Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists

I don’t usually write up book launches, mostly because the speeches are brief, and I hope to eventually read and review the book itself. However, as the title of this post tells, the launch for Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell’s book, Australia’s first naturalists, was also billed as a lecture, hence this exception.

Australia’s first naturalists was published by NLA Publishing, and is subtitled Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology. The event was MC’d by NLA curator Nat Williams, with the first speaker being Rebecca Bateman, who is the NLA’s first indigenous curator. She talked about the NLA’s collections relating to indigenous people, and how, in some cases, they contain information, including language, that can help people regain lost culture. Then it was over to the authors…

The authors

Penny Olsen, Honorary Professor in the the Australian National University’s Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, has worked as a field biologist and ecological consultant, but now mostly writes books about Australian natural history. She started by saying that it feels like there’s been a sea change in awareness and appreciation of indigenous people’s part in Australia’s story (and I think she’s right.)

However, she said, while their roles as guides and trackers, as workers in the cattle industry, in mining, on stations, and in whaling, is well-known, less known is the significant role they played in the advancement of science – particularly in zoological science. She said that researching the contributions made by indigenous people was challenging, because sometimes their help would simply be referenced in a throwaway line. Other times, though, there would be more detailed accounts. Her reading of these relationships between indigenous people and scientists, was that indigenous people were willing, but also that the relationships ranged from exploitative to warm friendships.

Olsen then talked about some of the collecting partnerships she found – chronologically, starting with James Cook in 1770 – illustrating them with powerpoint slides. These partnerships involved activities such as indigenous people locating specimens, and sharing their knowledge about animal behaviour.  Sometimes the indigenous people were named, sometimes not. Sometimes scientists worked with individuals, sometimes with families or whole groups. It was fascinating, and whetted my appetite for the book!

She finished with a quote from geologist Cecil Thomas Madigan’s 1946 book, Crossing the dead heart, which included:

… but I knew the value of natives on trips such as these, real bush natives who know the habits of all bush creatures and catch them. They are of the greatest help to the biologist and botanist in collecting …

(She also made a disclaimer about the terminology – like “natives” – that is used in historical sources.)

Then it was co-author Lynette Russell’s turn.

Lynette Russell, Professor at Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, among other roles, calls herself an anthropological historian who focuses on developing an anthropological approach to the story of the past. She welcomed us briefly in the language of her great-grandmother – and then commenced, not surprisingly, by saying that “stories are important to understanding the past”. She won’t get any disagreement from us on that, will she?

Anyhow, she then shared various stories, also using images to support her points. She explained, for example, how long-lived traditions in indigenous culture contain information about climate change, such as the rise of sea levels, and how rock art provides evidence of indigenous peoples’ understanding of anatomy. She talked about how millennia of fire-stick farming has resulted in many Australian plants being fire resistant. And she commented on the arrival of feral animals, and their impact on indigenous peoples’ ability to sustain their environment.

The book is organised chronologically into 5 chapters, with the first chapter titled “Pre-European: Australia’s first naturalists”, and the last, “Epilogue: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land and Sea Managers”. This last chapter, she said, discusses Indigenous Protected Areas, and indigenous ranger programs, which enable those who so desire to remain living on country and thus to maintain their traditional ecological knowledge and ensure its continuity. Traditional ecological knowledge is, she said, an “attribute of societies having continuous connection to their country”. Aboriginal peoples’ faunal knowledge is still extant; creating these new collaborations, replicates in some senses, those of the 19th century. Now, like then, indigenous people are generous with their time and knowledge.

She referred to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (my review), saying it has managed to make promulgate more widely information about indigenous land management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time.

Finally, she noted that this book is an act of reconciliation.

Q & A

There was an interesting Q&A, with topics being:

  • why indigenous people wear clothing in some pictures and not others: they were interested in clothing, and were often “paid” in clothing.
  • why this information about expeditions has escaped us for so long: Australian history has focussed on squatters, and tragedies (like the Burke & Wills Expedition), but their research has uncovered a different story about real relationships and friendships.
  • whether the names of any indigenous people were used in scientific names for creatures they helped scientists “discover” (good question!): they couldn’t find any!
  • what was the quality of the expeditions in terms of their end-product: most were good for their time but tend to lack information we’d like today, such as animal behaviour, distribution, ecology. Their focus was – surely understandably? – more on identifying, categorising and naming.
  • what motivations did indigenous people have to help, besides being given items like sweets and clothes: friendship, it seems, and a genuine interest in these strange white men.

It’s encouraging to see yet another book furthering scholarship and understanding of indigenous peoples’ lives and culture, and of their very real role in forming modern Australia. A most enjoyable launch.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has already reviewed this book!

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists
National Library of Australia
11 June 2019

21 thoughts on “Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists

  1. Oh, this would have been great to go to!
    What kind of people mostly go to these events, do you think? Book people, or science people?
    PS Thanks for the mention:)

    • Good question, Lisa … it varies a bit, but I think there were both. I’d also say historians and people generally interested in Australian history and indigenous culture. This was an NLA book launch and I think the audience also included NLA groupies! I saw a few familiar faces – ones I know, and ones I see at book-is events. The launch was planned for a conference room that probably takes 50 or so people, but was moved to the theatre which I’m guessing was because of the number of RSVPs they had. It takes 300, and was probably nearly a third full.

  2. This is Fascinating information. The issue of land management is particularly interesting. My understanding is that in The Americas, Native Americans were also involved in extensive land management. It seems that archeologists and anthropologists are discovering all sorts of interesting and important things about the past.

    • Oh yes, I think they were Brian. We visited quite a few of the lesser known national parks in the USA and learnt quite a bit about some of the very early Native Americans. It’s great seeing this history being shared now beyond academia.

  3. I, too, agree with Olsen’s point about more appreciation of indigenous people’s contribution to – well, everything Oz, almost !
    It is to be supposed that if launch|lecturer organisers espy you in the audience, their little hearts jump for joy: mine would.
    Mais apart à tout cela, although I cannot actually read books any more but must listen to audio versions thereof (nothing to do with failing sight, but with failing brain’s inability to focus or concentrate – one of the many to become Internet-affected), this does sound fascinating.

  4. I have time on my hands, and your review led me to Wikipedia: ‘Prehistory of Australia” (I googled landbridge). Interesting in its own right of course, but it would be interesting to know to what extent rising sea levels/loss of access to Tasmania and (to a lesser extent) PNG, as well as megafauna extinction featured in Indigenous peoples’ oral and pictorial histories.

  5. I have to say that I’ve rarely been to a book launch where the speeches are brief. These days that first event is more of a test-run for many authors as they prepare for various engagements following the works release. My take, for what it’s worth.

    • Thanks Nicole. Interesting. Most of those I’ve been to have had two or three speakers lasting 5-10 mins each, including the author. I went to Nigel Featherstone’s a couple of weeks ago and he wouldn’t have spoken for more than 10, if that. However, those book tour author conversations that happen when a book comes out are always an hour – here anyhow. And I usually write those up!

      • The terrible ‘questions’ usually come from people who aren’t asking a question at all but rather giving a speech about their opinions on whatever. I have heard moderators interrupt these people with ‘Get to your question please.’ 👏

        • Haha, yes, Kate. We go to some in the ANU/Canberra Times author series mc’d by Colin Steele, and in his intro he says to please keep questions short and end them with a question mark! So clear what he means. Love it.

  6. I’m not sure that I’ve heard that before, except perhaps in regards to the Summary Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a book being called an act of reconciliation. Interesting. The discussions that arise around nomenclature and identity always fascinate me. I’m sure some people are rolling their eyes in those moments, but I love hearing about how and why an individual believes/feels/states that a certain term is/isn’t appropriate (particularly from a member’s perspective, as their opinion is often contradicted by another member and, of course, each opinion is valid, given all this is much more subjective than is sometimes admitted). I enjoyed reading your report and am glad that you’ve compiled this for other Australian readers with an even more immediate need to listen and understand.

    • I thought it was an interesting comment Buried, but I figured a book could be seen to work that way?

      Anyhow, like you, I’m always fascinated about nomenclature – of all sorts really – but particularly concerning identity. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with what the current nomenclature is for particular groups. I understand why nomenclature changes as the existing one becomes imbued with some sort of negativity. In Australia, the nomenclature for indigenous people can feel fraught because different groups – quite understandably – can prefer different terms, and as you say, individuals within groups can also feel differently. As you say, it’s very subjective – after all, how we are described is very personal to ourselves isn’t it?

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