Art, Australia and Good Hearts

© Bruce Pascoe 2016

At the Bundanon Festival at the weekend I was able to go through the Boyd’s house and see all the art, the walls of books, the great bowls and dishes of a wealthy family. Thinking about art and wealth I walked over the property and wondered about my country and what it values and who it celebrates.

I found some cousins and sat down with them on the grass and talked family, country, politics and culture. And laughed. The great Aboriginal safety valve.

When they left to perform an opening ceremony I watched them and watched the crowd watching, hoping they also were thinking about the values of their country. For in all my wanderings around one of Australia’s iconic properties I could not find one reference to the original occupants of that soil. The Festival organisers were fantastic, the audience was warm and involved but there was still an absence.

The Spirit of the country above the Shoalhaven River near Bundanon.
The Spirit of the country above the Shoalhaven River near Bundanon.

Later my cousins danced for the archaeological discovery program. The professors were incredibly informative but the default position was always that the first settlers did this and then they did that. It was lonely at the back of the crowd and I felt for my young cousin standing in the archaeological pit having to listen to this and keep a calm face. Which he did magnificently. The great Aboriginal patience.

I doubt there was one axe murderer at the festival but the absence of our people’s history was resounding. That night I was accommodated in the Murcott designed Education centre with its magnificent view of the river and rambling and rumbling wombats. But still no mention of the First People to live in the valley.

We know that our people grew gooraman (yam daisy) on the river flats but none of the speakers mentioned it, preferring to speak in awe of the great red cedars that the ‘first’ settlers cut down. Every damn one of them. The great Aboriginal silence.

Next day I was at Bermagui to talk books with locals at Il Passagio restaurant, an event run by one of Australia’s foremost bookshops, Candelo Books of Bega. It was a great afternoon made all the more satisfying by meeting one of my cousins for the first time. The great Aboriginal family.

The audience was full of excitement for the foods of the future that will be on our table now that our traditional plants are being embraced. There was a real sense of a country changing its mind about the past; about to tackle the difficult task of looking back over its shoulder.

My brother, Cooma, rode his motorbike all the way from, you guessed it, Cooma to deliver a precious package of ‘native’ millet seed and grass heads and we split it up in the car park just like any other bikie drug deal. Honor, the restauranteur, was clearly excited by her share of the cut. Where are the police when stuff like this is going down?

Cooma, that little gift will be remembered long after you and I are back with the Mother.

This scar tree at Bermagui bears a style feature at the top identical to canoe trees in central western NSW. My camera case flap is in the photo as a guide to scale.
This scar tree at Bermagui bears a style feature at the top identical to canoe trees in central western NSW. My camera case flap is in the photo as a guide to scale.

Then I drove home through the spotted gum ridges and the sedge flats of the Murrah and Tanja, dreaming and dreaming of the cousins and brothers and sisters and the future of the country. I was allowed to indulge myself like that. It was my car.

Two days earlier I was passing a little creek opening in the estuary near my home and on an impulse I turned the bow of the wonderful Nadgee IV into the little gap and entered paradise. I’ve been on that water off and on since 1969 and that was the first time I’d ventured into that particular inlet.

Swans glided between reed bed islands, a rough boss of red rock stood sentinel over the dark shadowy waters of the southern shore and on the other bank clear water slipped across golden sand. It was mesmerising. The great Aboriginal land.

And in this euphoric mood I returned home, moored the faithful craft and trudged up the hill to my office and opened facebook to find our own people getting stuck into Linda Burney for appearing on a program with Andrew Bolt.

That man has hurt us all deeply and for many of us it is difficult to watch him being spoken to civilly by one of our own. But Linda, brothers and sisters, has had her back flayed for thirty years simply for being Aboriginal in public. She has endured the scorn of parliamentarians but never flinched from telling the great Aboriginal story.

It has cost her plenty and maybe it is legitimate to question some of her actions but what do you think she was doing being civil to Bolt; she was proving her civility, and as our representative, our civility. Bolt is not a monster even if he does manufacture outrage and indulge prejudice to create a stir. Our sister, Linda, neutralised his hate and fear by her composure. She gave Australia what she promised during her entry to the Federal parliament, grace and kindness. No politician in the history of the parliament has entered it with those two words on her lips. We should be proud that it took a black woman to say it first.

And while we’re on the subject of grace I wish to say goodbye to Uncle Ivan Couzens who was buried on Monday. Unc, you taught me a lot about grace and kindness. When I was angry and hurt at the destruction my family had endured you told me stories of mild and enduring resistance. You told me how you played golf for decades with a group of men and one day you were racially insulted by a man who you thought was your mate. What did you do? You picked up your clubs and walked away never to return. I loved you for that act of grace, Unc, a lesser man, say me, might have sworn and raised his voice, but no, you left. I bet that ‘mate’ wakes at night thinking of your dignity and his oafishness. That’s the lesson you taught me, Unc, and it’s served me well since.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to your departure, Unc, but my young brother is delivering a message to you from the Mallacoota lakes.

Our people have the capacity to amaze me continuously by the dignified Resistance they employ. One young woman’s facebook page carries a daily message of graceful defiance. Day after day a reminder that we are still here and Australia must embrace its past. She expresses surprise that I find her intelligence unusual. It’s the grace and intelligence of the ancestor spirits. And don’t think they haven’t noticed. She’s one of their heroes.

So it’s been a big weekend on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Last night, blitzed from all the travel and the talk, I went down to the jetty with two stubbies of Boag’s (God I know how to party) and listened to the swans talking to each other in the dark. The loveliness of gentle courtship. I slept and woke to the dew on my hair. And one whole stubby to go. Live it up Bigboy, you’re a real devil.

Nadgee IV dreaming of secret estuaries
Nadgee IV dreaming of secret estuaries


Young pelicans dreaming of fish yet to be swallowed
Young pelicans dreaming of fish yet to be swallowed