An evening with Bruce Pascoe

Every seat was filled and it was standing room only at Broadford Fire Station on Monday night the 28th of August 2017.  Over 60 people came from across District 12
and beyond to hear two unique presentations about Aboriginal traditional fire and Aboriginal land management.

Above the noise of the roaring express trains the presentations were delivered to an engaged and enthralled audience.

First came a Welcome to Country from local Taungurung man, Keith Moate, who was introduced by the hosting Broadford Brigade Captain, Jamie Atkins.  Jamie himself is deeply motivated to improve Aboriginal inclusion locally and learn about Aboriginal traditional practices as his father was part of the stolen generation, and only now is he learning about his family connections and identity.  Jamie said “I want to do what I can to support this in CFA and share this great knowledge of my ancestors”.   

Second was the witty and informative presentation from Phil Hawkey, the local CFA Vegetation Management Officer who was speaking about his experience at the Cape York Traditional Fire Knowledge Workshops he has attended for the past two years alongside Eildon CFA Member, Lenny Timmons.  “If you want to understand about traditional Aboriginal fire and land management, you need to get a good understanding about the culture, it is all intertwined” Phil stated as he showed photos of making clap sticks, doing basket weaving and eating bush tucker.

Phil explained the key differences between how CFA conducts a planned burn and how Aboriginal people use fire to traditionally manage the land.  “Canopy is sacred, so it is never burnt.  The aim is to have fire run over the land like water trickling over the ground, without reaching the canopy or becoming too hot” Phil explained to the audience.   He used some great photos from Cape York, some depicting grass that grows over 6ft tall and others showing the native wildlife and the reason for not swimming in the local river.

Lenny Timmins was thrilled that the evening had taken place and given other CFA members a chance to learn about the Cape York trip and said “it is great to see CFA taking the opportunity to learn about different fire practices and the importance of Aboriginal traditional burning knowledge”. 

Introduced by CFA Assistant Chief Officer Steven Smith, the third and final speaker for the night was Bruce Pascoe, a renowned author, who’s most recent book, Dark Emu, Black Seeds, challenges the claim that pre-colonial Aboriginal society was essentially a hunter-gatherer society.  Bruce is also the 3rd Lieutenant of the Mallacoota Brigade, in East Gippsland and a long standing CFA member. 

Bruce spoke about how Aboriginal people managed the land for agriculture and through fire and explained that the evidence for Aboriginal agriculture comes from the journals of the first settlers and explorers along with the many paintings drawn of the time.  “You could ride a horse in as straight line from Sale to Bairnsdale, as much of the country was clear of understorey plants, like wattle and tea-tree.  Instead large river red gums, larger than you can imagine were dotted across the landscape.  And Aboriginal people had created this landscape to grow food, such as yam daisy’s and grain” said Bruce Pascoe.

Bruce also explained that Aboriginal people had in many places used fire to manage the land and would manually pluck out wattle and other species of shrubs to keep the ground lush for growing food crops such as kangaroo grass and yam daisy.  Interestingly, Bruce pointed out that “the tuber of a yam daisy is four times more nutritious than a potato.”

One of the most poignant comments from Bruce was the fact that much of his talk about Aboriginal agricultural practices and history is largely unknown in Australia or not taught in school.  “And isn’t this history so interesting, wouldn’t you like to know more.  I bet many of you were not taught this about Aboriginal history and culture in school” said Bruce.

It is agreed that we can’t go back to how things were pre 1800’s as we have fencing, housing, roads, other infrastructure and stock, but what we can do is learn about how the land was managed in this country for thousands of years and utilise the deep Aboriginal wisdom and knowledge to inform current practices.   Many of the native grasses and plants in Victoria respond well to fire and need fire, and if CFA could support more traditional burning and cool burning on private property there would be many benefits for community safety, for understanding the use of fire, for biodiversity, as fuel reduction, not to mention the positive affect for Aboriginal people being able to practice their culture of fire-stick farming once again.

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Thank you to Broadford Fire Brigade for hosting the event who put on an amazing spread for supper with little CFA cupcakes, hot food and sandwiches.

Author: Angela Cook