BOOK REVIEW

Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?

Rich history of agriculture hiding in plain sight

Book cover for Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? by Bruce Pascoe
Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? By Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014, ISBN: 1922142433, 9781922142436
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It’s something of a truism, isn’t it? History is written by the victors — well, of course!

What if that history still exists all around, yet there is an ideology which renders it invisible? Welcome to the settler state known as Australia. A place where the attempted, and quite deliberate, expungement of the world’s oldest living culture is ongoing — and inherent in the expropriation of that culture. The conscious, rarely stated, but nonetheless deliberate genocide by the English against the First Nations of this continent.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu blows away the fog of the colonial wars. It reveals what is obvious to those who wish to see: this was not a continent of landless nomads. This was not a continent without technology and engineering. This was a continent with large towns, with organised aquaculture, with vast savannahs and forests, managed by purposeful people. Savannahs that, while subject to drought were not subject to scarcity; nor forests to cremation. For uncounted generations. 

Dark Emu? It took me a while to get the deliberate pun — and the delicious riddle — of Pascoe’s title. The dark emu is a celestial feature of the southern sky, but it is not bright. The Emu’s head is a very dark nebula, next to the Southern Cross and the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way towards the constellation of Scorpius. Of course, this represents the near universal trait of humanity — to see patterns. But where northern hemisphere astronomy sees only the stars, Australian First Nations’ astronomy sees other patterns. This is one. And there are others. One could answer Pascoe’s riddle with another riddle: “can’t see the wood for the trees!”  The trees, of course, represent the monoculture broadacre farms so characteristic of colonial Australia. Which persist to the current day.

The wood? That is where the emu roams! And one only needs to look through the trees, beyond the racist myths of colonialism, and the falsely claimed superiority of capitalist England, to see the rich forest of Indigenous management of this place.

And that is the essence of Pascoe’s work. Yet, it goes even deeper than that. Where in the school books, the academic journals, the tomes of so-called Australian History are the stories of Indigenous achievements? The evidence of towns of a thousand people or more? The evidence of fields of yams in the so-called deserts? The evidence of the grinding of grass seeds to make flour and bread, from a time when Europe, North Asia, and North America were nothing but ice caps.

None of this is in Australian history. And it’s absent not because the colonial settlers didn’t see it. No, No: it’s because vast amounts of evidence have simply been ignored. Terra Nullius (empty land) of the mind! Unsee what is seen, because it does not fit your preconceptions. White people are superior — particularly rich white people. Therefore, these thatched houses don’t exist. Therefore, this group of houses is not a village. Therefore, this group of a hundred houses is not a town. Therefore, this plantation which stretches as far as one can see is not agriculture. Therefore, this grassland is not managed, nor this forest.

This is what Pascoe reveals and discusses in great detail. The “White Blindfold” view of Australian colonial/settler history, as it has been called.

New archaeological research appears to show that there have been people on this continent much earlier than we were previously taught. Why are we finding this out now? Like the dark emu, much of the story has been hiding in plain sight. There is a site in Queensland, studied for years, that points to human occupation dating back to 120,000 years before the common era (BCE). Yet the evidence seems to have been downplayed, because it could not be right. Humans couldn’t have left Africa that early. The fact of the ice ages and the need to escape them seems to have escaped the conversation — hiding in plain sight. Why would humans not be here?

There is another archaeological site. I’ve seen it. I have friends whose deck overlooks it. In plain sight it has been “hiding” for two hundred years. Just a pile of shells at Moyjil (Point Ritchie). It was assumed that the Dhauwurd Wurrung (Gunditjmara) people had accumulated the pile over some time. True! But over what time? One hundred and twenty thousand years.

Now, one has to ask oneself — how could civilisations of such antiquity not develop agriculture, animal husbandry, forest management, soil cultivation? Pascoe poses precisely this question and answers it: they did!

And we are discovering, to the detriment of all of us, that the destruction of these civilisations leaves the present economy at peril. Not just because of climate change, though that is true. Not because of this place being a dry continent, though that is also true. It is because, in the tiny window of human history since the English subjugation of this continent, imperialism, colonialism and capitalism have deeply damaged the human management of the place.

There are European farmers here who have realised this. Advances have been made in returning the land to what it was, while blending that with European agricultural practices (see Charles Massy, Call of the Reed Warbler and others).

I did the arithmetic. Europeans came to this place less than 500 years ago and skirted around it. Then the English landed, just on 240 years ago. So can we learn a little from the people who have been here probably 500 times as long? I believe so, and Bruce Pascoe’s book shows how.

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