Last month I had the great pleasure of spending a day driving out in the bush with a few of my Anangu friends. We drove an hour north of Ernabella to the border of the Northern Territories where we detoured onto one of many dirt roads that hug the fence lines of massive cattle farms. This remote part of the central desert has been used for cattle grazing since the introduction of a hearty Buffle grass in the late 1800's. Lucky for us this region is also a prime location for digging honey ants.
Tjala, or honey ants, are one of Australia's tastiest forms of Bush Tucker (bush food). The ants live underneath Mulga trees where they harvest pollen to create a delicious nectar similar to honey. Within their elaborate underground colonies select ants are over fed by the colonies' worker ants. This gorging helps stimulate the production of honey which is stored in a large bulbous growth on their back. The honey ants in turn regurgitate the honey as a source of nourishment for the colony. This process is a great example of a species evolving an ingenious way of creating food from the landscape in which they live.
Honey Ant digging is a long slow process involving the careful probing of successive layers of dirt. The digger starts by loosening the surrounding soil with a long metal pole. Shovels are then used to remove the dirt. The ants are fragile so the digger has to be careful not to squish the ants as they dig. Over the course of a few hours the digger literally sinks into the ground. I helped a few times with the shovel but honey ant digging is largely considered a female task. Men hunt, women dig honey ants. Division of labor based on gender is very common in Anangu culture.
You can see from the pictures below that we collected dozens of ants. It was hard not to eat them all as they emerged bright and glistening from the brick red soil. By the end of the day we had eaten our fill and still had many handfulls left to share with family members back in Ernabella.
Click here to watch a clip showing Warlpiri women digging ants and talking about the possibility of the central desert being used for radio active waste disposal.
Like many outback trips ours turned into a hunting trip as soon as someone spotted a Kangaroo on the horizon. After many failed attempts with our old 22 rifle, including a near miss with an emu, we had a fresh lunch. From the fatal shot to the first bite less than three hours passed. Most of this time was spent field dressing the animal and cooking it under coals in the traditional way. It is both remarkable and impressive to see how efficient the cooking process is. I asked my friend how he knew how long to cook the Kangaroo. He smiled and said "We cook it until its ready." This open pit style of cooking is one of many traditions that are passed down from generation to generation in Anangu culture.
For the sake of sensitive readers I'm not going to include pictures from the hunt but I can say that the hunting experiences I have had with Anangu have left me wondering why hunting is seen in an agressive light in many developed countries. The process of tracking, killing, and cooking an animal that is more than abundant in the surrounding landscape is both natural and respectful. In contrast the American factory farm system seems unnaturally cruel in respect to the treatment of the animals during their short lives. I don't mean to underplay death. Death is equally harsh in all instances. I do however think that an animal's quality of life is a good reflection on how much the animal is valued by the humans that consume it for food. Anangu have been hunting Kangaroo for thousands of years, over which time they have developed a symbiotic relationship with both the animal and the land around them. There are many dream time stories that speak to the importance of the animal for physical and spiritual nourishment.
Our day ended with a sunset drive back to Ernabella. We stopped along the way to take pictures of the full moon that was creeping above the horizon. I am deeply grateful to my friends for taking me out with them. Any time spent with Anangu in the bush is a gift.
I recently had an interesting conversation with my brother, who does not eat meat, about hunting for food. After we discussed the many angles of the issue he surprised me by saying, "I think I would eat meat if I could fish or hunt it for myself." This seems like a very sensible middle ground for an often hot button topic. The stark reality of life in the desert dictates that people eat the food that nature provides them. I imagine a discussion of the morality of eating meat is not common within Anangu culture. Meat is food. Vegetables are food. Everyone is happy when there is food around. Hunger blurs these sort of distinctions for people in need.
After living overseas in countries that struggle with hunger and food distribution I have come to understand that the ability to make a "moral" choice to abstain from a food source only comes when there is an overwhelming abundance of food in that society. Hungry people don't have the luxury of abstaining from a food source that might make up more than 50% of their natural diet. I am not knocking vegetarians but I am saying that deeply held beliefs are often dictated more by our physical and cultural landscapes then the intrinsic morality of the issue.
Check out earlier posts in the series about Ernabella.
Way Outback: The Road to Ernabella
Way Outback: Night Writing
Way Outback: Chasing the Light
Way Outback: A Story for the Eyes
Way Outback: Animal Kingdom
Way Outback: Paint, Money, and Land
Way Outback: The Red Walls of Uluru
Way Outback: Teaching in the Great Red Center