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…
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