Extract from Part One: Wild
Murnong - Southern Australia
Before European invaders arrived in the eighteenth century, Victoria in Southern Australia was covered in plants of murnong, a crop that grew so thick that from a distance it seemed to form a blanket of yellow. For the indigenous people who lived here over tens of thousands of years, including the Wurundjeri, the Wathaurong, Gunditjmara and Jaara, the importance of this root is hard to overstate. Without murnong as vital sustenance, life here would have been precarious if not impossible. But by the 1860s the food was as good as extinct.
From the arrival of the first colonists in 1788, when livestock was offloaded from ships, sheep began eating their way through the landscape. Before the gold rush of the 1850s, a ‘grass rush’ had taken hold across southern Australia. The region had some of the greatest expanses of grasslands in the world but, unlike the Serengeti and the American Plains, there were no migrating animals roaming free and no wildlife to plunder the murnong fields. In the first decades of European settlement, farmers introduced millions of sheep, their numbers doubling every two or three years. Awaiting the sheep were thousands of square miles of pristine grass and vegetation, and the animals loved murnong. The soil was also light and soft, so they could nose their way right through to the roots. They cropped the plants with their teeth and, along with cattle, their hard hooves compacted the soil.
In 1839, just five years after the founding of Melbourne, James Dredge, a Methodist preacher who had spent a year with the Tonge-worong people living in a bark hut, recorded in his diary a conversation with an Aboriginal man named Moonin. ‘Too many jumbuck [sheep] and bulgana [cattle],’ Moonin said, ‘plenty eat it myrnyong, all gone the murnong.’ A year later, Edward Curr added in his journal that ‘several thousand sheep not only learnt to root up these vegetables with their noses, but they for the most part lived on them for the first year’, after which murnong became scarce.
The state-appointed ‘Chief Protectors of the Aborigines’, the colonists on the ground and in a position to see how quickly things were changing in the Aboriginal territories, were aware of what was happening to murnong. One alerted his superiors to scenes of starvation. In the eyes of most of the Europeans, however, murnong was little more than a weed, and so the indigenous people were left looking on as more livestock arrived and swept through the landscape, eating up their supplies of food. A missionary, Francis Tuckfield, wrote that ‘the Aborigines’ ... murnong and other valuable roots are eaten by the white man’s sheep, and their deprivations, abuses and miseries are daily increasing’. The colonists introduced other invasive species which made the situation worse, including grasses that outcompeted murnong and encouraged yet more grazing and trampling by sheep and cattle. Then, in 1859, rabbits were brought to Australia. If there had been any wild murnong left, the herbivores finished it off.