Dark Emu: Thank the Earth

Bangarra performing Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Daniel Boud
Bangarra performing Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu at Sydney Opera House. Photo: Daniel Boud

 When Australia fabricated a fairy story of how it came by the country it was so confident of the people’s complicity in the fraud that it thought it unnecessary to wash the blood off the knife. The Australian “explorers”, first witness to country, were agents of the empire whose intent was not only to remove the prior civilisation from the land but also the memory of the invader.

Many of the explorers were like curious children and wrote about the agricultural villages they rode through. Legislators, historians and educators soon ensured all those observations were left out of the public conversation. They were not always removed from the public record, although that happened frequently enough, but removed from the conversation and thought of a supine population, complacent with their arrival in the fairest land of all.

I was goaded into writing about the civilisation of the civilisation of Aboriginal people by elders who contested the version of Australian history I had been taught in school and was continuing to be taught by professors, politicians and the media. I was embarrassed by my own failure to realise the emperor of Australian history had no clothes because it seemed incredible that such a blatant ruse could have lasted 230 years, but that is how greed and conscience co-operate.

But the seed of peaceful intellectual persistence of our people infiltrated the cracks in the pavement of that deceit and suddenly young people began noticing the seedling fighting for its right to see the sun, a tree that was never supposed to grow. Australia began to change its mind about how to describe the invasion of this continent and what had been invaded.

My book Dark Emu, which described the evidence of the explorers received a less complicit audience. They read that explorers saw fields of yam extending to the horizon in Western Australia, fields of murnong occupying the whole of the plains between Adelaide and Melbourne, terraces of the hillsides created by the production and harvest of the same vegetable, cereal crops harvested and bundled into sheaves prior to threshing, fishing systems of such ingenuity they couldn’t understand how they worked, villages of thousands of people of such beauty and peace that they were envious.

Bruce Pascoe in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Photo: Pauline Clague
Bruce Pascoe in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Photo: Pauline Clague

That is what they saw but no educator, politician or historian bothered to find it of sufficient interest to teach our children, those babies we loved who were looking up into our faces, begging for the story of their country. Now Australia is changing its mind and hungry to learn what had been prohibited by their colonial fathers.

Dark Emu became a dance performance of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and will soon become a TV series as well as a book for schoolchildren released by the Aboriginal publishing house Magabala. The tea towels and fridge magnets will have to wait. The peace and patience of the old people has finally been vindicated. Australia is changing its mind thanks to a whole battalion of ancestral intellectual warriors.

In the current age, think: Rachel Perkins, Stan Grant, Larissa Behrendt, Warwick Thornton, Richard Frankland, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Stephen Page, Steve Pigram, Archie Roach, Marcia Langton, Rhoda Roberts, Gary Foley and Julie Gough – there are literally thousands of them. Thank the earth. And before them the old philosophers who created a lore of how humans should behave on this land – the mother, because of them we can, we can – and will examine the national soul and how blindness to country caused the new arrivals to farm it as if it was Kent.

This, the oldest, driest and least fertile country on earth. How relieved she must feel to think that we might begin to regrow her plants. Surely 100,000 years or more of knowledge of country must mean something? Might even save us. Perhaps we will thank her for her patience rather than blame her for our ambition.


Bruce Pascoe is Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian. He has worked as a teacher, farmer, a fisherman and an Aboriginal language researcher. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture was published in 2014, and performed by Bangarra Dance Theatre, touring to Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne in 2018.