I rarely stop at street stalls, but the sheer joy of speaking English again pulled me up at one in Moruya last week. I gabble and babble at every opportunity now that I can, in the sure knowledge that I’ll understand any response. This time I strike gold – information about harvest celebrations at the showground sponsored by SAGE, a “not-for-profit, community based organisation whose mission is to create and support a NSW South Coast sustainable fair food economy and food sovereignty for local communities.” SAGE runs a weekly growers’ market, Friday night music and food events, a community garden, and now this harvest festival.

On a vividly intense sunny morning I take the public path through the golf course and my life in my hands, to a typical Australian showground: slightly askew rusty metal railings, a small not-so-grandstand, a circle of grass. This morning there are a number of stalls set up, selling food (fish, pies, gourmet sausages, Mediterranean plates, fresh juice, Australian-grown coffee); plants; composting and beekeeping information and equipment; climate activism; and a selection of books, including “Black emu” by the speaker I’ve come to hear.  I choose from the juice stall –  beetroot and turmeric – and climb into the grandstand for a view from above and a bit of welcome shade.

Refreshed, I step into the hall where two Aboriginal people are talking about aboriginal experiences of food. Leanne Parsons re-enacts a hilarious account of a childhood raid on a farmer’s corn (beginning with an apology) and there is more serious talk about south coast battles over traditional fishing and the blocking off of traditional places by whiteman’s property. 

Back outside in the sun local children enact a modern corroboree: gathering berries in woven baskets and hunting, to the music of the didgeridoo and clapping sticks.

The highlight, however, is what drew me to the festival in the first place – a talk by Aboriginal elder, and author, Bruce Pascoe. It was his books that introduced me some time ago to the stone villages in western Victoria and a narrative of Aborginal culture very different from the bark-humpy narrative of my school days. 

Now he is passionate about the farming history of Aboriginal Australia, which he’s written about in “Dark emu”. He counters scepticism about his claims for Aboriginal civilisation by going to the journals of early white explorers. “On page 80 of Mitchell’s diaries,” he says, “I found a description of nine miles of stooked grain.” He shows a map with a grain belt stretching in a boomerang shape across Australia under Aboriginal land custody. Starch residue has been found on a 36 000 year-old grinding stone and he pauses to pay tribute to “that genius, the woman who invented bread.” Then there’s myrnong, Microseris lanceolata, yam daisies “sweet for the gut and sweet for the soil.” Mitchell saw cultivated fields of myrnong, stretching from the Grampians to the South Australian border, and it enriched the ground so much that invading sheep were double-lambing. A stone, too heavy to heft higher than the chest, has been worked to a pick-shape and shows traces of a handle and its use as a breaker of soil. In far North Queensland there is evidence that the river was dammed and Aboriginal people used a sophisticated machine for commercial fishing.

He finishes his talk as his wife slices up a loaf of bread made from hand-ground kangaroo grass using sour-dough starter, communion bread for people who have been evangelised to see Australia as the place where civilisation began.

For the flavour of Pascoe’s discourse, read this. If you want to actually hear his voice, listen here.

I’m an acolyte. Here are articles to flesh out my summary