By Jodi Newcombe
Imagine that we could eat to literally shape the environment around us, to deliver a different landscape, a new (and ancient) ecology. Imagine that it’s delicious and adventurous, that it brings new meaning and connection to our lives. This is the seed of an indigenous food system for Australia. It’s a provocation to all of those involved in the creative endeavour of bringing food to our plates.
The region where I write from – known as Dja Dja Wurrung Country for many millennia and still today, and also known as the Goldfields country (after the 1850s gold rush) is now designated as a UNESCO Creative Region of Gastronomy. It’s an aspirational designation that seeks to unite food production with the emergence of healthy ecosystems and healthy people, indigenous land management and reconciliation. How this emerges as a uniting vision is still being shaped, but there is no one who can see it more clearly than the Dja Dja Wurrung people who have been stewards of this land for well over 60,000 years. For Aboriginal people, this country is yearning to express itself, its true identity submerged beneath layers of colonising influence. My belief is that the key to unlocking the process of its re-emergence is donning the lens of aboriginal wisdom.
Rebecca Phillips, Dja Dja Wurrung woman and landcare specialist, brings this into view by reminding us of the land’s essence and identity around here, as well as the Aboriginal view of harvest and cultivation. As one example, Lalgambook (also known as Mount Franklin) and the surrounding plains is Emu Country; a naming which immediately evokes for me a peaceful vision of roaming bird families dotted across grassy woodlands supporting teeming tall and tiny life. Before land was carved up for a myriad of individual farmers to weave their own vision within parcels of a giant patchwork that we can see from the sky; Aboriginal people were able to manage land in line, not with fences, but with river systems, slopes and the unique ecology and geology of place. At this scale they were able to orchestrate – or more aptly, collaborate with – the environment and its powerful forces. They did this in ways that today would require heroic efforts of an over-burdened bureaucracy, so easily misdirected towards unintended outcomes.
The Aboriginal way of eating starts with seeing humans as managers of an ecosystem and asks “what is present here in abundance?” This is akin to eating what is in season, but it goes beyond the market garden to the broader landscape view, where some very obvious answers lie; answers which have the power to unlock other questions too, like “how do we eat to heal the country?”, “how do we eat to support ecosystem function and biodiversity?” To take one example, in Dja Dja Wurrung country as in much of Australia, we have an abundance of rabbits. This introduced animal has been present in plague-like proportions with devastating impacts on nativewildlife. My father, who grew up on a farm in Victoria, fondly recalls his exploits as a child hunter and trapper of rabbit, which he sold for pelts. This idyllic childhood no longer exists for various reasons, which reflect a changing culture that is itself altered by titanic shifts in the global economy and society. Rabbit still plagues our land and is friend to none when it is left to multiply. But rabbit harvested offers delicious food and warm fur. So why don’t we eat it?
If we apply our cultural imagination to the task of eating what’s available and what the land needs us to harvest, we also add much needed meaning to our food culture, which can sometimes feel like an overwhelming smorgasbord of options. Overwhelming because so much choice in what we can cook leads to bulging fridges, cupboards and compost bins, as household cooks seek to replicate master chef options, adopting a different cultural cuisine each night in what can be an exhausting performance. Cooking seasonally and growing your own produce are steps towards a more sane kitchen, imbued with a greater connection to the world around us that many crave. Take that one step further though, and we can start to see that the ‘garden’ we tend can encompass the entire regional ecology and economy. And if we take our cues from that level, not only does it guide what’s cooked in our kitchens, but also potentially what festivals we celebrate and what other community events and traditions might emerge from time-honoured cycles of harvest and seasonal change.
Can we culturally engineer a food revolution that brings about a thriving, biodiverse country where we witness with wonder and pride the re-emergence of species that were once here in abundance? Can we imagine a 50-year menu designed by indigenous land managers, government policy-makers, popular chefs, wildlife gardeners and conservation biologists? In the first three years we might gorge on a rich diversity of cross-cultural interpretations of the rabbit as main course (until rabbit numbers are controlled). In the meantime we might start practicing – with small tasters – for a delicious and abundant future of emu egg omelettes and emu meat salami, served with wattle and kangaroo grass bread and myrnong soup.
All along this journey, we manage the flows and forces of the market like we would the flows of water and nutrients through a catchment. We identify barriers we don’t want and introduce others until we have a clever system of weirs, wetlands, ponds and channels both in the real world and in that intangible but very real world of the human imaginary, where these take the form of incentives, laws, taxes and policies. We can and should be inspired by the integrity and elegance of indigenous wisdom, respecting the law/lore of this land – for clean water, for not taking more than you need – and letting that direct the changes required. This may very well require the removal of fences and a changing attitude and practice around private property. Emus don’t like fences and increasingly we are recognising that people don’t benefit much from them either.
Let us co-create a regional food culture that is truly unique, that taps into our collective and diverse cultural heritage as a toolbox from which we can concoct not just sustenance but delicious abundance. Let us understand what it means to eat to shape the landscape, let us understand what this land tastes like, let us invent an adventure and have fun creating delicious pathways for the Dja Dja Wurrung country’s essence to re-emerge. This is both the promise and challenge of the UNESCO designation for this region to be a truly creative and globally unique expression of gastronomy.
The re-emergence of the emu and its attendant habitat will not only be beautiful to behold, but will hold us and nurture us in the face of an increasingly hostile climate. Diversity, both ecological and cultural diversity, equals resilience. And when culture works in partnership with ecology, humans – as indigenous people the world around know – can co-create systems capable of regenerating life for countless generations.
Words by Jodi Newcombe, Director of Carbon Arts and Co-Founder of the Castlemaine Institute. Jodi recently co-produced an event for the Bendigo UNESCO City and Region of Gastronomy called “Djakitj Larr”, a Dja Dja Wurrung interpretation of the European fable, Stone Soup. This article was written as background for this industry event, which sought to inspire and shape strategic responses in service of the designation’s core purpose.