Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 41 : June 2010



Famous Reporter 41




Blind White Spirit Men

(Richard Pestel, Oncologist)

I felt genuinely sorry for him. I knew he wasn’t a bad man. I’d sat on the edge of his group at morning tea, eavesdropping on the white men with the big brains.

It’s Kevin Rudd’s Twenty Twenty ideas summit in the heady first days of his government which people were comparing to Whitlam. There are giant brains everywhere.

I’m in awe of the scientists and medical researchers but most particularly the physicists whose contemplation of the far reaches of understanding are closer to deep spirituality than science.

I care nothing for God. He’s not very good at his job and it amazes me that supremely intelligent men and women feel the need to believe in a being who registers the fall of every sparrow but ignores his disciples whose quest for wealth and tyranny is conducted beneath his standard. But that’s neither here nor there because it doesn’t matter what men believe as long as they leave women and children out of it. Sexist? No, just the quickest way to end any dispute as none have been won without the profound shock and awe generated by the witness to slaughter and harm to women and children. Men are stupid, they deserve war.

But sitting there drinking the  Prime Minister’s tea I struggled with the massive theories of these men and women who debated the generation of matter within the universe and the parallel galaxies within our bodies. And they managed all this while dabbing at crumbs of a particularly awful muffin which cascaded like shooting stars into their cerebral lap.

It wasn’t the arcane terminology invented to describe the almost indescribable but the concepts themselves, the giant antagonisms and chaotic confederacies of matter. These incredible inventions of science which were just capable of making us sick or well or extinguishing stars.

Some of the participants had the wicked mirthful eyes of scrub wrens, constantly on the alert for puns and the joke, irreverent humour, football scores. There were several there who you’d just love to listen to several times a week. Including him. He was genuinely humble, his face was a declaration of his modesty, he was attentive, polite and I noticed his eyes lift to thank a waiter. His Mum and dad had taught him that if I wasn’t very much mistaken. I glanced at my notes to register the state of his birth and then, did the novelist thing, guessed the suburb where he lived when his Dad cautioned him at his first restaurant meal to thank anyone who served. No-one’s your slave, son. That’s also the novelist thing because I just transposed my dad onto his. Because I liked this man and wanted him to have a good father. I believed in him.

But then he said the word that dropped like a stone in a well. In trying to explain the advances of science he said that Australia had inherited a savage land. Black hearts sank. A palpable breath of despair was expelled by all the Indigenous representatives. His education, as sophisticated as any in Australia can receive was warped by unconscious prejudice. Even our intellectuals fall for the thimble and pea.

When Australians consider the Rorschach blot of our history whites see a sheaf of wheat and a merino’s horns, while blacks see a severed hand.

We don’t see the same history so we can’t see eye to eye. This crevasse was apparent at the 20/20 Summit. All participants were trying to fix urgent problems, but most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were trying to get non-indigenous participants to look at the Rorschach blot from a different perspective.

None were bad people, all wanted resolution of dangerous threats to the health and welfare of Indigenous people but when you approach it from such opposing views of history the results can only be superficial and temporary. We may improve the health and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in some communities but the conflicting views of the past condemn us to gulfs of incomprehension in the national relationship.

We must close the gap on health but also on how we see the ink blot of our history because otherwise most Australians believe they are doling out charity to a blighted minority and Indigenous Australians feel shut out of the national story.

If we assume explorers and anthropologists like Sir Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt, Edward Eyre, Ernest Giles, Alfred Howitt, George Robinson, Augustus Gregory, John McKinlay, Peter Warburton and others were not committing porkies in their diaries then let us look at the blot from their witness.

If you saw people excavating earth to build a dam, tamping clay and ant bed into the base to make it waterproof, if you saw them plant seed saved from last year’s harvest and irrigate that planting from the dam or stream diversion or blocking off an entire stream to cause it to flood across the grain field, if you saw that grain field harvested and stooked, if you saw the green crop bundled behind brush fences and burnt so that dried grain fell into storage vessels, if you saw the grain ground on large mills, if you saw the excess stored in stone silos, skin bladders or mud and straw rendered vessels, if you saw people herding young waterfowl into a stockyard for fattening, if you saw engineers constructing thousands of kilometres of water races, tunnelling through rock, gauging the hydrology to within millimetres, if you saw permanent fishing weirs built so that the fences flattened with the incoming tide and could be erected on the outgoing   to trap fish in storage ponds, if you saw a stone house with vegetables growing on the turf roof, if the door of that house had a message telling neighbours where the occupants had gone that day, if that house overlooked the landscape of weirs and tuber fields, if the oven outside that house had been swept in readiness for that night’s meal, if you saw that baskets inside the house were full of fruit or wrapped parcels of smoked fish and preserved plums, if you saw those things what would you call those people?

Thomas Mitchell rode through miles of stooked grain, Sturt, Giles and Ashwin reported on the tons of stored seed, Winnecke, Smith, Gregory and others saw the irrigation, Robinson, Griffith and numerous squatters saw the stone houses, and many observed fish traps in operation right across the continent and its islands. That some of these people couldn’t believe their eyes and promptly forgot their witness to these things is exactly the kind of imperial blindness many resort to as a default vocabulary so that the words primitive and savage replace the evidence of agriculture.

Oh, I know many of you will hate that word applied to the activities reported by the explorers, I know most Australians are more relaxed about the term hunter gatherer or nomad but you can only maintain that belief if you think that Mitchell, Sturt, Giles and fellows lied.

Bill Gammage, Australian National University professor, says that many of his fellows are nervous about using agricultural terms to describe Aboriginal plant husbandry. [1]‘Even when a cultivator’s word might be apt, most non-Aborigines are squeamish about using it.’

The fact that we’ve edited first hand accounts of Aboriginal food harvests in our minds and declared them to be accidental collections or the work of hunter gatherers might be a necessary feint in the minds of Christians when they kill people to take their land or it might be a simple misreading of the blot because you weren’t expecting to see any other image than your own crops and stock, the smoke from your own civilised chimney.

It doesn’t really matter which is the case because the fact that we have excised whole fields of knowledge from the consideration of our children means that black and white Australia now stand looking at each other in anxious bemusement across a canyon of incomprehension.

We can't even use English in the same way. To try and describe the invasion of the Australian continent is more perfectly described as colonialism than imperialism but today the word colonial has been rendered as a description of rustics driving bullock wagons and stoic women lighting kerosene lamps. The menace of colonialism has been leached from the word as memory of how the land was conquered dribbles from our memory.

You say potatoe, I say yam daisy, you say wheat, I say panara, or microlaena stipoides. We might go our separate ways and survive, struggle on in our suspicion of each other, except that it would be useful to know that most grains harvested by Aborigines were gluten free and many were drought resistant and flourished in sand. Norman Tindale’s map of the Indigenous grain belt surrounds the central deserts of Australia and is three to four times as large as the current Australian wheat growing area. This knowledge might be as important to Australia’s balance of trade as coal and iron ore … but it would mean an uncomfortable reflection on Indigenous agricultural activities. Can we afford to look away for the sake of national pride?

One of the transformative acts of humankind is to produce more food than is required for the next meal. The stores of various grains that so astounded Giles and the smoking chambers and aquaculture systems of Western Victoria and elsewhere indicate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people had transcended the food acquisition of the accidental collectors. That people in cooler climates also produced houses of stone and turf and wore tailored fur cloaks is another story not often told to Australians.

But those omissions pale in comparison to our failure to consider the political, social and spiritual governance of the country. We know that there were over 250 language boundaries in Australia and we know that they have existed within those lands for many thousands of years because the vocabulary of particular languages is distinguished by reference to geological and climatic events peculiar to their area. Particular languages refer to the rise and fall of sea levels, desertification, volanic eruptions and changes in river courses.

The vocabularies combined with the description of events encrypted in dance and story tell us that most languages have been in place for aeons. The number of the languages alone suggests that waves of imperial assault were either uncommon or unknown.

Three of the preconditions for imperial invasion are surplus food, weapons and the ability to organise raids. We know people entered each other’s lands to exact punishment for social and spiritual transgressions and we know these could be violent attacks. We also know that few were killed in any one event. Large scale killings appear to have resulted in the colonial era when clans were hunted into their neighbours’ territory.

On most occasions, however, raids were swift and the warriors returned to their own land, their country, the country to which they had pledged their duty of care and observance of ritual.

If the pre-conditions of imperial war existed why were they not used, especially during times when the relative resource and climatic fortunes favoured some groups over others?

Was the imperial impulse absent or managed?

If we believe primary colonial accounts it seems that the ability to conduct territorial war existed but was somehow restrained. Try and imagine the intensity of the diplomatic process necessary to gain a pan-national territorial consensus over 250 nations. The delicacy, the tolerance must have been orchestrated by people steeped in a spiritual ambition. The song lines were cultural, social, economic and spiritual conduits which allowed clans to interact and negotiate political behaviour. I believe I witnessed this at Yirrkala during the 2003 Garma festival where non-Yolgnu participants were excluded from some aspects of the ceremony while strategies were organised across Yolgnu dialects. Such strategies are still being mapped out at regional events across the country today.

Last year all the peoples surrounding Mt Kosiusko met on the mountain to strike a negotiating position before meeting with various parks management and other government authorities.

There was something going on in Australia pre-invasion, and it continues today, and it defies the default position of 20/20 Summiteers who refer to this as a savage land.

You don’t have to believe that this was some Arcadia of the soul, in fact it would be dangerous to do so because Indigenous Australians constantly exhibit their humanity to hate, love, quarrel, honour, cheat, harass, trust, manipulate and collude in exactly the same proportion as any group of humans. It is the management of human qualities which should arouse our interest, for where else on earth have such long lived civilizations existed?

This is the discussion Australia should be having because within that discussion will be found all the elements of how we conduct ourselves as a nation into the future.

There is hardly an Australian who doesn’t want violence and harm contained in the Aboriginal communities where it exists, as we hope it can be eliminated in any Australian community. Most Australians believe the self destructive behaviours can be managed by good health, good education and employment opportunities. No-one at the 2020 Summit seriously argued against the need for action in this area but when the subject of a national discourse between white and black Australia was raised the consensus evaporated, some quibbling about it’s necessity, some that it interfered in welfare delivery.

But when Australians resort to words like savage to describe the land they conquered it is obvious there is a conscious or unconscious belief that they are doling out welfare to a spiritually inferior race. If this is the myopia necessary for Christians to justify invasion it is a crippling injury, if it is the result of a nation’s failure to review its past then it’s a failure of scholarship.

The ability to negotiate relatively peaceful civilization over millennia is a trait unique in the world. The refusal to countenance its existence is petulance.

Until Australia embraces our entire history we are doomed to a dwarfed understanding of our land and ourselves. No republic, no anthem, no flag can hide us from our past.

[1] Gardens Without Fences? landscapes in Aboriginal Australia, Australian Humanities Review, #36, July 2005.

Bruce Pascoe’s most recent novel is Bloke, Penguin, 2009 and his forthcoming non-fiction title is Dark Emu:black seeds. Agriculture or Accident.