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The Age, February 8, 2005


Glenn Wightman is on a mission to prevent the extinction of the Top  End's traditional food knowledge. Necia Wilden reports.

Glenn Wightman, "the barefoot botanist", is talking about mangrove worms, a native food found widely across northern Australia. "They look repulsive," he  says enthusiastically. "Like a long strip of mucus.

"Most people are disgusted by them when they first eat them. But the taste is  excellent - a bit like muddy oysters. I prefer them to oysters, actually. "And they have powerful health properties. They're said to be rich in iron  and are good for your heart, good for coughs and colds."

They're also relatively easy to come by - if you're handy with an axe. The  worms live inside dead mangrove wood. "Or you can get them out by hand if you know what you're doing," Wightman advises.

As with all the foods he has spent the past two decades discovering and documenting, mangrove worms are not commercially available.

That may be about to change, however, if his unique vision of gastronomic and economic sustainability bears fruit. As one of the few non-Aboriginal Australians with a deep understanding of northern Australia's traditional plant and animal knowledge, ethnobotanist Wightman is on a rescue mission. Working closely with Aboriginals, most of them elderly and living in remote areas, he is helping save the legacy of thousands of years of knowledge - knowledge that is facing imminent extinction as elders die, oral traditions fade  and habitats and lifestyles inexorably change.

To date, the Darwin-based Wightman has co-ordinated 16 books - each from a  clan of a different language - that use Western scientific classification systems to identify hundreds of species of endangered plants and animals. The books, published in accordance with the wishes of the elders, are aimed  primarily at "countrymen" - as Wightman calls Aboriginals - within the relevant  communities, but are also bought by white people, usually tourists interested in  traditional culture.

Several other books are in the pipeline - some based in the Kimberley and the  rest in the Northern Territory. "We are talking about languages that won't be spoken in five years' time,  that are literally dying out," he says. "And so the food knowledge will also be  lost. "A lot of these foods have not been harvested for the past 30 or 40 years  because we are going through a massive knowledge extinction phase."

Now, Wightman's project, endorsed by the Northern Territory Plants and  Wildlife Commission, is about to move to another level. Within the next few  months, some of the wild-harvested foods from the Daly River region, a former Catholic mission about 250km south-west of Darwin and home to the Nauiyu  community, will be made available for sale. "It's just a small production to begin with," Wightman says. "The people just  want to start slowly. We'll start within the community and see how it goes, then  we might expand to Darwin and Katherine and from there, maybe elsewhere in  Australia."

Some of the foods to be sold include black plum (Vitex glabrata), sweet and  sour leaf (Bauhinia malabarica), Chinese plum (Grewia asiatica) and red lotus lily (Nelumbo nucifera) seeds. It's the first step in a bid to make native, sustainably harvested foods commercially viable through a system that returns the profits - cultural as well  as financial - to the people responsible for locating those foods. In this the  project shares similarities with the global non-profit food brand Fairtrade,  which delivers above-market prices to Third World growers for the benefit of  their livelihoods and communities.

Born into a farming family in Leongatha and educated at Monash University,  Wightman, 43, was in 2003 honoured by Slow Food, the international  eco-gastronomy organisation, for his work (he has conducted similar ethnobotany  projects in Java and Samoa) in defence of biodiversity.

A modest man who chooses not to have his work published in scientific  journals on the basis that it belongs to the communities, he is an unlikely  entrant into the bush tucker business. "To tell you the truth, I'm nervous about bringing money into the equation,"  he says. "The thing that's driven (this project) is respect for people that are  dead and those who are still alive. "It's not about money, it's not about land rights, it's not about egos; it's  all been about recording knowledge. "But in another way, it's the logical next step. Countrymen should be able to  use traditional knowledge to make money."

While Wightman welcomes white Australia's interest in bush tucker generally,  he has little time for most of the mainstream products - mainly herbs and spices  - available in supermarkets. "Countrymen are making such poor rates out of it that it's not worth their  while," he says. "We are looking at it differently; value-adding to  communities."

And while he is investigating the economic viability of every food identified  in the bush, he is also sensitive to its cultural and medicinal significance. He  talks about the yellow kapok, for example, a common plant eaten for its  flowers. Native communities connect the kapok with crocodiles, as the plant's  flowering coincides with the reptiles' egg-laying season. "So when the people see the kapok in flower, they know it's time to go and  look for the crocodile eggs (to eat).

And they're beautiful," Wightman says. Bush tea leaf (Ocimum tenuiflorum), which is made into a beverage drunk like  tea, is a strong herb that smells like cloves and is valued as a treatment for  respiratory problems. Related to basil, it can also be used in cooking. "We added it to a spaghetti bolognese at a tasting dinner and the rangers  loved it," Wightman says. For whites, especially for southerners like us, obviously the prospect that  we might one day be able to buy and eat foods such as this, through a project  such as this, is exciting.

But it's when Wightman talks about a generation of Aboriginals who have no  knowledge of bush ways that the importance of his work resonates the most. "I hear a lot of bullshit about blackfellas. People think they all know about  the bush and it's not true. Even in the languages themselves, the vocabularies  are getting smaller because kids just aren't going out bush. "There are old people who grew up traditionally, who can remember when they  first set eyes on white man.

They learnt in a very different way from the way  young people are learning." And even among the old people, he says, many of the native foods have not  been eaten since their childhood. "Sometimes when I show them to the elders, they start to cry because of the memories."