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Plant booklet opens portal to Indigenous knowledge

Imogen Kars -

Barkandji woman and research fellow Zena Cumpston's Living Pavillion, a project featuring 40,000 plants native to Kulin Country, has gained so much popularity it's been published as a free booklet.

Cumpston and her team at the University of Melbourne undertook the project last year, which saw plants labelled in a bid to help people understand their traditional uses through experiential learning including seeing, smelling and talking.

"I wrote a lot on the signage on-site about the ways we've used plants, not only for medicinal and traditional practices ... I wanted to tell the stories of innovation and the technologies we've been creating over a long period of time," Cumpston said.

The response from Living Pavillion was so popular that Cumpston extended her research and morphed it into the creation of a free and accessible Indigenous plant booklet.

Cumpston is a research fellow at the Clean Air Urban Landscapes (CAUL) Hub at the University of Melbourne and has the freedom to choose her own projects, which she said urged her to "think about what would be beneficial to the community".

"Most of the time, people don't see urban areas as Country but anywhere we are in Australia, we are on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land. There's no place in Australia that's not spoken for."

"I want people to be able to connect a bit more with our knowledge and to open that door for people to think about the fact that there's another whole realm of knowledge and understanding that they probably haven't had an opportunity to think about," she said.

The booklet, Indigenous Plant Use, focuses on plants native to the eastern Kulin Nation, which Cumptson said "encompasses different Aboriginal mobs from around eastern Victoria".

It speaks to the technical uses of plants, including their uses to make nets and traps, as well as their relationship with animals.

"It tries to look from an Aboriginal perspective and look at the whole system as something that needs to be supported," Cumpston said.

"Indigenous plants are ... not only an important aspect of our survival and our continuation as people, but we've also been able to harness all of the things on our Country, and plants have been pivotal to every part of that."

Signage from Living Pavillion was also transformed for the booklet into printable labels, so readers can continue learning in their gardens.

"I want the labels to make a space in gardens where ... people can learn how we get to learn on Country as Aboriginal people," she said.

The booklet was created specifically for community groups, schools and individuals who want to connect with Indigenous plants.

"So many people are making Indigenous gardens, but not learning about the deep knowledge that goes with them," Cumpston said.

"I wanted people to feel more confident knowing about the plants and I hope the booklet opens the portal for people."

River Mint was one of the 40,000 Indigenous plants featured in 'Living Pavillion'. Photo by Alison Fong.

Cumpston also hopes the booklet highlights truth-telling and traditional solutions to current environmental problems.

"We can see that with the emergence around the narratives of cultural burning ... the idea that we are only using half the tools at our disposal is becoming clearer to people," she said.

"If we don't care for Country, Country won't care for us."

One community group currently using the booklet is Melbourne Walks, a family-owned tour company that "promotes and preserves history and environment" and partners with Traditional Custodians in the area.

Coordinator, Meyer Eidelson, said the booklet is used as a reference in their tours and is given as a resource for those who want to dig deeper.

"Our tours reference and explore the use of Indigenous landscapes and plants so when a friend sent it to me, I thought it was a great fit for us. It's very well put together and researched," he said.

The booklet also contains a large resource list at the back, including an abundance of books, websites and activities to support readers' learning journeys.

Indigenous Plant Use is available for free download here.

By Imogen Kars


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