Authors: Will Tait and Jodi Newcombe

On 24th May 2021, the 100 attendees of Djakitj Larr were invited to place a stone in their hand, representing Djaara Country, and make a personal commitment to do something of benefit to the living land that sustains us all. Our collective – the Carbon Arts team in collaboration with Dja Dja Wurrung woman Bec Phillips – designed and hosted that afternoon of creative conversation around the future of Greater Bendigo’s food systems, we also took that invitation to heart. Our commitment was to continue the work that we had started, and our forward momentum was provided by a question that emerged from the event: “How do we eat Djaara Country healthy?”

A participant Djakitj Larr 2021 placing his intention for Country into a stone. Photo: Leonie Van Eyk

This sparked the idea of a 50 year menu, an imagination of what could be on our plates in 50 years time if, as a region, we respond to this question with effective collaborative action. This in turn germinated a whole new set of questions: What constitutes ‘healthy Djaara Country’ and how do we recognise and nurture it? What can Djaara cultural approaches and understandings reveal that will help us collectively develop the food culture that we desire, one that provides deliciousness and nutrition for all? What will we want to be eating? Are there foods that we don’t currently eat that would be better suited to the land, better suited to us? How do we work with the land and each other to ensure that such food is available? What barriers will we need to overcome, and how will we come together to overcome them? 

Questions generate revelations. In one of our conversations Bec draws a map of how Djaara people identified particular areas: Lani Barramal, Lani Guri, Lani Galgal – Lands (home) of the Emu, the Kangaroo, the Dingo. “When we see the emus abundant in Lani Barramal, when we see the kangaroos in healthy numbers for Lani Guri, when we see dingoes back in Lani Galgal…  that will be a very big indicator that Country is healthy!” Is that possible in 50 years? Is the transformation that it would require something that land-holders and the general community could learn to value enough to get behind?

There are easier steps to be taken in response to this vision, revealed by yet more questions: What did the emu eat? What vegetation provided their perfect habitat? Are those plants still on that Country now? If not, are there pivotal nodes in the landscape where those plants can return, and start restoring the balance of health as they do? The main barrier to this approach is access. Right now Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners have access to, at most, 25% of Djaara Country. They are unable to make an informed decision about the other 75% unless they are invited there to look at and feel out that Country, and be updated by the people that have been the custodians of it while they’ve been locked out. As Bec says: “Where our stories may not have been passed down to us about that particular bit of land, we need to hear historical information from the farmers and their generations before them, what it was like a hundred years ago, what creatures and plants used to be there that are no longer there.”

Map of Djaraa Country showing the areas jointly managed by Dja Dja Wurrung people.

But wouldn’t it be risky letting Traditional Owners onto your farmland? What if they found a significant site and suddenly you’re facing all sorts of restrictions and native title claims? Such fears have been fanned over decades by Australia’s culture wars, cleaving a false divide. The majority of farmers might see the world very differently to Traditional Owners, but they share with them a love of the land, a desire to leave it healthy for future generations, and a recognition that the land is a living system that they are in collaboration with. Our team developed a strong desire to foster that connection, and we knew that it started with getting onto a property and walking the land, being able to see it – thanks to Bec – through Djaara eyes, whilst hearing the story of the land from the people who had worked with it over generations. Fortunately, Carly Noble of Parkside Run Farm – who attended Djakitj Larr and came away inspired – extended exactly that invitation. Not only that, she rallied key primary producers in her network to gather with us in conversation at Bar Midland one month after that farm visit.

Over the next two months we will be releasing a blog a fortnight that serves up a degustation of what we have learnt through this process, following some key ingredients that popped up, protagonists that seemed to be asking the biggest questions. These are questions that our little collective doesn’t have the answers to, and so this blog is partly us reaching out to see how big a space we can ask them in. We are going to need some major crowd-cogitation to figure out how we all go about this at a micro level, at a regional level, at a macro level. At a personal level in our food choices, and a public level in our jobs and our community engagements.

Meanwhile “Eating Country Healthy” also requires a re-imagination of what we actually put on our plates. As we all know, taste buds often trump intention, so we need to start getting delicious versions of this future menu in our mouths. Fortunately we have Alex Perry on our team. The next four blogs will feature dishes that Alex Perry served at the Bar Midland gathering incorporating those key protagonists that have emerged so far in our story of the Djaara Country 50 year menu. However, we don’t want to leave you in the lurch this time round, so here’s the roo canapé that we served at Djakitj Larr and probably did more to inspire Carly Noble than any words that were uttered that day!

[The intention of this blog series is to generate a community of conversation around these ideas. We’d love you to join us in building this by sharing your ideas and reflections in the comments section below]

Chargrilled kangaroo rump with saltbush chips. Photo: Leonie van Eyk