Zena Cumpston, Michael-Shawn Fletcher and Lesley Head: Plants: Past, Present and Future (2022)

Plants: Past, Present and Future (2022) is a recent volume in the First Knowledges series edited by Margo Neale. Other titles in the series include Songlines, by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly (2020), Design, by Alison Page and Paul Memmot (2021), and Country, by Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe (2021).

The First Knowledges series, written by Indigenous Australian researchers, aims to share how Indigenous science, paired with Indigenous knowledge of and relationship with Country, can reshape understandings of Australia’s past, present and future, and, indeed, a global future, in an increasingly precarious Anthropocene.

Plants: Past, Present and Future approaches plants as part of Country. Country is a central concept for Indigenous Australians – it is the land and all within it, both human and non-human, and it is alive. Neale explains that

Australian indigenous plants … offer us one of many ways of connecting to Country; of being one with it. Country is not only the heartbeat of this continent but also our heartbeat. It tells us who we are, how we should live, how to care for each other and care for Country. It holds the answer to our future survival on this planet.

                Plants are not only part of Country – in our worldview they are Country. As such, plants are part of the Dreaming, given to us by the ancestors to ensure their survival. (1)

The book is co-written by Barkandji writer and researcher Zena Cumpston, Wiradjuri scientist Michael-Shawn Fletcher and cultural geographer Lesley Head. The book focuses on cultural uses and transformations of plants and landscapes. In chapter two, Fletcher explores how Aboriginal people have cultivated and co-formed the landscape and grasslands around Bolin Bolin billabong with the use of fire, refuting the assumption that Australia was “terra nullius” before the arrival of the Europeans. In chapter three, “Abundance”, Cumpston reflects on the diverse uses of and relationships with plants evident in a single photograph from 1879: grindstones, traps, nets, weapons, shelter, medicine, and coolamons – a structure made of bark for carrying babies, food, or tools. Other chapters focus on specific plants including spinifex, yams, cumbungi, and quandongs.

The book draws from several different disciplines, including oral history, ethnobotany, and paleoecology. It also engages with community projects around urban gardens and interrogates the current state and future possibilities of the “bush food industry”. While not specifically literary in focus, it emphasizes the significance of narrative, as can be seen, for example, in the reference to Heidi T Pitman’s story told from the perspective of a block of spinifex resin now housed in the South Australian Museum, and Cumpston’s personal stories of her mother’s quandong jam. Building on the past, it looks to the future – to the ways in which we can together nurture communities sustaining and sustained by plants. I found it a valuable resource when co-writing parts of my co-edited book (with Annika Herb) Storying Plants in Australian Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Roots and Winged Seeds (2023). It is important for critical plant studies – and studies of the representations of plants in literature – to listen to Indigenous knowledges of, and engagements with plants around the world, as we attempt to apprehend and re-imagine relationships with and stories of plants.

21.12.2023 by Melanie Duckworth, Høgskolen i Østfold