Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Accident or Agriculture? Was published almost five years ago now. Shamefully, it had slipped my radar then, despite it sweeping almost every award imaginable. It was shortlisted for the Queensland, Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, winning in NSW for Book of the Year. It’s a deserving achievement. Bruce Pascoe’s non-fiction historical work is required knowledge for any Australian. It’s a re-focusing of the lens on Indigenous Australian history. It shouldn’t be a tectonic shift, but it is, bringing voices and practices from the past into sharp relief. When the book was mentioned to me, unprovoked, by three separate people in the space of a month (in late 2018), I knew I couldn’t ignore it.
Bruce was born of Bunurong and Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage in Melbourne, where he grew up and became a leader in the education sector. He is also, helpfully, an informative and striking writer. Pascoe’s premise, that pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians have been unfairly dismissed as ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer societies, could be dry and academic in the hands of a lesser writer. Pascoe’s skill for insight and story craft make it the compelling argument it deserves to be.
My own prejudice, my own un-examined and colourless pictures of Australia’s past, were shaken by Dark Emu. The scene that emerges from Pascoe’s work is of a thriving, prosperous, pre-colonial nation. As Pascoe himself says:
“If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”
The wonderful destruction of the colonial narrative is all the more satisfying because Pascoe uses the very instruments of the colonial men against them. Diaries of explorers and pioneers are forensically inspected to present a fuller picture of Indigenous life. One explorer tells of coming upon a tribe that had built a small village on a floodplain. Upon his arrival, he was greeted warmly, given roast duck, cake, and his own dwelling. Elsewhere, Pascoe describes enormous man-made dams, and agricultural practices designed to feed 5,000 people.
In a hilarious and face-palm-hit example, Pascoe demonstrates the clear racism of some of the early explorers. A gentleman tries to fish on the edge of a river without luck. He watches an Indigenous man crouch with a special line. He puts it into the water, lets it move with the current, and at the right moment, gently pulls out a writhing fresh fish. But for the explorer, the man is neither ingenious nor efficient. He is lazy, and clearly not easily persuaded to hard work. The white persists with his own method of fishing, catching
Agricultural history may not be the Summer beach reading hit, but it’s telling that readers of this book become evangelical about it. I’m sharing stories with you now in the same way the book was summarised for me. It’s a landmark achievement for Pascoe, not only in terms of content but the book’s popularity. It gives us hope for the twenty-first century, that Australians might finally be able to reckon with aspects of our past.