Ancient Knowledge,

Future Farming

Interview by Tim Leeson

with Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage

Photography by Nick Lawrence

Cover of Issue #9

This article is part of Issue #9

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The book, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming is a unified clarion call from two very different minds: Bill Gammage is an Australian academic historian, while Bruce Pascoe 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.

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.
Bill
BRUCE’S HOUSE AND FARM. THE YELLOW GRASS IN THE FOREGROUND WILL SOON BE HARVESTED.

Tim: There’s a relentlessness to the book’s opening chapter. Can you tell us about that?

Bill: Yes. One of the things that I experienced in the “black summer” fires (the bushfires of 2019-20) was a feeling of shame that I hadn’t been more aggressive about the importance of learning from Aboriginal people, [especially] in how to prevent fires. When I saw the devastation, I thought I should have been more aggressive because those fires have to be stopped. One consequence of that are my more forthright statements [in the book].

Tim: The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was established in 2020 by the Australian government to report on natural disaster management coordination during the “black summer” bushfire season. Is it true to say that you have some frustrations with the report and what it raised about Aboriginal fire management techniques?

Bill: The most charitable thing to say is [the expert witnesses] disagreed strongly with me… we were on different points of view. They still talk about buying or exchanging planes [water-bombers] with North America. The costs of that kind of treatment are just prohibitive, and they’re clearly unsuccessful. The Royal Commission could have been a bit more questioning. More of the same is not the answer.

We have to focus more on prevention. We could shift [some] expenditure away from firefighting to prevention by training people on how to protect country from fire by cool burning and back burning and that kind of thing. To do that, we could consult Aboriginal experts.

Bruce: The fires were horrible and were preventable. It’s our attitude to the forest, which caused the fires. I really wanted us to rethink our whole attitude to the Australian countryside. Not just the trees, but the rivers too. It all goes together - you can’t separate one from the other.

I saw horrible mistreatment of the forest immediately after the fire. [Due to the fires] I got caught on the farm for a couple weeks, and when I came out, I saw all these great old trees on the ground, cut down. I don’t know who made those decisions. I was devastated. A number of them were culturally important. A tree that Uncle Max “Dulumunmun” Harrison (a Yuin elder) and his grandfather used to sleep in - it was big and hollow enough for three or four people to sleep in - was cut during the fires. Unfortunately, we lost Uncle Max on Saturday. We are all feeling a bit sore.

This morning, we were doing a ceremony for old Uncle Max, but before and after we were in amongst the grass [on the farm], checking its ripeness. The young fella and the other fellas, I want them and their children and their children’s children to prosper from the farm, to prosper from the knowledge, that is their knowledge.

It’s only a small ask, isn’t it? So I ask the government not to give us welfare, not to give us rubbish training, just a bit of land and a bit of support. So our young people can grow these things and sell them. After a long day of work, they can go back to their auntie or their grandmother and say: “Hey Ma, I’ve got enough tubers here for your dinner. There’s some salad greens here as well, which we’ve got off the riverbank an hour ago.” That’s what I want. Because diabetes amongst our people is incredible. It’s a killer, not just for the body, but of the mind too. It’s a diabolical disease; that’s all about diet. We want our people to eat well, so our kids will be healthier. If they’re healthier, their minds will be better as well, and they’ll have minds as strong as their great, great, great-grandmothers.

We depend on Mother Earth. Depend on Country, but we have to give back to Country. We just can’t be taking all the time. Industrial agriculture is that you take, take, take, take, and expect her to give forever. She can’t. That’s why we’re pouring chemicals into it now.

Mother Earth will provide for us, but we have to provide for her. The way that we can provide for her is to grow crops that don’t need chemicals, like kangaroo grass, microlaena (weeping grass) or spear grass - old Aboriginal foods. Let’s grow our Australian plants.

COLLECTING SEEDS.

WATERING THE SEEDLINGS IN THE GREENHOUSE.

I really wanted us to rethink our whole attitude to the Australian countryside. Not just the trees, but the rivers too. It all goes together - you can’t separate one from the other.
Bruce

MAINTAINING THE FENCED GARDEN.

TOWARDS THE END OF THE WORKING DAY THE FARM WORKERS GATHER ON THE VERANDA WITH BRUCE. CONVERSATIONS COVER FARM-RELATED TOPICS BUT THEY ALSO MAKE TIME TO TALK COUNTRY AND CULTURE.

Tim: Bruce, you say in the book that “we need to look at our country through Australian rather than European eyes”, and Bill, in The Biggest Estate you say “we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed one day, we might become Australian.” Can you talk about that perspective that you share?

Bill: The first requirement of being Australian is to be able to look after the country. The extinction rate that we have with the Australian animals and plants and reptiles, and so on… we’re one of the world leaders in extinguishing species. We don’t know how to manage them. If we can’t save or protect our national icons, like koalas and the lesser-known creatures, and we can’t stop them being burned alive, we really can’t claim to be Australian.

Bruce: Stand there and look at the soil. Are there any worms in this soil? Is there any water in the river? These are the questions every farmer should ask herself. How healthy is the country and what am I doing to make her healthier? You only have to look at Landline (a national farming television programme), as every time you watch it, there’s a new bug; a new disease in the crops or animals; and with climate change those things are going to exacerbate. The world’s telling us that we can’t keep doing what we are doing.

We are destroying the soil. Soil fertility is dropping remarkably and we prop it up with expensive chemicals. That has been impoverishing farmers for 30 years and farmers, out of necessity, are moving away from it. Many are turning to what is called “alternative farming”, but what that really is, is when you’ve got no money and you can’t buy chemicals, what can you do? As one bloke told me, he looked around and he said: “The only thing I’ve got is indigenous grasses.” He started harvesting those grasses and saved his farm, saved his family. It’s an environmental question, but it’s also a cultural question about how we treat the Earth.

Countless people tell me a similar story. These are non-Aboriginal farmers seeing a different way of treating Mother Earth. That’s why I’m on the farm. I’m 74 years old. Farming hurts these days. I’m in the last decade of my life and this isn’t how I imagined spending it. I would love to be sitting on my verandah and reading books with cups of tea, both of which I love. I’d love to write more. I’d love to fish… that is my joy. I’m not able to do it because I’m constantly at work. The fact that Uncle Max passed engenders a sense of urgency to it too. We know we have to do it.

I was being kicked around the bloody country (some academics and journalists have publicly criticised Bruce’s work and questioned his Aboriginal identity). They came out, these are old Aboriginal people, and said: “We want you to keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll do what we’re doing too… we will all work together.”

That was such a relief for me to hear and I’m so grateful for their support. And we’re going to win, we Australians, not just black Australia, we Australians, are going to win this, because industrial agriculture has done so much harm.

This country has been maintained by Aboriginal people, stolen from Aboriginal people, accepted by white people. And that gift has been squandered. Now is the time for the gift to be recognised. You [must] seek the giver and make sure that the giver is part of the future. Come out and look at these fine young people on the land, working their guts out in the sun. You tell me they don’t deserve something better than what they’ve got. They’re living on the bones of their arse. Struggling to put a tank of fuel in their bloody car. Their heritage is their wealth.

Tim: Bill, do you share Bruce’s vision about the new form of farming becoming available to Australians?

Bill: The annual cycle of ploughing, fertilising, planting, reaping, applies to some kinds of soils and some climates in Australia. But what you are doing is steadily degrading what little nutrients there are in the soil. Given we started with very low nutrients compared with Europe, where those farming practices took hold, that’s a fundamental mistake. The seasons are not reliable, constant or predictable enough to make that a feasible way of working.

Some of the grains and the yams (tubers) could become part of the Australian diet. I find it difficult to imagine that they’d ever entirely replace the European introduced crops nor would people expect that.

Tim: So a balance could be achieved?

Bill: With knowledge there’ll be places where native grasses would be a more successful and profitable crop year-on-year. You are providing alternative sources of grain. But marketing of these grains is needed, and the knowledge about how to actually use the grains. There’s a lot to learn.

We’re a long way off seeing it as it’s a significant part of the diet, but you’ve got to start. Bruce is quite right to show how effective it can be as a crop.

Tim: Bruce, are you still learning things with each harvest or have you got it pretty well down?

Bruce: No, we’re learning a lot. The people who work on the farm are mostly Yuin people, but some are from other parts of the country - all Aboriginal. I say to people: “Look, every time we touch these things, we learn something. Every time we look at them, we learn something. So spend as much time as you can with the grains that you use and they’ll tell you their story.”

Country: Future Fire, Future Farming (Thames and Hudson) is available now.

BRUCE GAZING OUT ACROSS THE WALLAGARAUGH RIVER WHERE HE LIKES TO SWIM IF HE HAS TIME IN THE AFTERNOON.

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Interview by

Tim Leeson

Tim Leeson is an Australian freelance writer and editor based in South Africa. He loves sharing great tales from regional Australia via Gippslandia… Learn more

with

Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin and Bunurong Aboriginal Australian writer and farmer. He has written more than 20 novels, short stories, and historical work… Learn more

Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage is an Australian historian, adjunct professor and senior research fellow at the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National … Learn more

Photography by

Nick Lawrence

Nick Lawrence is a freelance photographer, born in east London, UK and based in Sydney, Australia. His photography is primarily focused on people a… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #9

Cover of  Issue #9
Collaboration Community Consciousness

This issue delves into collective wisdom, traditional practices, and social justice. It examines change through nutritious school meals and gardens…

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