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Feature - ISSUE #9

Ancient Knowledge, Future Farming

Interview by Tim Leeson
Photography by Nick Lawrence

The book, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming is a unified clarion call from two very different minds: Bill Gammage (above) is an Australian academic historian, while Bruce Pascoe (right) is a Yuin and Bunurong Aboriginal Australian writer and farmer. This collaboration implores readers to reconnect with traditional Aboriginal practices to stave off uncontrollable bushfires and embrace more sustainable farming techniques.

Head of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Knowledges Curatorial Centre and general editor of the First Knowledges series, of which the book is a part, Margo Neale, writes in her introduction: “They urge us to practice a form of farming that truly responds to the ebb and flow of Country, and is powered by old ideas to reinvigorate ancient conversations about the human connection to nature.”

Bill’s earlier book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, published in 2012, and Bruce’s book, Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, published in 2014, triggered a reassessment of Australia’s past, the treatment of the country’s First Peoples and the environmental management techniques applied to the land. Both publications explore why the country looks vastly different now when compared to that found by the European colonists in 1788.

With both men in their 70s, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming contains ancient knowledge that can assist in negotiating Australia’s future land management requirements, delivered with urgency by two authors cognisant that their quietus is nearing.

Aboriginal people should be aware that this interview may contain images and names of deceased relatives who have passed on to the Dreaming World.

Bill

Bruce

Tim: How did Country: Future Fire, Future Farming come together?

Bill: In September 2020, the publisher Thames & Hudson organised a telephone hookup with Bruce, Margo Neale and associate publisher, Sally Heath. They suggested that we write the book. We agreed, partly because it gave us a chance to work with each other. The deadline was very strict, and, for me, that was cut back because I got cancer.

We were writing at different times as Bruce was harvesting over summer and I thought that with the cancer [spreading], I should get stuck into it. Towards the end of it, I couldn’t feel my fingers, so it was quite hard to type the manuscript, but I got through it.

It turned out that, as usual, we were on the same wavelength, both talking about what might happen in the future and how the past might apply to the present issues, but that was serendipity.

Tim: When did you first meet?

Bill: In 2013, at the Two Fires Festival [of Arts and Activism] at Braidwood, New South Wales. Bruce had read my book by then, but I didn’t know about him, and his book didn’t come out for another 18 months or so.

We’d both been asked to talk. He’s quite a charismatic speaker. He stands up to the podium and doesn’t say anything for a while. That silence draws people’s attention in. Then, after a few quiet comments, he makes a striking claim: Aborigines were the first farmers or the first bakers, and so on. That stimulates an audience… he’s very effective.

I can’t recall much of what he said, except that it was about Aboriginal agriculture, and I disagree with how far he goes on that, but we struck the same chord because we both thought that Aboriginal traditional knowledge and skills had been much underrated by non-Aboriginal people in Australia. We were both arguing that this has to be changed. Here amidst the vast sea of ignorance or just disinterest, [Bruce] was a fellow traveller, and that was a great feeling.

Bruce: There are not many people like Bill around. I was grateful when I first started reading his essays about the population increase of galahs, grain-eating cockatoos, in the wheatlands - that was literally the first time it was mentioned.

Bill: Australians were not particularly aware that they’d neglected or ignored Aboriginal people, and certainly most Australians aren’t aware of the skill with which Aboriginal people manage the country. So, we could talk to each other and pick up on Aboriginal knowledge, both privately and before an audience.

Bruce: I don’t expect any two people to be identical or to agree all the time. It’s obvious that Bill and I have differences of opinion about all sorts of things, but we’re civil. It’s not about English manners, it’s about human decency and I respect that. I am coming to it from a different angle - I had to learn this stuff the hard way. Writing isn’t an option for me, it’s an obligation.

Bill: We’ve helped each other. We have different messages. We don’t agree on everything, but we obviously strike it off each other. We refer to each other during our talks and my wife Jan calls us “the two Bs - Bill and Bruce”. Kind of a performance act.

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