Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
National Biography Award nomination
‘Why not the wallaby in Australia?’
...While the Germans were occupying more and more territory in far away Russia, the war had suddenly also come close to Australia. In December Japan began its conquest of the Pacific and southeast Asia. In February 1942 the Japanese were in New Guinea and Darwin was bombed. The rapid advance by the Japanese caused panic among Leandro’s neighbours. Suddenly his bush skills turned out to be in great demand; as he wrote to the newspaper, ‘I have been approached by many people asking me for advice as to localities and the best places where to evacuate their families to’. He readily shared with the readers his knowledge about the localities, how to make ‘makeshifts’ in the bush, what essential equipment and food would make up a survival kit. His letter provoked much interest, including his mention of flying foxes and ‘opossums’ as among some of the ‘fair’ bush food: ‘A great deal of verbal chaff has been directed at me because I have mentioned flying foxes and opossums as eatable at an emergency and omitted the carpet snake, bandicoots etc. I think I have eaten every sort of bush food ...’
Still, instead of purely practical advice, Leandro decided that the time had come to reveal his own philosophy of the relations between modern man and the surrounding world.
‘I have lived in many countries and in no country have I seen the population so prejudiced to the use of foods that are not of an established standard of living and using so little local products. ... We have been living in a fool’s paradise on artificial high standards, using the tin opener too much. We were ignorant to which food is more essential, and economical to a nation’s health building and our politicians never foresaw the necessity of improvement.’
He argued that Australians might consume a wider range of products, including those that were used in other nations, among them some that were widely used in Russia, where ‘besides sour milk sunflower oil is used and seed eaten like peanuts’; he praised the nutritional value of maize, drawing conclusions from his South American experience, and he sang an ode to South Sea Islanders and their food:
‘The best race of dark skinned natives in the Pacific are Kanakas, Samoans, Fijians and Torres Strait Islanders. Men and women are robust, have good teeth, are resistant to work, great seamen, pearlers, musical, clever in school, of jolly and happy disposition, able and capable, true friends, but foes to be feared, easily degraded by white man’s civilisation and drink. Those men and women are reared mostly on coconuts, yams, and taros, fish and pork.’
He showed that a wide variety of products could be grown in Australia, which, instead of consuming expensive imports, might rely on its own resources.
It was obvious to him that modern people lack basic survival skills and are losing the essential skills required to make rational use of the surrounding natural resources:
‘We let mangoes and paw-paws rot and pay 2/- and 3/- a dozen for shrivelled apples and buy all fruit that has been picked green and therefore [is] tasteless when it arrives here. ... Most people in the present generation could not bake a loaf of bread nor a damper. They all know how to bake a cake and some few can cook scones.’
Moreover, Leandro believed that under the extreme conditions of threat of war the appropriate moment had come for Australians to recognise and respect the skills of those who were prejudicially regarded as lower races: ‘We want some experts ... who would teach us how to grow and use (I repeat: use) these products in a tasty palatable way, even if the instructors were Kanakas’; ‘If the Government would release some Aboriginals to go bush with evacuating families they would be of much use to the welfare of women and children’.
As for meat, he offered readers the fruits of his own experience:
‘While refusing to eat all clean things the civilised people eat dirty (1) ducks, (2) pigs, (3) fowls (the dirtiest scavengers of the lot), (4) cattle. ... Wallabies nearly knock us down on the outskirts of the town and the people turn their noses and say Oh! I could not eat wallabies. I have fed wallaby, horse flesh, flying foxes even donkey meat and eels to many of these “could nots” and they did not know any better.’