geelong harvested a murrnong paddock and they’re walking along and they’re jabbing the digging stick into the ground, they’re lifting the plant, not digging it out of the ground, harvesting the murrnong, putting it in their basket, only taking half the tubers off the plant, putting them in their basket and then as they walk on, treading down the old plant into the ground again. Aboriginal people were great gardeners, great agriculturalists and all of those methods, we don’t know them all but we’ll get there.

And you know my son’s trial last night of you know finding a way of getting rid of the [orm] of the kangaroo grass, these things are doable. I gave some seed to a young fellow in South Australia, a young, nonaboriginal man just ‘cause he was keen and he did very well in his first season. The next season he forgot about his plants, he left them in a flower pot in front of his garage window which was north-facing and they shrivelled away to nothing. He found them a year later and thought oh you know Bruce isn’t going to be happy and Bruce wasn’t happy but it was a good bit of science because he then planted those shrivelled up tubers and 70% of them came good. So we know it’s a rugged little plant. Who would have thought it’s an Australian plant? It loves it here.

A:        Bruce, thank you very much. I’m an [Awobaka] 6:25 woman, I come from the Lake Macquarie, Newcastle part of the Hunter Valley country, a descendent of [Marakar] 6:26. She was around in 1825 but my PhD research around Newcastle area has shown exactly what you’re displaying in this other country, that first of all the evidence of what was there before in terms of there being trees that were 5m thick in diameter and the oyster middens being 3m off the coast before the impact of invasion and then there was the evidence of the trade system and the manufacturing of tools along Bar Beach that were then found deeper into New South Wales that were traded through in communication systems, very, very evident in the archaeological work by Len [Dile] 7:15. And also I just wanted to really talk about how as well that Newcastle Council is looking at the way the water systems, in terms of the sand dune systems and stuff, are being looked at in terms of the original cartography, to look at the better way to manage water systems there. But in any case thank you for your leadership and your tenacity and your passion.


B:        Well I’m just a storyteller you know I can tell a story and I’ve got to thank my grandmother and my Auntie Faith and my dad and my Uncle Aub for that because they were the best storytellers in the world and I can tell that story but I’m only telling the story of mother earth. The story was already there, I didn’t invent it, I’m not an historian. It’s just that this material is so prevalent in the public record, it’s a bloody disgrace that an idiot and broken-down halfback flanker like me should find it. You know I’m proud to have been able to tell that yarn but it’s not out of my own brilliance, it’s out of the absence in our scholarship.

K:        One last question here.

A:        Oh yeah, Bruce you know how with the whole you know work on Aboriginal languages, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages that’s been happening and it’s got a kind of a – like it’s got a real surge and people are really getting into it in their community and stuff, are you finding with this that you’re seeing the same thing? That communities are starting to dig around in their own area to try and find that history again?

B:        Australia has changed its mind, I’m convinced of that. I talk to Aboriginal people everywhere I go and I say you know how busy are you? And they say well I’m run off my feet and the reason we’re run off our feet is because Australia wants to hear this story. This is a story – Aboriginal people have been literally trying to tell for 230 years. The reason that Aboriginal people didn’t go to war with the early colonists, because we were still trying to bring Europeans into the law system because that’s how it always was. If someone turned up in your country from somewhere else in Australia you would try and instruct them in the law of your country, welcome them in and say but you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, this is what we do here, this is how we behave, these are the punishments for not doing it. And so that was what was happening in early colonial Australia, Aboriginal people were trying to bring people in. In fact I learnt today that the nonaboriginal people in Australia, Cook’s mob and Phillip’s mob were given a name which is like friend which means new friend so that’s what Aboriginal people are calling these people, new friend. And that changed after five years to those people who will kill us.

So there was plenty going on, plenty we can learn from and I’ve forgotten your question, sorry.

A:        <inaudible> 10:44.

B:        I think Australia has changed its mind. The fact that you know Dark Emu can go into 21 reprints and become a ballet you know who would have thought? And become a children’s book and become a film but then again who would have thought that there’d be a company called Blackfella Films? Who would have thought there’d be Magabala Publishing House in Broome? Who would have thought that Stan Grant junior would be on two television channels? Who would have thought that people would finally turn against those who were booing at Adam Goodes at the AFL? Who would have thought these things would have happened? Well we did think them, as a nation we did think them and the country’s changed its mind. And like it did with solar power with the government in absolute defiance and denial that solar power’s a good thing in a country stormed with sunshine, the people voted with their rooves.


B:        I will keep that line. Don’t encourage me, I’ll get out of hand.

K:        Thank you, Bruce and thank you for those great questions. Now although Elaine Van Kempen is unable to join us this evening I’m really delighted that her son, Adam, has battled fires, floods and [blade] 12:15 aeroplanes to come to – can we say please join me in welcoming Adam on behalf of the Eric Rolls family?


Ad:      Thank you very much, I literally have just got off the plane. It was a funny day and so I’m sorry I missed it but I will see it online, Uncle Bruce. And my mother’s Elaine Van Kempen as many of you know, she was married to Eric Rolls for a long time until Eric died and she’s very sorry that she can’t be here tonight to thank you in person. Her osteoarthritis now prevents her from travelling.

When I first read Dark Emu I thought it was a remarkable book and I thought this should be on the syllabus of every school in the nation, every child should read this book, every teenager should read this book. And I’ve said that to a few people and somebody said to me recently if you’ve read A Million Wild Acres and you’ve read The Biggest Estate on Earth and you’ve read Dark Emu you’ve probably covered the field. Uncle Bruce is one of the lecturers, Eric Rolls lecturers all whom have been involved with the Watermark Literary Society. As some of you know the Watermark Muster was a biennial muster set up by my mother with Eric as the patron really in honour of Eric. And Bruce, I think you were at the last one in 2013.

I have a couple of things for you, the first is the 30th edition of A Million Wild Acres which I’ve been reading all over airports today so I hope it’s not too [walks away from the microphone]. The other thing is that at one stage, and I can’t remember when, somebody gave Eric a pair of whale socks and he wore them when he spoke at something and then he always wore whale socks thereafter when he was speaking in public, they became his speaking socks, his talking socks. But for you they’re emu socks.


Ad:      Thank you.

K:        Well this now brings our conversation to a close but I hope you can join us for some refreshments upstairs in the foyer. We’ve gone a little over so move speedily to the top. Copies of Dark Emu are available in the Library’s bookshop this evening with a 10% discount. I encourage you to go up there and buy the stocks out and Bruce has kindly agreed to sign copies of his book. Thank you all for being here this afternoon and please join me once again in thanking Bruce Pasco.


End of recording