Thursday, 27 October 2016

Dark emu, by Bruce Pascoe

For our October meeting we decided to meet at the now one-year-old Canberra restaurant, Muse (Food Wine Books), which is located in the East Hotel, Kingston. It's a cosy cafe/restaurant which includes a stylish independent bookshop selling new books and a selection of nicely presented second-hand books. Now, being women who like to eat well and chat, we decided the order of business would be a drink and main course, followed by our book discussion, followed by dessert and coffee/tea. The plan worked well and we spent a very enjoyable three hours, with the Muse staff looking after us well.

But now, let's get to the book, Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black seeds: Agriculture or accident. In it he presents a case for "a reconsideration of the 'hunter-gatherer' tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians" and "suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history". For these reasons, he says, we should re-look at our conceptions of Australia's history.

Overall, we enjoyed the book - of course. It's important for us all to learn more about Australia's history and origins, and as more research is done by a wide variety of professionals, we are learning more about our pre- and early colonial history. Bruce Pascoe's book contributes to this knowledge. 

We enjoyed his use of explorers' journals - particularly Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell - to show that Aboriginals (the term he used in the book) were developing a sedentary culture based on intensification of agriculture and aquaculture. They managed the land in such a way as to corral animals for hunting, trap fish for capturing and spearing, and produce crops for harvesting. They built dwellings and lived in village groups. They practised a sustainable style of agriculture using various techniques including what archaeologist Rhys Jones called "firestick farming". Pascoe argues that there's much about Aboriginal practices that we could learn and use today, and that modern agriculture would be more sustainable in Australia if we focused on Australian plants and animals. 

However, we also felt that the book needed a close edit. Some found his style, which fluctuated between formal and chatty, disconcerting. While the book is heavily footnoted, and includes an extensive bibliography, we felt some claims were not well supported (or, at least, his evidence was not provided.) For example, he argues that Aboriginal people "did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity" (p. 129) but he doesn't cite specific sources for this claim. Pascoe promoted the positives about Aboriginal governance, and while he made a brief reference to the fact that there was also violence, some of it "enshrined in the execution of law", he didn't explore this in any detail, particularly in relation to (most) Western societies' rejection of violence as a form of punishment.

One member who is currently reading Jared Diamond (Collapse) says that he argues that small societies tend, by nature, to be democratic. Diamond also refutes the commonly held view that smaller societies were peaceful, arguing that while they may not have had wars of conquest, they did have wars, such as for revenge. In other words, we felt that at times Pascoe draws a long bow and doesn't always take context into consideration.

Nonetheless, we liked much about the book. The detail about Aboriginal life - particularly from explorers' journals and photos - was generally eye-opening to us. Pascoe's arguments about their practices regarding agriculture and aquaculture, particularly in terms of sustainability, was well-supported, although we wondered if he was being a little disingenuous about the fact that the same practices and sustainability can be achieved when scaled up for mass production. We understood his criticism of European arrogance regarding their "divine right" to the land, and we also accepted his overall thesis regarding non-Aboriginal Australia ignoring Aboriginal achievement.

It was intriguing though that this thesis seemed to be that we should respect Aboriginal people's right to land because they were not "hunter-gatherers", as they've historically been seen, but a culture on the move, a culture progressing. Yet, we also understood that he might see this argument as one that Western cultures would understand and accept.

As a wonderful treat, one member brought along a piece of "show and tell", a grinding stone found by her father on the family property in the Grenfell region. Her parents, she said, thought it was a "throwing stone" and agreed that this idea probably stemmed from a lack of understanding of Aboriginal agricultural knowledge and practices.

So, we all found the book a provocative read. We completely understood Pascoe's somewhat defensive tone. There is, we know, much to learn and much to correct in terms of non-Aboriginal Australia's knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal life and culture. We felt though that the evidence is strong enough that he didn't need to push his arguments beyond what this evidence could support in order to convince us of his main thesis.