Bruce Pascoe has two voices - one lyric, the other didactic- and both are well displayed in this collection of short stories and essays, many previously published.
In it, we see how generously Pascoe casts a cloak of words around us to enjoin us in his visions of Australian cultural and natural life. He is even generous to that mean old bastard, Andrew Bolt. In "Andrew Bolt's disappointment", he imagines sitting down for a drink with him and explaining how he comes to be Aboriginal, despite his fair skin. He reckons it's a fair question, even though Andrew Bolt didn't ask it in pursuit of fairness.
You can lead a horse to water but can you make it drink? In the explorer Sturt's diary, from the desert expedition of 1844, Pascoe finds a moment when the explorer's horses are given water by Indigenous people, even though they have never seen a horse before - hospitality that was soon to be met with dispossession.
"His second-in-command is dead, the doctor is critically ill with scurvy, and Sturt is almost blind from the same disease. Their horses can barely walk. Sturt climbs a dune and is hailed by 400 aborigines. He is startled to find happy, healthy humans in a terrain that has claimed the lives of many white explorers and reduced his party to a tottering, vulnerable rabble.
"Sturt comments on a courageous and generous act: the people have never seen a horse, but after they have sated the thirst of the stumbling explorers they turn to the strange beasts and reach out the coolamons so their fellow creatures may drink." The explorers then "are invited to dine on roast duck and cakes baked from the grains the Aborigines have been harvesting. In the desert!"
Houses, crops, agriculture, baking? Pascoe addresses his friends' anxiety about this proselytising; this concern that he is perhaps, in his enthusiasm for Aboriginal culture, perjuring himself? Elsewhere, in "Reaping the Seeds of Discontent", he writes that in the future, "millionaires are going to be made by growing and merchandising murnung and kangaroo grass", and hopes that some at least will be Aboriginal.
Pascoe was born of Bunurong and Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. He is a member of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative of southern Victoria. He won Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer's Prize in the 2016 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for Dark Emu, an important re-examination of evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of pre-colonial Aboriginal food production and land management have been understated.
At times Pascoe lectures us, becomes the school teacher that he was trained to be, becomes overly didactic. And yet, how can we hold it against a writer who has only recently been offered a pulpit through which to make his strong views known? Not only on behalf of his literary legacy, but also on behalf of his people. Accepting the Dreamtime Pe.rson of the Year award in 2018, Pascoe told the audience: "I think of all those [Indigenous] people who got nothing, no public recognition, apart from jail ... these awards are to remember those who got none."
A beautiful intimacy gilds much of the writing in this book, despite its public and ardent declarations. Pascoe is often at his lyric best when describing animals and landscape. In "Letter to Barry", there is the account of the death of a fox:
"Teatree tannin had steeped the river in amber and you couldn't help admiring the dark ginger fox on the ground of golden liquor." The fox's "high stepping stealth" Pascoe encounters while punting on the river, but he then realises the fox is sick and dying a slow death. She has taken a bait. Her cubs will succumb to "starving sleep" soon enough, he writes, seeing her teats.
And then in "Sea Wolves": "The lyrebird imitates other birds and animals, machines, cameras and whistling kettles, and passes those songs down to each generation. One lyrebird in the Macedon Ranges is still repeating the sound of a camera shutter, which it probably hasn't heard for fifteen years. The lyrebirds default call is this: clapsticks. It has remembered the rituals of our old people and continues to entertain itself and prospective partners with that sound ..." The writer's preoccupations seem to meet here: "Lyrebirds remember and respect our culture, even if most Australians do not."
Salt is a good distillation of what makes Pascoe so well worth reading.
- Robyn Ferrell is a Canberra writer and academic