The Line

Image: Female kangaroo, with joey's legs hanging from pouch.  Text: What if, instead of coming as colonists, the British had come to Australia as migrants, and adapted to the local culture?

Twisted History

I’ve been reading Dark Emu, which looks at records by earliest white settlers about the agriculture, water management, housing of the Aboriginal people, before it was taken over by the colonists, the crops used to pasture sheep, stones from fish traps taken for building fences, and houses destroyed.

I started to wonder what life would be like today if the British had come as migrants who were willing to become a part of the existing culture, instead of as conquerers.

(Note: the type of yam in this story is actually now extinct, because sheep ate it, and it wasn’t replanted, the soil was compacted, etc.)

The Line

by Iris Carden

It’s a big day for me.  It’s the daisy yam harvest, and because I’m 12 I’m old enough to join the line.

No-one’s ever made a machine that can harvest the daisy yam as well as a line of women can, although lots of other seeds and grains can be harvested pretty much with the same machines that European farms use.

I’m going to be between Mum and Aunty.  Someone who is new to the line always has to be between two experienced women.

It always has to be women.  Aunty says it’s too complicated for men, but Mum says it’s because women are usually lighter, so our weight won’t compact the soil as much as men’s.

This is women’s business that’s been going on since the dawn of time.  First Australians and Second Australians work together.  Now, we also have foreign women, tourists who want to be part of the experience.  The daisy yam harvest has become famous.

I’m a half and half.  Mum’s family are first Australians, but Dad’s family are second Australians.  Some second Australians don’t get involved in these ancient traditions, but Dad says, “Culture is culture.  This is what it means to be Australian.”

Aunty says that for a white guy, Dad’s got his head screwed on right, not like those guys in Canberra who want us to be more European.  She says they should go back to where they came from. Mum says Aunty shouldn’t hold back, she should say what she really thinks.

So I’m lining up between Mum and Aunty.  I have my digging stick.  It used to be Grandma’s, but Grandma’s arthritis won’t let her dig any more.

The line just goes on and on.  Every woman even remotely related to our clan who can work is here.  There’s also a lot of tourists who have bought new digging sticks. They look like they’re here for a fun day out.  Mum has already warned me that it’s hard, detailed and backbreaking work.

It’s time to start digging. We start at one edge of the daisy yam field and we will work together all the way across it.  We dig up the yams, turning and breaking up the soil. We put back the leaves and roots and dig them in to feed the next crop.  One out of every five yams, we leave in the soil to seed the next crop.  The whole line moves slowly, staying in step, working the soil and harvesting our yams and seeding and feeding the new crop and conditioning the soil all at once.

When we are finally finished, the whole field is seeded turned and fertilised for the new crop. We share our harvest.  Each woman takes most of what she has gathered home to her family, but some yams are given to those who have with no able-bodied woman to harvest for them. The tourists are allowed to keep their share, but most of them give their yams to the clan and we sell them to the shops in the city. The “yam fund” is used to help us when we go to the city for university.

As it has always been, we have a storehouse, which looks like a miniature of our house right beside our house.  We store the yams in there until we need them. 

While we’ve been digging, Dad and some of the other men have been mist-netting ducks.  There are poles on either side of the river, and the men put the net up for a short time to catch ducks. Then they take the nets down as soon as they have enough, so the rest of the ducks can continue their journey.

I’m so tired after my big day, but the men have already plucked the ducks, ready to roast with some yams for dinner, and some of Aunty’s friends are building a big fire in the park in the centre of our town.  Tonight there’s going to be music and dancing and a feast to celebrate the yam harvest. I’ll stay awake as long as I can. 

Prefer the story read to you? You can hear the podcast here.

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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