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Our First Bakers An agricultural story

A group of about 20 women and children are wandering up and down rolling hills, slowly making their way towards Grass Country in the distance.

Kirra, a 20 year old woman, is towards the back of the group, on account of her dawdling and distracted four-year-old son Toba, who is now big enough to carry his own seed bowl and help with the harvest.

A 'coolamon' for carrying seeds, nuts, and other foods.

Toba is paying more attention to the birds high above, wondering how it is that they can fly but he can’t.

Kirra can’t help laughing as she warns him, “Baiame gave them wings to fly, but he gave you arms to help me pick grass. And a belly to eat or go hungry!"

Baiame was the Creator God and Sky Father in the dreaming of several First Nations traditions.

Kira will be showing Toba how to harvest the grains from native millet grass. This was the first step in making bread, the way everyone had been doing for countless generations.

First, the seeds are collected from the plant and separated from their husks.
Then, they are then crushed with a grind stone to make a fine flour.
The flour is mixed with water to make dough, which is then baked in the fire.

Kira's group were now crossing into Grass Country. Up ahead she could hear the first cries of their Elders announcing their arrival on another’s Country.

Then came the usual call-and-response between the warriors and elders moving towards the approaching clans. There would be a greeting, then they'd be welcomed onto Country. This gave them protection and safe passage.

After this they would relax into celebration, trading and ceremony, done by the elders. Kirra would be seeing women she had not seen in a long time. Men would do the same in their own groups, and kids would be running and playing.

There was no eye contact between women and men other than immediate family.

Kirra urges Toba to hurry up, because she really wants to catch up with her friend Nela, who she hasn’t seen since she was 15.

Kirra surprises Nela, calling out “Sister, Baiame has smiled on us this year!”- referring to the bursting pods of seed, which the aunties will soon be grinding into flour and baking. Nela turns around sharply and bursts into tears, hugging Kirra, shrieking and laughing.

Toba, along with Nela’s son Luka, can’t understand a word the women are saying and eye each other shyly. Before long, though, they are challenging each other to see who can fill their seed bowls the fastest.

Toba is too young to remember the last time he was in Grass Country, but he's been taught a thing or two about the grasses. He can spot the ones that make good grains - particularly the native millet. It grew without watering or care, even in sand. It made good bread that you could keep until burrugin when everything was frosty.

Kirra and Nela’s clans are two of many that have converged on a summer meeting place, and the bread-making en masse provides not only sustenance and food security, but also an opportunity to meet, exchange stories, and strengthen inter-clan relations.

Back at camp after a few hours of collecting, Kirra hears from Nela’s aunties about large, foreign ships appearing over the horizon and making landfall. Toba, who is cradled in her lap, tired out from the morning’s seed gathering, listens with wide eyes to the women’s stories. He has never seen these strange women before, let alone heard such stories.

An old woman from Nela’s clan notices Toba staring wide-eyed at her grindstone, as she grinds the seeds into flour.

Without looking up, she says with a smile to no one in particular “Baiame has blessed my old bones with this ordinary grindstone. I don’t think I could chase it down if it suddenly grew invisible wings and flew off above the trees!”

Hearing the Creator’s name spoken, Toba edges closer to the old woman. “Do you know the story of the flying grinding stones?" she says. "One day, at a big celebration like this, Baiame came down from the stars and walked among the people as a wirun."

Luka crouches down between his auntie and Toba, smiling broadly. He knows this story well.

“The ancestors had brought to camp a bounty of millet seeds, just like you’ve done today, to the old ladies like me to grind to flour and bake into bread. But the women couldn’t find their grind stones anywhere! Baiame saw the women looking everywhere and asked them what they were doing.”

The woman explained to the boys about the Wanda, invisible bird spirits, who had seen the grindstones and flown off with them, appearing to the women like levitating grindstones - a bizarre and frightening sight.

The neighbouring clan called the Du-mers saw the flying stones too, and chased the Wanda trying to take the stones for themselves. The women went chasing after the Du-mer women, who were chasing the stones clutched by the invisible Wanda.

“Baiame was so amused at the sight of everyone chasing one another, but he took pity on our ancestors, and turned the Du-mer women into brown pigeons!

As the Wanda tired, they each set down the stones and flew back to the spirit world. The Brown Pigeon Du-mer women also gave up and flew back to their encampment.

Suddenly, my ancestors were standing at the foot of a large, stone mountain! The grindstones became the mountain Dirangiburra, where the best grinding stones can be found today. Where this grindstone came from.”

She sits back to give her arms a rest from her work. Toba reaches over to her grindstone, expecting it to be as light as his bark seed bowl.

“Don’t you worry about these ordinary grindstones. Baiame looks after us, as long as we look after his gifts to us. Look after your Country, and one day when you boys are men, Baiame’s power will be revealed to you in ways you can’t even imagine.”

Toba nods his head respectfully, but he is already off in his imagination, picturing how amazing it would be to be gifted wings from Baiame, and chase down mischievous spirit birds, to the delight of his mum and all his aunties.

He pinches Luka’s arm and signals for them to sneak away to play The Flying Grindstones game.

About this story

Although Kirra is fictional, her story is based on what we know about history. Listen to Bruce Pascoe talk about native grasses and how they were used to make bread.

Kirra's 'Grass Country' could have been anywhere in the 'Aboriginal grain belt', which was where the growing and harvesting of grains was widespread.

The Aboriginal grain belt

The modern wheat belt

Notice the difference with where grains (mostly wheat) are grown today.

Discuss

  • Why do you think people like Kirra were able to harvest grain from areas that are not farmed today?
  • What do you think are the growing needs of wheat, as opposed to native millet, which we've already looked at?

Credits:

Created with an image by Pexels - "astronomy cosmos dark"