Authors: Will Tait and Jodi Newcombe
So here we are, bringing this five-part blog series to a close. In our opening blog we described how our collective – the Carbon Arts team in collaboration with Dja Dja Wurrung woman Bec Phillips – is motivated by the question: “How do we eat Djaara Country healthy?” We also talked about how this question has led us to explore the concept of a 50-year menu: an imagination of the food that we want on our plates in that not-too-distant future; an enquiry into what we will need to do collectively to ensure that Djaara Country can provide us with this sustenance. Interestingly this timeline aligns fairly closely with the 60 years that Carly Noble told us was needed for the residue to disappear from a soil that has been heavily impacted by chemicals, when she took us on a tour of Parkside Run Farm. In 2014 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation also proclaimed 60 as the number of years of topsoil left if current mainstream farming practices continue to dominate. 50-60 years is an interesting time frame. Just close enough for those in our little collective to imagine ourselves still being around, albeit circling the 100-year-old mark, but far enough ahead for unrecognisable landscapes to evolve from the ones we inhabit now.
We seem to be at a fork in the road offering us the choice of two distinct ‘unrecognisables’ ahead. There is one that we let happen, by acquiescing and continuing to participate in the dominant economic, cultural and political habits we have in place. The unrecognisable landscape that this path leads us to is terrifying: one that is increasingly unable to sustain its ecosystems, let alone provide sustenance for us humans. But then there is the path that we envision into being. The unrecognisable landscape that this path promises feels like a fantasy: one in which the power structures that maintain the industrial-scale destructive habits of humanity are dissolving; one in which empowered, locally connected people are collaborating not just with each other but with their environment, with their non-human kin; one in which wealth and value circulate where they are generated, returning health and wellbeing to depleted communities and ecosystems. We tend to fear what we cannot recognise, so in its own way this path is terrifying too.
And yet, across the world, more and more people are overcoming their fear of such success, coming together to generate pockets where this hopeful future is already coming into being. We see this in ‘The Great Green Wall’, an epic pan-national project to grow an 8,000km natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa, already 15% complete. We see it in the steady increase in adoption of regenerative agriculture, and its emergence within mainstream global consciousness thanks to films like Kiss the Ground featuring Woody Harrelson. We see it in the implementation of Kate Raworth’s “live within our means” Doughnut Economics model by cities and municipalities throughout the world.
Here on Djaara Country it is embodied by the City of Bendigo’s successful application to be designated a ‘City and Region of Creative Gastronomy’, based as it was on a collaboration between the City and Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners aimed at promoting a sustainable food future for the region, grounded in Djaara cultural values. It is present in the drive by grAiNZ, and the Djandak Dja Kunditja Kangaroo Grass Project to bring back grains that are native to Djaara Country. Castlemaine’s new experimental local currency the Silver Wattle is another example. And the economic component is so important here: the localisation of the power to create value and exchange it according to shared community principles and priorities, is just as important as regenerating the soil. Both work hand in hand to build resilience and wealth into local places, keeping money and nutrients circulating and accumulating locally instead of being leaked or extracted away from where they are most needed.
All of these projects exist because of a series of small courageous decisions over time. One person deciding to share their crazy idea; three people deciding to do something about it; a collaboration of entities coming together to take it to the next level. Once established each venture provides fertile ground for fresh seedlings. It was an invitation to create an afternoon of creative conversation around City of Bendigo’s UN designation that spurred our team to create Djakitj Larr, and here we are bringing that work forward to you now.
Diverse as they are, all these ventures are united by a common recognition that where we are, is where it starts. The relationships that connect us to the land we live and work on are the ones that show us what can happen, what needs to happen. They show us how to bring about the more desirable future of health and abundance. Sometimes these relationships exist only as potentials, connections that are only sparked when we make the decision to shop at the farmer’s market or get involved in a community project. They may sit tantalisingly out of view, but these enlightening empowering connections always lay within reach, even when we feel most isolated and disenfranchised.
And sometimes these connections are not obviously land-based, at least not to ‘western’ minds. In a creative development session in March of this year, we put the question to Bec: “How do you know if Djaara Country is healthy?” One of her responses was that you measure the health of a community by the wellbeing of the most vulnerable. To ‘western’ ears, this sounds like it’s referring exclusively to people, but from the Djaara perspective the human community is an inseparable part of a bigger community of Country. And the health of one is the health of all, so the chronic dysfunction and poor health of sections of our society is as valid an indicator of Country’s imbalance as soil salinity or an overabundance of pests.
In that same session we also talked about taking small effective steps, and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of tackling impossible-sized problems all in one go. For example, a full restoration approach to land will fail unless systems are in place to manage such drastic change. A lot of taxpayer dollars have been wasted in trying to control or realign ecosystems at scale. It can be much more effective to focus manageable amounts of energy and resources on key nodes in the landscape whose return to health will bring maximum benefit to the life around them. This is so important to remember as we consider our possible trajectory as a region over the next 50-60 years. Aspirations of the ideal are often essential to kickstart momentum, but maintaining that momentum depends on turning possibility into reality in the here and now. And that means investing energy in projects that others will get behind. The vision of Djaara Traditional Owners to return dingoes to Lani Galgal is a case in point, with its more socially acceptable, and therefore more practical focus on reintroducing the tiger quoll as a way of testing the water. As with the projects already mentioned, when a step forward like this is successful it makes new possibilities more tangible.
Alex Perry keeps the delicacies rolling at Bar Midland. Photo: Tim Grey
Circling back to the eating part of ‘Eating Djaara Country Healthy’, there is of course nothing more tangible than the experience in our mouths and bellies of feeding ourselves well. This is the connection that we as a team are drawn to as we take steps to build momentum around these ideas. At the heart of this educational project is the tastebud, and the creative gastronomic imagination that anchors the story of our food through our experience of flavour. This imagination extends from producers like Gung Hoe Growers who “build soil, belly laughs and veggie porn”, through to chefs like Nick and Sonia Anthony at Masons of Bendigo whose business model centres around championing local regenerative producers. It motivates the farm-shop visitor who is inspired by a tasting to come back for the cheese-making workshop the following week. It is also present in the simple decision to prepare a slice of local bread, spread with local butter and local honey, and feel the presence of the land, the creatures and plants, all wrapped up in the flavour and enjoyment of your eating.
And talking of simplicity, what of the humble vegetable? Given how much attention we’ve given in this blog series to creatures and the food they provide us with, you can be forgiven for thinking that we’re veggie-phobic. On the contrary, we envisage plants as the mainstay of our future diet, as more and more people learn the health of this choice for bodies and the planet. In this scenario meat and animal products are present in our diet in quantities consistent with both the ecology of Country and that of the gut – meeting the needs of each. Our approach is meat in moderation, more along the lines of a meat Monday, than a meatless Monday. We now know that we can get all the protein and essential elements that our bodies need through a plant-based diet, and that sourcing these nutrients ‘from the source’ so to speak, rather than from an indirect source of the animal product, is far healthier for our bodies. But our culture has a long way to go to catch up with that way of thinking, and so these items will continue to form part of our identity. Perhaps eating the meat that is offered by Country in abundance (that needs to be eaten) is the exciting segue for the next 50 years.
And when it comes to connecting to place through food, nothing beats growing for one’s own plate. Although, of course, it’s never actually just for one’s own plate, as there are always many mouths in a garden. And that is something that makes growing food such a direct opportunity for interaction with Country. Bec intentionally grows sacrificial plants in her veggie patch for birds and other creatures to feed off. That way there’s plenty left for Bec and her family to harvest too. “I don’t want to shut them out or stop them from eating what’s in my garden, because my garden is still on Country which is theirs as well.” Alex Perry, the chef on our team, points out that this approach can help prevent crop damage from cockatoos. The conventional practice is to trap and shoot those pesky cockies. However, make the effort to grow a supply of the plants they really like to feast on, and the birds won’t be drawn to your rows of valuable produce.
This approach is generated by asking the question: “How do we all get what we want?” and having the courage to expand that sense of ‘we’ to include our non-human kin; it comes from seeing ourselves, amongst those many life-forms, as the ones with the power and perspective to act as custodians, the ones that can make changes to the landscape that benefit all. And this is the approach that has the best chance of leading us to that ‘fantastical future’ where the wellbeing, connectivity and balance of Country – and all the life in and on it – is fully restored.
So as we take our leave let’s savour the flavour of that future. Let’s imagine ourselves as an interactive patchwork of informed communities, stewarding soil, and plants and creatures in a landscape where native flora and fauna are once again prevalent in the places that bear their Djaara names. Let’s imagine regenerated soils that are vast sinks for water, that can manage the drought-flood cycles of this Country, exacerbated by our changing rainfall. Let’s imagine the water is safe to drink from all our creeks and rivers. Let’s imagine vast fields of native grains that contribute superfood nutrition to our bread belt. Let’s imagine cottage industries thriving at scale to make healthy and local food affordable, nourishing our children with the fruits of the land to build healthy brains brimming with knowledge of their Country. Let’s imagine pathways for learning and employment that generate the skills and sensibilities they will need to keep stewarding all of this abundance.
And let’s ask ourselves a few more questions that will help us steer ourselves towards this more favourable, dare we say ‘flavourable’ future. Who needs to be around the table with us as we chew on these topics? Whose hearts and minds are ripe for change? What marvellous things are already happening here and elsewhere that we can draw inspiration from and connect with? What’s the next thing to do?
For us the answer to that last question is to continue to gather people creatively around food and show up as collaborators with Country as we do so. As Bec has helped the rest of our team appreciate regeneration is not something that we do to Country, or merely just on Country. It is something that we can only achieve with Country. Our own health is something almost magical that comes from within. Consider how a cut on your finger heals. You can’t make the blood congeal and the scab form, you can only provide the conditions for the body to do its own work. The same applies to ‘making’ Country healthy. It’s essentially about removing whatever is getting in the way of Country taking care of itself, and by extension all of us! It’s about observing what human habits cause damage and finding better one; and asking ourselves: “What part can we play in providing the optimal conditions for Country to thrive?” And, as we’ve made very clear, what delights us about playing our part, is that it has a lot to do with eating!
The ‘Eating Djaara Country Healthy’ team is Jodi Newcombe, Rebecca Phillips, Alex Perry, Charlie Ahrens, Sam Thomas and Will Tait
We’d like to extend our thanks to:
Carly Noble of Parkside Run Farm; Deb and Daryl Hancock of the Fat Butcher Inglewood and Murphy’s Creek Pork; Colleen Condliffe, farmer and Councillor at Loddon Shire Council; Julie Pringle of Lake Tyrell Salt Company in Sea Lake; Richard Collins of Collins Honey; Glen Cole, kangaroo shooter and abattoir consultant and Michelle Symes & Felicity Martin from the City of Greater Bendigo for joining us for an enlightening conversational lunch at Bar Midland.
Extra thanks go to Carly for championing our project, giving us a tour of the farm, and helping us gather our lunch guests; to Michelle and Felicity for their fabulous ongoing support of our work; and to Alex for treating us to such an abundance of delicious and thoughtful cuisine!
If you’d like to share your thoughts and/or join our mailing list for updates on our activities please email Jodi at email@example.com.