Living with the land, learning from the past

In this conversation, renowned journalist Kerry O’Brien and celebrated Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe explored the way Bruce’s critically acclaimed book Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of Agriculture challenges conventional thinking about the First Australians as hunter gatherers.

In this book Bruce draws on the historical record to recreate a much more sophisticated picture of an ancient civilisation in Australia before the Europeans arrived. This is at odds with colonial and post-colonial stereotypes and points to ways that Indigenous knowledge can provide lessons that can be applied today, despite the backlash which has attempted to discredit him.

Kerry O’Brien – Thank you, Carolyn. Can I add my welcome to the latest in our series of conversations with Griffith University, at the Home of the Arts here on the Gold Coast. And I’d like to acknowledge the Yugambeh people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders, past and present and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today. And a warm welcome to you too Bruce Pascoe from your family Mallacoota in northeastern Victoria. Are you hearing me, Bruce?

Bruce Pascoe – Yes, I am. Thanks Kerry. And thank you to the audience. And I acknowledge the Yugambeh people as well and thank them for the welcome they have shown me on previous occasions, and I’d like to acknowledge my own country here on the southernmost part of human lands. This wonderful country has looked after me very well.

Kerry O’Brien – Okay, Bruce. And I should also say to our audience that we’re doing this in the difficult circumstances imposed on us by the pandemic. The Coronavirus, and the fact that Bruce is somewhat remote in northeastern Victoria, just over the border from New South Wales and near Mount Mallacoota. Bruce, so bear with us if we strike any technical problems. We are in the hands of zoom, and our own technology. Bruce, when I sat down to contemplate this conversation I was struck by how much has happened to you since we last spoke at Byron Bay, not much more than a year ago. You really have been in the eye of the storm, literally. The bushfires, the personal attacks on you over Dark Emu and even over your Aboriginal heritage. And of course there’s been the pandemic. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in an hour. So let’s start with the fires. What was the worst of that for you? Have you ever had a more intense or fearful time in your life?

Bruce Pascoe – I don’t think I’ve really been able to absorb it all. Because I’m always distracted by the fact that so many more people in Mallacoota had such horrendous things happen to them, that what happened to me sort of slipped into the background. I do walk around this farm sometimes and get confronted by a particular tree that I remember from the fires and how I was feeling at the time, but then I think about what it must have been like for people in Mallacoota. Because really it was like an atomic explosion there. And people were very, very scared. People I thought would never use the word scared were terrified. And, so what happened here was like a scratch.

Kerry O’Brien – I heard you describing how you drove your daughter to Canberra to the relative safety of Canberra because you were fearful of what you could see coming. And your description of what you saw that had changed between when you drove up and when you drove back to conduct your own defense, if you like, was extraordinarily vivid. Can you just very quickly take me through that?

Bruce Pascoe – Well I sent my daughter away with her family because we had camped for a night in a motel in Eden. You know, six people, two dogs in a motel room that had two single beds. And I fortunately had brought a possum skin rug and I chucked it in the corner and my dogs have never been allowed on it before so they were very happy to sit on it. And they never moved on. I’ll always thank them for that because it allowed us to organize our lives while they were kind of playing killing possums, I suppose. I don’t know what they were thinking. But it was a really horrible feeling in that town. Poor old Eden. I thought it Eden was going to burn. But that next morning I sent my daughter away and I then started back down the road. And you know all my training told me, because I’m in the CFA, all my training told me don’t do that. You know, that’s rule one and you’ve broken it twice already. And the further I went I thought oh you’ve broken it 13 times now. After a while there was no point going back and I just kept on going and going. The Bush was alight on both sides of the road and it was hottest in the forestry coops. That’s where we’re growing timber to pulp and send to Japan and bring back as McDonald’s rapers. That’s where the fire was hottest. But I just kept on going. There were trees across the road and melted bitumen on the road. I had to drive off the highway, and get back on. All that sort of stuff. And I had in my mind that I was going home, and I was going to help save my house. But then when I got to the road off the Princes highway, I moved a few trees, I drove around a few more. And then I came across a dozen trees that I was never going to move. I didn’t have a chainsaw with me, which was ridiculous. I then went back and I was intending to go and see my mate at the Genoa hotel. Because I thought if anyone is going to do anything useful it’s going to be Dave. When I was on my way, then I got within a few kilometers. And then I came across a mates house. And it was on fire at the back. And so I thought, you know, I just drove off into his yard and started fighting that fire. And I was feeling pretty alone. And I had my two dogs in the back. And I thought, you know, it doesn’t matter about you mate but what about your dogs? You know they’re in the back of your car. And I was pretty disgusted with myself and feeling like a real idiot. And then one of my mates turned up. The dogs heard me say dogs.

Kerry O’Brien – throw them the possum rug.

Bruce Pascoe – their vocab is not broad, but the words they understand they are happy to talk about. But then the two men who own those houses arrived. They had been staying with their sister, looking after their sister and so we fought those fires. We were dragging racos out underneath the house of one fella. We couldn’t believe that that house survived because we more or less written it off. And I said to my mate, look, there’s people across the road I want to go and see them. I knew they had a bunker that they built from hand. Their own expertise, whatever that was, and we all worried that was not going to be enough. So, I said to Freddy look I want to go and see how they are going over there. Then he says you’re going to need a chainsaw. He gave me the chainsaw. And I cut through to Jackie and Ron’s place the dog kennels. I’ve never been through a fire that hot. The fire had largely left that property. But I had never seen a devastation like it. So as I was walking up to their house, I thought if there’s dogs here I’m getting here them now. You know, I’ll hear dogs. And I heard no dogs and I thought well they’re gone. And I could see part of their house burned. And I thought what am I going to find and I saw a movement in the kitchen. I thought what happened? They’ve left a dog inside or something. And it was them having a cup of tea. They’ve been good friends of mine for 20 years and we’ve never been great huggers. I’m not a great hugger anyway, but when the door opened I picked that woman up and I told her what I thought of her. And then when I got back to live timber mill I couldn’t find anyone and I still had Freddie’s saw. So I drove around that property. I couldn’t see anyone. I then started working on the Wallangra road out to the farm and cutting through timber to get out there. It took me hours, and I was so concentrated. I didn’t realize I’d forgotten all about fuel of course, and I ran out of fuel on the chain saw. But in the meantime, Freddie had a heart attack and died. And I didn’t know that and people told me the next day. I took my boat, and thank God for my, boat into Mallacoota to get more fuel because the people on the river we’re using tractors and bulldozers to fight the fire, and we all ran out of fuel. And so I took the boat in a Mallacoota and got fuel. And people in Mallacoota said Freddie is dead. And I said no he’s not. I was with him yesterday. He’s fine. But he wasn’t. And it took me two days to be convinced. And the beautiful thing, if there’s anything beautiful about it was that I told my daughter you ring me every two hours, and I got really cross with her. I said you ring me every two hours because I want to know how you’re going because Marnie had a carload of people who were driving up to Canberra because I sent her off to Canberra. I didn’t know that she’d collected all these Mallacoota locals on the way and driven them to Canberra to safety. Once she got up Brown Mountain I knew she was going to be alright. But anyway, she rings me up and I’m int eh timber mill yard and Freddie new Marnie from when she was an unspeaking toddler. And I’m talking to Marnie on the phone, and she’s saying how are you going dad? You shouldn’t have gone there. And, you know, reading the wright act to me. And I said it’s going to be all right, like an idiot. And Freddie took the phone out of my hand, he said, Marnie, I’ll look after him.

Kerry O’Brien – You wrote at length in Dark Emu about the positive impact of indigenous fire use on the Australian landscape. And how that practice changed with the arrival of white settlers. Since the last round of bushfires, you’ve been scathing of how the forests around you are changed as a result. Can you really say with any certainty that those fires would not have been as intense or as destructive if indigenous fire practice was still being applied today?

Bruce Pascoe – Look I think I can say that, absolutely. That if we had had a different forestry system, would have had a much better result I think in that district. People always blame parks. The management of parks is a condition of the amount of money they get to run them. But forestry is all about making the most money out of as little capital investment as you can. And that was self-evident when I was driving through three days before the fire. We knew it was coming. Everyone in Mallacoota knew it was coming. We were trying to get prepared. And I had the opportunity to go into that forest. And I counted the number of trees in one of those wood pulp forests. It was three hundred. And they cheek by jowl. They’re that big. They’re that far apart. And their crowns touch like that. Any fire below them, straight up into the crown. And it was a bomb in those forests, and below the trees and most of the trees have gone, some of the trees have been completely incinerated. And below them was like snow had fallen because the fire was that intense that those trees had just become ash. Huge trees had become ash. The old Aboriginal system was that you had 10 trees to the acre. They were massive. And their crowns was so vast and so high off the ground they couldn’t burn. I can tell you from experience that if we had been able to have those big trees we would have had a much safer environment. We would not have had that fire. Despite climate change, and all that has changed in our world, if we’d had a forest like Aboriginal people had it we wouldn’t have had that fire. There’s a spot just at the back of my farm where, I don’t know why, it has never been logged on and there are 10-15 trees to the acre. And it is unburned. The butts of those trees are burned, but they’re so big it never got into the canopy. If there’s any better lesson for us Australians, if there are any skeptics who want to come and have a look, I’ll show you those trees. Because the fire never got into the crown, they never burned. And now below them it’s full of a wattles and orchids. And it’s a great sight. And that is how we have to go back. We have to value every stick of timber. Every time we cut down a tree, we have to put an absolute premium on that wood. We have to be so careful of our environment. And stop this crazy stuff of cutting down a whole forest at once, sending it to wood chip mill and then sailing it to Japan to be pulped, bringing it back as hamburger wrappers and thinking that’s a really good economy. Now, I know that people will say what about jobs in the forest? What about jobs in the forest? Well, when I first came to Mallacoota, you could walk into a forestry crew where people were cutting down trees, and they’d be 15 people sitting down having lunch and I’d go and have a cup of tea with them. And I was doing bird surveys. And they welcomed me to sit down wisdom because they loved birds too. And now you go to a forestry crew, there’s one person with two machines and a truck. And that person is destroying the forest on his own. It’s not the Greens who have cost Australian jobs. It is the capitalists and they’re huge machines. And there’s nothing antithetical about capitalism and forests. We can still make money out of timber, we’ve done it for a couple of 100 years. But our people have done it for 120,000 years. We had an economy based on trends. But it your mindset. It’s how you go about it, and Australians are terrible capitalists. We are absolutely shocking.

Kerry O’Brien – Very briefly Bruce, what do you say to those who are still trying to argue that these fires are not climate change related? And I don’t imagine we can get your message to Donald Trump. But there might be a few people in Australia who’d be interested in what you have to say.

Bruce Pascoe – The bushes changed as a result of climate change, no doubt about it. I’ve lived in Mallacoota since 1973. In the last 20 years I’ve seen the arrival of heart trees and mutton wood. I’ve seen the first ever arrival of White-headed pigeons and Channel-build Cuckoos. I’ve seen change here. And I’ve also seen the forests change and become more dangerous. We could have managed that. And Aboriginal people have been managing climate change for 120,000 years. There’s been desertification, Ice Ages, everything. Aboriginal people have continued the longest loop civilization on earth despite it. But it’s our business, you know, it’s what we do. It’s the same in California and the poor Californian’s and I feel sorry for them. But you know, their commercial forests are where the fire starts. Unfortunately for us it’s identical. We’ve got a very flammable tree, eucalypt, and now we’re growing them so that the trunks of those trees are three and four meters apart. It doesn’t make any sense by the commercially or environmentally or scientifically. It only makes sense if you think you can get a crop. One crop and then you buy a Maserati. And that’s it. That’ll be good enough. It’s stupid.

Kerry O’Brien – you think they should be happy with just one Maserati. I want to come back and talk about the farm a little later in the conversation, and what you’re trying to achieve there. You were fighting the bushfires in Mallacoota. Just as you’ve just described, when you heard that an indigenous lawyer and businesswoman named Josephine Cashman had formally complained to the Federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton that your claims to Aboriginal heritage were false, and that you had dishonestly profited from those claims. How did that impact on you, particularly when Peter Dutton referred the complaint to the federal police for investigation?

Bruce Pascoe – I can’t pretend I wasn’t deeply hurt, and deeply destabilized because I was. I’ve been pretty frank about my Aboriginal heritage. And I’ve been writing about it off and on for 45 years. There were Aboriginal people involved who would say he is not Aboriginal. None of them have ever spoken to me. Not one of them. But what I felt about Josephine was, here’s a person who’s been used. And as soon as they’ve had enough of her, or got what they want, they’ll drop her. And that’s exactly what happened. I felt sorry for her, and I’ve been saying to Aboriginal people who know Josephine look after her. Because the people who used her won’t care a hoot.

Kerry O’Brien – When the police dismissed the complaint, I imagine you felt a little better then?

Bruce Pascoe – Well, I did. I spoke to a gentleman on the phone from the AFP. And he was incredibly generous. And, I had been really worried. I’ve never had much trouble with the law. Except when I played footy against them. But I thought, what’s going to happen? And how is this going to all work out. So, when that policeman rang me and talked about the background to it, and how they felt about it, I was incredibly relieved. But in a way, it was just like watching a mosquito bite you and then fly off. And you think, I’m going to pay for this. But everything else around me was burning. And I thought, it’s not helping. But in proportion to what had happened 140 people in Mallacoota it was nothing. So, complaining about that would have been pretty crook. But look, I had the support of my elders. I had elders ring me up, who I didn’t even know, I had never met them. And they said are you okay? Are your family? And I thought would have been handy of you to say that six months ago. Anyway. The generosity was incredible. Aboriginal people stopping me in the street and saying brother, just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a little bit easier to say that then to do it. Because I was pretty hurt. And this has been a really difficult year. I’ve got to thank the community. Last weekend, we went up to Bermagui and performed a dance for the whales. A really ancient old story. And we’ve been gathering this from Western Australia, Queensland, and South Australia for the last five or six years. I’ve been lucky enough to travel with uncle Max and a few other old Aboriginal people to tell this story. It is so similar to the one that he told us. And so now we’re able to dance it. For all the disruption, all the pain, you know if I can talk about my pain, for all of that here I am on a beach with 35 other people dancing for the whale that’s returning from the north and going to Antarctica. What are you complaining about mosquitoes for? Because that Whale is going back to Antarctica. Antarctica is the journey in reverse that Aboriginal people have done. That’s according to our own people. Now there are going to be a lot of scientists around Australia shocked by that. But is this metaphorical? What is it, the rest of that whale story? Because it was Aboriginal people who realized that the whale used to be a land mammal. And it was only 20 years ago that European scientists found out that it was a land mammal. But that whole song, that whole dance is about the fact that whales on earth went into the sea. It’s ancient. It’s incredibly ancient, and to be with all those other people and dance, all those young men and women tolerating an old haggard man like me, it was irreplaceable in my heart.

Kerry O’Brien – Bruce, I was quite struck by Marcia Langton comment on your behalf, that the issue of your aboriginality was settled. That quote “we all know that it’s very difficult for some Aboriginal people to prove their Aboriginal because of lack of records, because of members of the family lying, because of shame about having Aboriginal ancestry, because of the hatred of Aboriginal people.” Did that resonate with you?

Bruce Pascoe – You’ve got to admire Marcia Langton. When I heard she’d said that I cried. Not afraid to admit it. Because I know so many Aboriginal people with heritage’s like mine. And a lot of those people rang me during that time to say for Christ’s sake hang in brother because if you go, we all go. And those words resonated with me and resonated with all those other people who’ve got that link to Aboriginal people which obviously doesn’t result in dark skin, or anything like that. But which is important to them. You know, on St. Patrick’s Day I often have a Guinness in a hotel near where I used to live in Carlton. And people coming out of the woodwork saying they’re Irish. And they are, they’ve got ancestry, and they’re celebrating it. Why are our people not allowed to do that? To celebrate their ancestry? It’s not about a free lunch or anything like that, for goodness sake. Have a look at the poverty in Aboriginal communities? Where’s the free ride? Tell me about it. Where’s the education? Where’s the employment? Where’s the good health service? Tell me about it for.

Kerry O’Brien – When you first heard the stories within your family of indigenous heritage, why did it become so important for you to take it further and nail down just what that heritage was? Because you’ve observed more recently that clinical analysis of genes says you’re more Cornish than Koori. Yet, it’s the Koori connection that now dominates your life. And why do you think that is?

Bruce Pascoe – Because I love Australia. And I’ve been taught A history of Australia, which I absorbed. And when I started looking for those family links Aboriginal people were disgusted by my ignorance, and very gently over a long period of time, took me through the history of Australia. A vastly different history of Australia than I had been taught. And so, I had to understand that history if I was still capable of loving my country. The story is so heart wrenching. But once you’re embarked on it, there’s no going back. Because if you learn about Mile Creek, then you’ll also learn about the Crawford River. Then you’ll also learn about Nicholls Rivulet in Tasmania. You’ll learn about Maningrida there’s no going back. You’re committed and there is just no going back. And so, it did take over my life. People might think it’s a pretense, but it’s not. It’s just a genetic infection.

Kerry O’Brien – Initially you claimed Tasmanian indigenous ancestry, as well as links to the Bonorong people of Southern Victoria, and the Yuin people of southern New South Wales. That has since shrunk to Yuin connection. How strong is that connection? And what does it mean?

Bruce Pascoe – We do have links to Tasmania and those links involve Melbourne and Adelaide. And we’ve got family members in Adelaide. It’s not accepted by all Tasmanian people. But in the middle of those fires, I only did one job. And I went to Tasmania, and I worked with Rodney Dillon over there. And Aboriginal people were in the audience and they came up and they embraced me. Tasmania is a difficult place, and has been very hard for Aboriginal people. The Tasmanian Aboriginal center have done a magnificent job. But they don’t recognize all those other Aboriginal links of people who survived on the mainland. They weren’t on the islands but survived on the mainland. That’s a story to be told. And the Bunurong people. You know, we’ve got a family connection there. And 40 years ago, I spoke to an elder in Melbourne. And I explained that link, which is from Tasmania, actually. I’ve spoken to those families most of my life. So I think what happened is that the commentary from people opposed to Aboriginal people roped in some other Aboriginal people, and that is upsetting and unfortunate, but that’s the way things go. But with the Yuin connection we’ve got strong links, and it’s a really exciting story. And I wish the climate was better so that I could celebrate it. But as I said before, I had phone calls from other Yuin people, and Bonorong people who knew that side of the family story and said you’ve got to ring this person. They will vouch for you. Ring that person and so I did. Right. And now for eight or nine years of I’ve been involved in with uncle Max Harrison and plenty of other people on the south coast recovering parts of our law that we never thought we’d get back. And so far, for me to be involved in tittle tattle about this and that and the other thing, but at the same time I’ve got this massive story that I’m involved in. I’ve got to go to Perth to investigate Broom, Karratha, Margaret River, Rover in South Australia. It’s just nothing. Because the big story is a story that I’m involved in. And I’m very fortunate to be living now on Yuin land, the southern end of Yuin land. And there is a great comfort in it. No pride, just comfort.

Kerry O’Brien – So now, you’ve essentially become a lightning rod for two highly emotive elements of the Australian identity. The clash of narratives over pre- and post-colonial history. And the part racism plays in that story. Indeed, the nature of that racism and what has driven it, all of which is at the core of Dark Emu. Is it really as simple as you make it sound? That the painting of first Australians as rootless nomads who were as the anthropologist W.E.H. Stammers once wrote, quote “hunters and foragers who grow nothing, build nothing, and stay nowhere long” was a kind of grand conspiracy to justify the concept of Terra nullius. The suppression even the obliteration of first Australians virtually through our post-colonial history.

Bruce Pascoe – I’m afraid to say yes. What astounds me is that people could read those explorers journals and read about these massive dams, these incredible fish traps, these incredible fields of harvest, the storage pits for grain, the storage pits for water, and they could say that these people were savages. It just astounds me. Then to the write a history of Australia, and for the edification of Australian students, and completely leave that out. What kind of scholar are you? And what is your intent to read those passages, and to leave them out? Because you say to yourself this will be of no interest to Australian students. Or on the other side of that coin, I don’t want Australian students to know this about Aboriginal Australia and their own country. How many people were involved in that collusion to hide this information from our nation. Now, it’s not about me writing a book. It’s about the fact that those stories are in our history. And we chose not to tell them to children. And now’s our chance. And since Dark Emu there have been some incredible archaeological discoveries which are still in the hands of universities going through that checking of fact, after fact, after fact. But they are within months of coming to the surface. There’s one I can tell you about in a part of Australia. And this study is just incredible. Where Aboriginal people producing the world’s first art and more of it than anyone’s ever seen before. Those people obviously decided if we’re going to do this incredible artistic process, we’re going to need to eat, we’re going to need to be here for a long time, we’re going to need to build fish traps. But they also built gardens. And those gardens were built in the harshest climate in Australia. And they raised the moisture level by just 2%. And that was enough to grow food, just that 2% difference in moisture level. On one side of the wall, nothing. On the other side of the wall, productivity. Now, to understand enough about the country to think that 2% was going to make a difference is amazing. And Australia will learn that I think probably around March next year. Australia will learn that. It will be in National Geographic, it’ll be on the Discovery channel. It will be everywhere. What’s Australia going to say about it then? Oh, that didn’t happen. You know, COVID is a myth. Is that what we are going to keep on saying. This is an incredible country. Aboriginal people had an incredible history. The power of the philosophy, the power of Aboriginal science is amazing. As an Australian, why wouldn’t you want that in your country? There’s so much to learn. There’s so much to gain economically, agriculturally, environmentally there is so much to gain. So to kick back against it, I just don’t understand it.

Kerry O’Brien – so tell me, you also write in Dark Emu about the symbiotic relationship between the Aboriginal spirituality and the economy. You just touched on it. That the economy was inseparable from philosophical and religious beliefs. Can you elaborate briefly on that?

Bruce Pascoe –  Well we’ve got Yuin people working on the farm here. And we talk about these things all the time. And earlier in the year, just after the fires had past, we had a soil scientist come and talk to us about our land. He was interested in the top part of the soil. He said this is where all the action happens here. I said well, can we just dig that profile a bit deeper. And in the top part of the profile there are big chunks of carbon from forest fire. Below it there was really fine carbon evenly distributed through the soil. And he’d been wanting to talk to us about carbon in the soil, what what this soil is going to do for you, blah, blah, blah. But what we actually discovered was that that top part of the soil was 250 years of Australian history. There’s a soil below it was reflecting a much older history, and a much more controlled use of fire. No forest fire, just burnt grasslands. But from the process of growing grain. He was more astounded than we were because we were expecting much the same. But he was quite astounded. And it was a memorable moment. But we were trying to grow these foods and for the sake of the country, because there is a direct relationship between perennial plants and the soil. Perennial plants have big root systems. They reach down into the moisture and the nutrients, as you’ve got to do in Australia. Whereas the annuals operating in that little level of soil. Just before the fires began, I think you might remember there was a huge dust storm in New South Wales. And that came from the area around Brewarrina. And that’s because people were plowing the land so they could grow cotton on land, land they had laser levelled. They had stolen water from Queensland and most New South Wales. So the Darling dies in summer and all the fish do too. They were using that water that they’d stolen from the Australian people, and they were spreading it across these cotton fields. But before they could do that, but the soil blew up in the air and blew up across Barrier Reef. A wonderful bit of farming science isn’t it? Wonderful contribution to the economy. And if Australia’s lovely soil, and remember the soils of the Mallee blowing into the heart of Melbourne in the 70s, what kind of farmer are you? If you’re doing a farming process and your soil blows away? We can’t afford this. We are spending the capital that has been built up in Australia, because our soils are shallow anyway. So, to lose that depth of soil is criminal. And instead of objecting to wearing masks because of COVID, I’m hoping Australians will object to the destruction of the Mallee district, the Murray Darling Basin. That’s something to really get upset about. And these perennial plants are the way to stop that happening. The yield per acre from the grasses that we harvested in May this year, compared to wheat, is really low. But you don’t plough the lad, you don’t pour water on it. You don’t pour poison on it. And you get a flower from it which chefs will tear each other’s throats out to get. I have almost experienced that firsthand.

Kerry O’Brien – you are now making your own bread from these grasses.

Bruce Pascoe – My daughter and her family stayed here for three months because of COVID. Two-bedroom house, seven people and three dogs. Yeah, terrific. But every morning my daughter made a loaf of bread and while we still had flour from our harvest Marnie was incorporating mandadyan nalluk, dancing grass, into that bread. It is absolutely incredible. We look like drug runners. We’ve got little bags of flour that we give over to people. I’ve seen chefs fight each other to get hold of it. And I don’t want people fighting each other in the kitchen. It’s an ugly look. It’s going to be popular.

Kerry O’Brien – Bruce I want to keep moving it along because I’m conscious of the time which is precious. And I know that Dark Emu was sold so well, and Young Dark Emu, I think it’s over a quarter of a million together now those two books. So a lot of the story is known to quite a few people. I don’t want to be repetitive but there’s a couple of things I want to pluck out of the book just to tell those who aren’t familiar with the with the finer points of the book. The Brewarrina fish traps on one of Australia’s great rivers, the Darling in far western New South Wales. What is it about those fish traps that contradicts the image of Aboriginal Australians as rootless nomads?

Bruce Pascoe – Because it was so well organized. The design was so incredible. People couldn’t understand how those fish traps could remain in situ for so long. And the people who built them were using a reverse keystone. I was taught in school about, the Roman arch and whoever invented the Keystone which holds it all together. Aboriginal people did the reverse of that to lock those fish traps on the river floor. But they’d also allowed the passage of fish upstream, because they knew there were people north of them who also needed fish. And they allow that to happen. They never took the entire catch. Now, think what we have done with fish like the Orange Roughy, when we drove to virtual extinction because we wanted it all. We wanted every damn fish, and they were all breeding fish. This is a philosophy which says, no you can’t do that. And 120,000 years gives you plenty of time to refine your technique and your mind about what you intend to do for your fellow humans. But the idea that you would plant in a fish trap to also allow your other brothers and sisters to eat. People who spoke a different language to you, people you would never meet in your whole life. But you knew they were your fellow humans, and you would make sure that they were looked after. That is an incredible philosophical statement. And we need it in the world today. We need it in Palestine, we need it in Syria, we need it in South America. We need it everywhere where humans live and are in conflict. We need that idea to exist that you are my brother, you are my sister, I will allow you to live.

Kerry O’Brien – There was fighting. Obviously, there was conflict. Humans are humans everywhere in that regard. But your fundamental argument is that this was a compelling philosophy which permeated from clan to clan, from nation to nation around Australia. Is that the case?

Bruce Pascoe – I believe that so. And I’d like Australians not to believe me, but to go out and find out. Don’t believe me when I said Sir Thomas Mitchell rode through fields of harvested grain. Go and read it. Because that’s what Thomas Mitchell said. That’s what he saw. So don’t believe me, go and read the resources there. But it is an incredible moment in human history, where Australian Aboriginal people decided to build houses. There are people who say they weren’t houses, they were huts. Let’s call it huts then, if that will keep you happy. But they decided to build those huts, so that the outside walls joined each other. And they lived in a community. And we’re looking at archaeology now, which is talking about the age of that. And it is greater than the oldest village in the world, so called in Turkey. What’s Australia going to say about that? Now, obviously there’s a lot more research to be done there. And we do need to be sure that we’ve got this archaeology right. I think Australians need to absorb this and say we were the first people to build villages. We’ve been in society then. We were there at the moment when humans decided they would live with each other, next door to each other, share food and fires. It’s an amazing moment in human life. Why would you want to deny it? Obviously we’ve got to prove it. You know it, Aboriginal people know it. Obviously the western mind is going to want to prove it. But why would you resist it out of hand when you don’t know anything about it? Now the science is coming. And you know, the archaeologists are talking to me about this are women under 35. You know, this is going to happen to you whether you like it or not. But your children and your grandchildren are going to know a different story about this country, and they’re going to celebrate it and come to our door.

Kerry O’Brien – you’re talking about a civilization of 120,000 years. I mean that figure is constantly changing. It has gone from 40 to 50, to 60. Stories, circumstances where there is at least a strong suspicion of 80 million, oh sorry, of 80,000. You’re talking about 120,000. Now, these things are still to be absolutely tied down aren’t they?

Bruce Pascoe – Jim Bowler that has done the research, which is pointing to 120,000 years. But there are other archaeological sites in Australia which have suggested exactly the same age. But Jim Bowler was the person who worked on Mungo man and Mungo woman. We accept that now, because of his science. We don’t accept it because the families up there already knew this. The Aboriginal families I’m talking about. We don’t accept it from their mouth, but we accept it from Jim Bowler’s mouth. And you know, if that’s what it takes to convince Australia I’ll go with it. And thank you Jim bowler, a great Australian. And Jim has done a survey on the Hopkins River near Warnambool. And his science tells him that people were cooking shellfish there120,000 years ago. This is the very south of the Australian continent 120,000 years ago. So of course, we’ve got to challenge it. Of course, we’ve got to do more research. And of course, we’re going to think about it. So let’s think about it, let’s not dismiss it. Let’s go, gee that’s interesting. But then were as an archaeologist 40-50 years ago who said that he believed that Australia was the first tool makers in the world. They made the first ground axe and he was ridiculed and sent back to America in shame because the best brains and Australian science ridiculed him. And three or four years ago, it was found in Western Australia that there was an edge ground axe that was 50,000 years old. That validated that other man’s science. When I wrote Dark Emu, I talked about a grinding dish that was 35,000 years old which proved that Aboriginal people had been grinding grain into flour, and not into vegetable mash but into flour to make bread, which made them the first bread makers in the world. And of course people lampoon that. Then a year later, in the Northern Territory, they find a grinding dish that was used to convert grain into flour 65,000 years ago, with a deafening silence.

Kerry O’Brien – It’s not just your cultural enemies who have questioned Dark Emu at one level or another. The lawyer and author Russell Marks, who seems to be broadly supportive of the central thrust of your argument, has asserted in a critique in the monthly magazine that you regularly exaggerate and embellished the facts in Dark Emu. He gives examples, which he says by themselves are just splitting hairs. But they’re all the way through the book, and together, and I’m quoting him, “such selective quoting creates an impression of societies with a sturdiness, permanence, sedentarism and technical sophistication that’s not supported by the source material.” Now, do you think any of that is fair criticism?

Bruce Pascoe – I’ve read that. And I’ve read others, of course, which are intelligent arguments. But when I’m looking at those things I am then going from one factor another factor another factor. And I’m trying to get a global view of what our world looked like then. And world civilizations last less than 1000 years, many of them last 200 years. The pyramids in Egypt, 2000 years old. You know, these are short lived civilizations. And yet here there was a law that bound people for 120,000 years and we know that that law did bind people because people stayed where the law told them to stay. There wasn’t Imperial War. Aboriginal people woke up angry. They still do. We fight each other. It’s evidence by last November, because we’re human. But there was no land war. There’s no war planning. Now, I know that there are people who challenged that too and point to the Northern Territory when 300 kilometers of the coastline there disappeared underwater. And then there was enormous pressure on people looking for land. I think that requires really good investigation. But largely, people stayed on the land that their ancestors gave them and didn’t invade other people’s lands, even when they when they could. And I think that is an incredible moment in in human history. And we should examine that, we should study it. We should apply our best minds and our hearts to this idea that people could live in harmony together without going to war. When I went to school I was told that war is the natural condition of man. I thought, we are a horrible beast if that’s the case. If you’re thinking about a culture that survives 120,000 years, survives to desertification, ice ages, sea level rise, all of those things. And despite all of that change is able to adapt and maintain a philosophical law that means that everybody gets a feed and everyone gets a house and everyone’s looked after, and people stay on the land that they’ve been given. That is a mighty philosophical principle. I welcome the argument, but don’t dismiss it just because you think it’s impossible. Think about the human spirit, what is possible for the human spirit. And I think we’ve seen in Australia that there’s a better future for the human animal, a more generous future. And I experienced that last weekend with 35 other Yuin people. We were dancing a dance for an animal, which gave it to life for the earth. And we actually saw evidence of that just recently. And, you know, you don’t know that story yet. But you will. And It’s ancient.

Kerry O’Brien – You’ve said in interviews that roughly half of pre-colonial Australia was under crop to Aboriginal people. That that sounds like a huge area of the country, under crop, in desert. And in more fertile soil. How did you arrive at that conclusion? Half the country?

Bruce Pascoe – Well, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion. Norman Tindale posited that theory because of where he’d found grinding stones. Stones that had been used to grind grain. So, he extrapolated. He found grinding stones here, here, here and here. And it’s roughly two thirds of the Australian continent to convert grain into flour. But it was the Rural Industries Research Council which actually then studied Tindale’s position and drew a map for it. I read that industrial, rural industrial paper, that’s where I got that map from. I’m not inventing anything. I was relying on Australian science. I know that these days, scientists are like used car salesmen, or that’s how the world treats them. But I prefer to buy a car off a scientist.

Kerry O’Brien – I’m going to come to contemporary time. Now I know you don’t like the word reconciliation, and you’re scathing of the way Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister so quickly, and I believe this honestly, dismissed the Uluru statement from the heart, presumably to appease the far right in his party. But there are two states and one territory already moving down the pathways to treaties, and truth telling, and that’s Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. You don’t think that after all the false dawns and all the political disappointments that Australians are becoming more aware of indigenous history and of the rich inheritance offered by the world’s oldest surviving civilization? And isn’t there just a chance that we can find a way to a general unifying around this?

Bruce Pascoe – I do. I think that all the efforts made by those governments and the acceptance of that movement by Aboriginal people, not all Aboriginal people. But you know, you’re never guaranteed in any community everyone’s going to believe the same thing or take the same position. But I think there is a chance that Australia can come together and celebrate the nation. You know, the two facts of Australian history that you can’t avoid are that Aboriginal people aren’t going to go away, and neither are non-Aboriginal people. We’re here together, and the nation will be what we make of it. And we do have this opportunity now to do something about it. But if we do it in ignorance of the history then I think we’ve really missed a wonderful opportunity. And the human race will condemn us, because they need this chance. The rest of our brothers and sisters around the world need this opportunity to analyze the future of people on the planet. How we go about, how we look after each other. And there’s an example in Australia, I believe. And we dance it at the weekend, that offers  a much more generous, spirited way forward for people. And it’s not about Aboriginal, South American, Indian people or anything like that. It’s about humans. It’s about what we can do for the human race. And Australia, I think has this opportunity. Now that young Australians who get this. It is young Australians who are the people who ring me up, who come to the farm and volunteer because they get it. They’re not afraid of this kind of vision of the world. They are not afraid of an idea where people will work cooperatively together. And we’re not talking about bloody communism because look what they did to their own people. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking people cooperating together, loving each other, and busting their guts to make sure that everybody had our fair share. You know, don’t talk to me about capitalism and communism. Talk about the human spirit, and the greatness of it. Don’t talk to me about them. The smallness of humans? Let’s have a crack at the greatness.

Kerry O’Brien – Do you understand where racism springs from? What is it in us individually? I am not talking about how it’s manipulated by people in power for whatever motive or from wherever they come from in terms of on mass. But what is it in us as individuals that makes us susceptible to that awful thing called racism?

Bruce Pascoe – We are scared of difference. Because of war, we’re always scared of difference. And the war principle has meant that we are scared of each other. We’re scared of a different look. We scared of different clothes, we’re scared of different haircuts. We’re scared of different language and scared of different song and dance. You know, so many Australian explorers were terrified by the sound of Aboriginal people singing and dancing at night. They thought it was preparatory to an attack, when in fact, it’s probably celebration of the moon coming up. You know, we’re scared of each other. And our societies have made a scare and jealous and violent towards each other. I just think that there is a possibility that humans can be different. I don’t think it’s pie in the sky. But we certainly have to look at it. It’d be really terrific if we kept religion out of it for a while, while we studied, not analyzed. Because this is a philosophy that doesn’t need priests. This is a philosophy that doesn’t golden ceilings. Aboriginal people knew about gold. We’ve got stories about gold, but we never used it as a monetary device. And we never used it as a tool because it was too soft. Philosophy is the theme, instead of weapons and violent thought and accumulation of money. Let’s follow the paths of poets and look at another way that humans might exist. And we were very early in the development of the human species. It’s not too late. It’s not as if we’re doing the right-angle turn. We’re just doing a tiny one-degree deviation. Because that’s what humans have been doing all the time when we left Africa with just a little 1% change. We crossed the red sea, we do that we do the other thing, or whatever. So this is not a frightening change. It’s a change that is reversible. Why wouldn’t you attempt it? You know, our politicians say prayers before Parliament rises. Why wouldn’t you go with a system which gave everyone equal opportunity, which might even save the earth because Aboriginal culture was devoted to saving the earth. I called Banjo Clarke years ago. Fifty years ago. I used to take him crayfish, and he turned one over to me one day, and he said have a look and it was a female. And I’d never occurred to me that you wouldn’t catch a female crayfish. You know, you catch any bloody crayfish you can. My father went fishing when we lived on King Island. So, you know, just catch crayfish mate. Uncle Banjo said look. It’s a female. Then he did tell me a story.

Kerry O’Brien – Very briefly Bruce because we right on time.

Bruce Pascoe – Don’t kill female. Don’t kill female crayfish.

Kerry O’Brien – So I got one last question, which requires a very short answer, I think. What happened to the sale of Dark Emu after the attacks by Andrew Bolt and others?

Bruce Pascoe – Well, they doubled. When we first started employing people down here on the farm, I would say to them you’ve got a benefactor. Andrew is employing you. So, the pay-packet you take home at the end of the week, and you put gas in your car and feed your kids, Andrew is doing that. So, I want you to thank him. Yeah, it was just one of those aberrations. You know, capitalism’s not supposed to work like that but it did on this occasion. We’ve benefited from it, you know, we were able to do a lot of work on the farm. Hard grunt labor by employing Yuin people to do it and came out of sales of Dark Emu. And things have changed a bit now, because we’re actually up and running. But in those early days it was the sale of Dark Emu that allowed us to do what we were doing. And the idea that you could get it out of that kind of horror. It struck me as being terribly ironic at the time. But Richmond won the the grand final last year, anything can happen.

Kerry O’Brien – Bruce Pascoe, thank you very much for having this conversation. And I hope it’s not the last we have. Thank you.

Bruce Pascoe – Thank you.