University of Melbourne Magazine

Reaping seeds of discontent

  • Australian historian Bruce Pascoe (BEd(Sec) 1982), member of the Bunurong clan and author of Dark Emu

    A chance botanical encounter reveals what the explorers knew long ago: that Australia’s Indigenous people had been cultivating crops well before the first Europeans arrived.

    Illustration: Reaping seeds of discontent


    We were stranded on a heathland west of Shipwreck Creek like an unhappy family of arthritic brolgas.

    Our mission had been to find a rare banksia and our success had been achieved so quickly we were faced with the prospect of returning before we’d even popped the plugs on our battered vacuum flasks.

    We stood there surveying the scene of our triumph in doleful exhilaration. We were boffins mostly, so the emotion came as easily to us as our woeful choice of tailors.

    One of the gayblades swept his cap across the tops of the grass. He’d received his cap during a Bi-Lo grocery chain promotion; you can’t look a free cap in the peak, so it had become part of his ensemble.

    “What’s this?” he hooted mournfully as we all looked into his cap wishing it was us who’d been there the day Bi-Lo went mad with generosity. His cap was full of seed.

    “Themeda triandra,” another of the thrillseekers murmured, “kangaroo grass.” The brolgas moved on, planning a grand celebration of Thermos coffee on the beach. I dawdled behind them, not wanting to get involved too early in the shenanigans, and repeated Bi-Lo’s action with my own cap, found on the river bank after the 2009 flood. We love a good flood.

    “I began to question everything, especially those things Australians claimed to know about Australia.”

    My hat was full of seed, too, and I looked around at the uniform height of the grass heads. Growing through the heath and banksias was a monoculture of kangaroo grass, all the same height and nearly all maturing its seed at the same time. If twenty of you stretched out in line with … let’s say coolamons, you could harvest this 200-acre field in three or four days.

    That’s too much seed to eat all at once, but if you milled the grain and stored the flour you could eat it later on. Giles and Mitchell had found such stores on their Australian explorations, Gregory had seen fields being sowed and irrigated, and Sturt had seen the grinding process.

    I’ve been walking this heath since 1974 looking for orchids, tawny crowned honeyeaters, banksias, ground parrots and the sort of stuff that interests people who wear second-hand hats.

    I should have noticed this grass before, should have wondered why it was so predominant, why it was seeding all at once. But I didn’t. I’d been educated in Australia, where we train our minds not to think of stuff like that, preferring instead to be excited by rare sightings of a dull green parrot.

    The accepted history of Australia is so pervasive, and laded so thoroughly with warm platitudes of self-congratulation, that the image of the Australian as a good-natured knockabout humourist has seeded our literature and society so thoroughly that any questioning of the national character is met with instantaneous incredulity followed soon after by venom. The letters pages of all national newspapers were whipped into a froth of indignation when it was suggested in a school curriculum that Australia was invaded rather than settled. We like the word “settled” for its benign passivity.

    I swallowed that history hook, line and sinker, but the gruff teachings and questions of the elders eroded that confidence.

    I began to question everything, especially those things Australians claimed to know about Australia.

    We had just walked through a field of harvest, but a field where the harvesters had been discouraged from their labour 170 years ago. Discouraged by murder.

    The image of the hat full of grain stayed with me. And when at last I began to investigate the real Aboriginal economy so frankly described by the explorers, I remembered the ugly hat. I’d been growing murrnong for five years and the Barkinji, Latji Latji and Mutti Mutti had shown me how to make bread from panicum decompositum in the sand dunes of Lake Mungo. A grinding dish analysed at Cuddie Springs revealed that it had been used to grind grain into flour 34,000 years ago, thousands of years before anyone else on earth had discovered the alchemy of flour water and heat. This needed further examination.

    Illustration: Reaping seeds of discontent


    I went back to the heathland, eschewing the charms of parrots and obscure banksias, and stripped the heads of the Themeda triandra. I posted the grain to a mate whose edgy glee comes from milling the seed of grasses. I knew the first time I met him that he knew what he was doing because he was still driving his mother-in-law’s 1986 Mercedes that gloried in a dashboard cracked like a surfer’s lips and decorated by enough tartan rugs to keep the highlands happy for a decade.

    Uncle Mercedes produced 500 grams of wholemeal flour and 200 grams of more refined flour from three kilograms of seed heads. The flour was dark but smelt like a late summer field at dusk, earthy and warm, and tasted rich and fruity.

    “Why had we spent 220 years refusing to eat what the First Australians ate?”

    Next day, my wife, Lyn, the only orchid boffin I know who can walk into a bush paddock looking like Shelley Ware from the Marngrook Footy Show, blended the Themeda flour with white flour and combined them with her starter yeast and baked a loaf of bread. I was nervous. I chewed a corner off the loaf and my heart leapt. It was beautiful and had the unmistakable perfume and flavour of the kangaroo grass.

    We had a bread of exceptional taste, and even at the rate at which we’d combined it with conventional flour, it was going to mean a new agricultural industry would be created on the back of a grass that needs no more water or fertility than our climate and soils provide naturally. A plant domesticated and acclimatised for the land. Why had we spent 220 years refusing to eat what the First Australians ate? Spleen or ignorance?

    Millionaires are going to be made by growing and merchandising murrnong and kangaroo grass, but I hope some of them are Aboriginal. Mick Dodson assures me that Monsanto makes it impossible for Indigenous people to take advantage of the intellectual property invested in their foods, but the tiny second-hand hatman of my soul believes that maybe Australians are ready to acknowledge the whole history of their country. After all, it can’t be as hard to do as Richmond winning a premiership. The local South Coast Aboriginal Food Communities plan to harvest Themeda in December and market flour under their own brand.

    Please God, let Australia remember who domesticated this grain and invented bread 15,000 years before anyone else on Earth.

    We won’t get many better chances to come together in friendship.

    But remember that you can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.

    Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year in 2016.