Episode 5 | Bushfood and Privilege

Auntie Jude and the cultural overlay

When I was growing up in Perth I loved my auntie Judy. She was a bit of a legend in Guildford and was one of the first to lobby for the planting of trees endemic to the area to be used in landscaping. She was a keen local historian and considered an oracle on all things WA. A formidable woman really. Large, wide and country born with the fine features and the little head of her ancestors, the fabled Drummond and Harper clans. She had a good chuckle and a twinkly-eye thing happening that was attractive.

I was interested in plants, all aspects, and impressed by the Latin words thrown around by my mum and Aunty Jude as they went about their gardening.

One day Jude and I were touring her backyard checking out different species. Jude: And this is an acacia blah blah and a casuarina something, and this is the casuarina blah blah…

How can you tell these apart? I wondered out loud.

Jude pulled down the nearest branch, and we both ­­­leaned in looking over our glasses and putting our noses close to one of the bunches of skinny little sticklings that pass as leaves in the casuarina. She started counting out the lines marking jointed intervals on the leaf…one, two, three, embarking on an explanation arising from a complex model of differentiation based on leaf segmentation…..at some point I stopped listening.  

There it was - the cultural overlay– seeing it so clearly nearly made me laugh out loud. Imagine if my Auntie was an Aboriginal woman – what would she be telling me…maybe something like – and I am making this up – when the casuarina leaves are tipped with brown then the birds that feeds on the insects that come to eat the pollen arrive and we know it is time to ….. you get the idea, it’s about connections. A reckon a black auntie would be telling me about how it all works together - the sun, the season, plants, insects, animals, humans, ancestors, probably with a story filled with drama and energy to tie it all together.

This is how a holistic world view works – in the connectivity of all living creatures and plants. Somehow I had stumbled into a rich zone of cultural relativity aware that I had been blessed with an understanding that comes with different ways of seeing.

BUSHFOOD CONFERENCE 2018

I thought of this story at a recent two-day event at Muresk college in Northam. Growing the Growers was part of a roadshow that has been taking the temperature of the native bushfood industry across Australia. From the gubinge plantations in the Kimberley to lemon myrtle and mountain pepper industries in development on the east coast.

Seventy souls were gathered on this occasion, all pulled together by ANFAB the Australian Native Food and Botanicals group which is the peak national body representing all interests in the Australian native food and botanical sector.
This from the opening blurb on their website: Our purpose is to guide the sustainable development of the sector by supporting ethical engagement with Traditional Owners and facilitating research and innovation of the Native Food Industry across Australia.

We listened to different presenters bringing ideas to the table. There was a lot of talk about provenance, the need to own and tell the story of where the food comes from: which heads into the thorny legal and moral issues of Intellectual Property, something that was teased out in all its wondrous and sticky complexity over the two days. Dale Tilbrook, board member of ANFAB and long time Ngungar advocate, educator, retailer talked of the Youlk – a type of yam that people are predicting with soon take up about 10% of the potato market.

The Youlk is traditional Noongar food and the Noongars should own the provenance of this food – meaning that ideally Youlk is only called Youlk if it is grown under the imprinteur of Aboriginal people in a particular area – much as the French have nailed Champagne to a particular region of France, fighting off the attempts of growers in other countries to call their own versions of sparkling wine, champagne. Even now, with all the wonderful versions available, the French stuff still holds that luxury end of the market, retaining the cache of the original and the best.

The need for authenticity and trust in a global market hungry for the unique flavours from Australia was a topic that took up much space in times of intense discussion.

 Colin Clarke  image used by permission from the artist

Colin Clarke  image used by permission from the artist

Amanda Garner, the chair and one-woman lobby group for ANFAB told of hair-raising stories where Australia has already been beaten to the market. Apparently, we have lemon myrtle industries established off-shore, bush food growing happily in Arizona and the Russians long ago took charge of medicinal compounds in kangaroo apples that are now part of every Pill (as in the women’s pill that interrupts the fertility cycle) sold across the globe. This happened in the 1970s when an ethnobotanist gave tissue samples of the plant to a Russian scientist friend. And over the years when no-one was looking the Israelis have patented some of our most potent plant compounds.

In the room, debating and learning, were a goodly showing of Noongar people involved in all aspects of the native food industry. There were local farmers and native plant growers, sandalwood farmers, chefs, political lobbyists, food experts and food distributors, academics and marketing gurus. People inspired by Regenerative farming and new look pastoral practises were present as well as people curious to see what was happening in an industry that might relate to the plants they were trialling on their own properties.

A representative from the Slow Food Movement presented. Vincenzo was keen to reframe the thinking around food.  ‘Food is not a commodity’ he declared several times over the two days.’ It’s time food occupied a different space than that held by plastic goods from China or iron ore from WA.’

He had a point, but we were also collectively getting our heads around the fact that the community in the Kimberleys is 10 years into a project that produces gubinge or Kakadu plums for conversion into a powder used in high-end cosmetic and health food. It is hand-harvested by the community and then snap-frozen before being sent for processing to Victoria (this info is on the ANFAB website).

This is not the boutique wild harvesting I was imagining. This is plantation-style, monoculture production (albeit done using organic principles) and the dawn of a new age for bushfoods.

There was less discussion than I might have expected re: current attitudes to bushfoods, possibly because the audience needed no convincing of their value as food. But Michelle from Santaleuca Sandalwood gave us the gift of a great response, obviously developed from comments made by people about initial impressions of raw sandalwood nuts: How excited would you have been about olives as a food if your only experience of them was eating one directly from the tree? Good point. We had the chance to tuck into some of Santaleuca’s products – nuts dry roasted and flavoured. Delicious.

WHITE PRIVILEGE

There were contentious moments during the two days: the sticking point coalescing around issues of connection to land and intellectual property of plants. When Aboriginal people lay claim to a deep understanding and connection to this land, some non-indigenous people arc up. Don’t we all love this country and the unique flora and fauna that dwell with us – especially at a gathering like this where people are (mostly) vitally engaged with different ways of experiencing and working on country?

I met a woman called Val and during the course of a long conversation we ranged over aspects of growing and country, Aboriginality and feminism – often circling back to the tensions that had appeared at the forum. She had two words: white privilege. They arrived in the room and wouldn’t leave.

Back home, still thinking of our conversation I looked white privilege up online and came to a website from a university in USA called National Seed Project (Seed standing for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity)

The founder, Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper in 1988 called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. The essay came via her investigations of women’s issues and applies her own personal experiences to the understanding of the nature of institutionalised racism.

Peggy states, and I am paraphrasing: I come from the knowledge that much oppressiveness is unconscious. Seeing male privilege and men’s obliviousness to it, made me look laterally at my own race privilege and my own obliviousness to it.

She continues: Racism is defined as something that puts others at a disadvantage – but the corollary to this is white privilege – where others are placed at an advantage. In Peggy’s words: light skinned people are living with unearned advantage and conferred dominance.

She lists some of the ‘invisible privilege’ in 26 points. Rather than quote them here, I would encourage you to look online for yourself. Some of them were as simple as constantly seeing your own culture reflected back at you from the world around you – Reading these poinys made me think of a quote I saw recently, maybe in one of Peter Ralston’s books on increasing consciousness: if you want to know about water, there is no point in asking a fish. Thus it is for white people when we think about privilege.

I had been bought up to believe that life is about the primacy of individual effort and that I lived in a meritocracy that rewards talent and effort. I knew deep in my heart that there was something wrong with this picture, but growing up, I didn’t really know what to do with this little inner voice. Looking back, I can see that as I ventured out in the world and became aware of inequality, the little voice became internalised as shame - and with the shame, I became the undeserving.

I knew I had been given an incredible start in life – good education, health care, a loving and reasonable family – and enough freedom to be open to influences from other cultures, classes and races. And the advent of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s showed me how constructed and fragile reality was.

In the world where the individual is the measure, racism becomes a matter of personal choice so it is easy to pick out the racists from the crowd and absolve your own blindness. The controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the sexually predatory behaviour in Hollywood is analogous here: Harvey was able to behave with impunity for decades because his behaviour was supported by the system, and until now, individual protests couldn’t find a way through the wall of complicity, that combination of ignorance, delusion and self-perpetuating behaviour that fuel exclusion and privilege.

On a more personal note: I was in Bali, near Ubud, retreat central for westerners, and settling into a week-long experience at a place called Bagus Jati when I had a run in with a story that no longer served me.

During this week, sitting with other retreaters, the organiser asked me how I liked Bagus Jati.

What’s not to like? I was sitting next to a stone urn filled with water and topped with fresh floating marigold and frangipani petals. From where we sat you could look down flights of stone steps to an infinity pool gleaming with spring water and beyond that to a valley wall of rich green jungle– in short, the place was enchanting.

I responded with passion to the question: I feel like I am living the dream, like a celebrity. I feel privileged. I am privileged. I am plagued by privilege. Privilege for me is embarrassing, it labels me as entitled and undeserving, people often react with contempt to my easy life. I have literally lucked into a life where everything necessary and more has been provided and sometimes I have trouble dealing with this fortune.

A fellow retreater, someone I know had grown up hard, piped up to agree with me in a really unexpected way: ‘To me Privilege is a horrible word: it meant a beautiful world that I would always be excluded from – a place where other people could go where I would never be welcome, where fantastic things and experiences could never be mine. And yet, here I am’. She gestured around her.

We looked at each other with interest; and then both smiled struck by the sameness of experience of shame and feelings of inadequacy exposed from different sides of the fence. In that moment they shrivelled away in the clear air of a shared moment. I think we both dropped a load of unhelpful judgements about ourselves and others at that point.

None of this is hot news, is it? And I talk about privilege wondering whether I am talking to the hand - maybe talking to many hands. Perhaps this won’t hit you the way it did me. Nor is it a simple equation; within white privilege, class, gender and other distinctions influence people’s experience of the world. But for some reason, the term, white privilege, in the context of this forum switched a light on in my head.

But back to Growing the Growers.

A woman from the Federal Government presented a segment about grants for farmers and producers. As most of them were tailored for Aboriginal groups, that didn’t help any tensions in the room about perceived black over white privilege. But if black privilege rests on Federal Government grants – probably thought up and overseen by non-indigenous people – then give me white privilege any day as grants indicate we are entering a difficult territory of patronage and control that Aboriginal people struggle to get out from under. But we’d be here all day if I wanted to try and unpack that one – so I’ll move on.

COLLABORATION AND TRUST

Two of the biggest takeaways for me came from the words: collaboration and trust. For the first, collaboration, they even scheduled a speaker who showed graphs and figures that showed the power of grower collectives to get industry going. CBH was mentioned: maybe WA’s longest lived and most successful example of farmers doing things for themselves.

And TRUST. Trust between the market and the consumer: to provide authentic products with a provenance that has roots deep in our native soil –  and for mine, I want the roots that go 60,000 years deep combined with the best from contemporary regenerative practices.

And TRUST between Aboriginal and non-indigenous people – where we can look for a way forward where all knowledge is respected and the aim is to honour and benefit everyone and all life. I felt like there was trust in the room –alliances had been made and good working relations between Ngungar and non-indigenous people were in evidence – it seemed that the new industry could be a way to showcase some already great working relationships.

The last word belongs to Van, a young Vietnamese woman who comes from a family of strawberry growers in Wanneroo – She was honest in her assessment of the family business, that she was feeding the maw of big business with a product she has no faith in anymore. Her family owns a block of virgin bush in Gingin and she was at Muresk partly to get ideas about what to do with this land.

Whatever connections had led Van to this forum, her instincts, both heart-led and commercial, were now to not clear the land and grow imported crops, but to learn exactly what lives on this country and see if there is potential to develop bushfoods and an associated tourism enterprise. She left, like many of us, inspired to keep learning and do something that resonates with what is authentically Australian.