The Dirt: Aunty Fran Bodkin

Fran Bodkin has a twinkle in her eye. It’s early morning and we’re nibbling on finger limes whilst wandering through the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan. She chuckles as we stop next to a native hibiscus, ‘Oh, I love this one’, she says. ‘Western people put hibiscus flowers in champagne on their wedding day, right? Well, we use it as a contraceptive!’

‘There’s plenty of things we have a good chuckle about,’ says Fran, a D’harawal woman of the Bidiagal clan, from the southern parts of Sydney. Fran was born under a tree in central Sydney. ‘Dad was taking Mum to hospital when the wheel came off the car and hit the tree and that’s where I was born. Given my passion for plants, it must have been meant to be,’ she says.

Fran has dedicated much of her life to sharing stories of indigenous knowledge of the natural environment. A gifted storyteller and communicator, she’s studied a bachelor of arts and sciences at university, has written a plant reference book called Encyclopaedia Botanica and is an Elder on campus at the University of Western Sydney. She works regularly with indigenous school children, encouraging their curiosity about the environment and helping prepare them for university. Fran is a tireless campaigner for the recognition of indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage, and a storehouse of stories passed down through generations of D’harawal people before her.

A finger lime (Citrus australasica)
Native hibiscus - apparently a great contraceptive!

Fran was removed from her family by a government agency when she was three but she ran away from her new foster home and returned to her parents soon after. She decided she’d had enough of being ‘flogged’ for not pronouncing words correctly when reading the bible. ‘Dad taught me to read and write by the time I was three, and he used to take me down to Central Station and make me memorize all of the train stations in New South Wales. He’d say, “Remember, if ever you get taken away or get lost, find a railway line. Once you find a railway line you’ll find a station, then hop on the train back to Central and walk home”. And so I did’ she says.’

Fran’s father was a scientist, and her mother a gatherer and storyteller. On finishing school, Fran went to university, as a way of attempting to explain some of the many things her mother had taught her about the world around her, based on ancient stories and legends. ‘At university they told me that science is about measurement, and that you can only understand through measurement and experimentation. But Aboriginal science is about observation and remembering.

‘We don’t do this observation any more’, she says. ‘It’s all done through a microscope. We’re looking at the small bits, and forgetting about the effect these small bits have the whole environment.’

The relationship between plants, animals and the wider ecosystem is something Fran is clearly passionate about. She tells me about the Gymea lilies signalling the migration of whales from the Southern Ocean to the north. ‘We can’t see the ocean out here’, she says, ‘so we can’t see whether the whales are arriving or not but we know that when the Gymea lily flower stalk reaches the top of the leaves, the whales are coming up from the south.’ When the Gymea lily flowers are in full bloom, the whales are returning home according to Fran.

Fran thinks it’s only when we start to understand these complex relationships that we’ll be able to truly understand the environment we’re living in. ‘I think my duty in life is to create pathways. I don’t know what’s at the end of those pathways but I do know they’re pathways of curiosity. If I can make the kids curious, then that curiosity might stay with them until they reach a stage where they can actually satisfy it with study and learning’, she says.

We talk about the stories and legends passed down through generations of indigenous Australians used to frame interaction and understanding of the environment. Some of these are now being studied, dated and quantified by western science, like the conclusion by ecologist David Bowman that the seeds of a were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30 000 years ago. This very recent western scientific discovery is something indigenous people already knew. They’ve passed the story of ‘the gods from the north’ bringing seeds to Palm Valley down for tens of thousands of years.

Fran tells me indigenous stories of the rise and fall of sea levels, again passed down through generations, and how middens have now been found by scientists on continental shelves – ‘they realised then our stories of rise and fall of sea levels are fair dinkum.’

Every plant, in Fran’s eyes, has a story. We pass by a geebung (Persoonia pinifolia), a native plant notoriously hard to propagate. ‘The seed has to be passed through the gut of a mammal,’ Fran advises. ‘One of those botanists, I can’t remember his name, saw the kids eating the geebung fruit and he thought he’d give it a go. He grabbed a handful of fruit, put in his mouth and chewed it, and he couldn’t talk for two days because it dries out the salivary glands. He couldn’t understand how the Aboriginal children could possibly eat this terrible fruit. They didn’t chew it all up like him. They ate the pulp, then swallowed the seed. When you go into the bush and see a whole lot of them growing in a clump, that’s where the toilet was.’ Soon after I meet a scientist doing her PhD in persoonia reproduction. I suggest she speak to Fran.

From persoonia to prostanthera (Prostanthra rotundifolia) – ‘it’s really good to keep mosquitos away when you’re out camping, just put a little branch on the fire at night and it will keep them away’- and whales to ants – ‘The little black ants start building a mound around their nest four days before rain. The highest side of the mound will tell you the direction the rain is coming from’ – Fran is a mine of knowledge. The stories she tells are interlocking pieces of a puzzle – connecting people, plants, environment and ways of seeing. ‘Everything is linked’.

The Australian continent is home to one of the oldest cultures on earth, with a legacy of over 40 000 years of sustained care and respect of land. This alone is evidence enough to encourage deep exploration and respect of indigenous ways of seeing and relating to the land. ‘I think we’re too busy at the moment looking to the future, all these robots and stuff like that, than learning from the past to then know what we can do in the future.’

It’s been three hours since we started our walk. Fran is as energetic as when we began. I can’t say the same of myself. My brain is in overdrive, trying to commit to memory everything she’s shared. She suggests I make a tea of Eucalyptus tereticornis leaves because ‘it’s good for the memory.’

‘We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.’ writes Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia.  Aunty Fran Bodkin is a story teller, sharing the stories of her land, our land. She’s helping to teach us our country.

This story was also published in The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants (Thames and Hudson 2018, Timber Press 2019)

Lilypilly (Syzygium spp.) fruits - great in jams and chutneys
Bursaria spinosa
Ants are great meteorologists!
The stolen generations memorial at The Australian Garden at Mount Annan

A Few Things I Learnt From Fran Bodkin

Apparently, a tea made from the flowers of the native hibiscus (I’m not sure which genus) is very effective in reducing libido!

Prostanthera rotundifolia (mint bush) can be used as an insect repellent. When you’re out camping, put a branch on the embers of a campfire at night and it will keep the mosquitos away.

Persoonia spp. (geebung) is a really tricky plant to propagate. Fran reckons the seeds need to pass through the digestive tract of a mammal to germinate. She says that when you see a bunch of them in the bush, that’s where the indigenous people used to go to the toilet. The fruits are very high in vitamin C.

Fran reckons you can only eat three native Ficus spp. (fig tree) fruits per day, otherwise you’ll get diarrhoea!

The green leafed Acacia (wattle) species with ball shaped flowers are the ones whose seeds make good eating. The wattles with blue/grey leaves and longer flower spikes are bad, according to Fran. She tells me that they used to plant the grey foliaged wattle around their land and use them on their enemies. ‘When the enemy came down, we would hide so they couldn’t find anyone. They would go to sleep without posting a guard and then our bravest warriors would gather armfuls of grey/blue wattle leaves, put them on the enemies fire and sneak away. The enemy would be breathing in the vapour, which is actually cyanide! When they woke up the next morning they would be vomiting, have bad diarrhoea and stomach pains, and a massive headache. They’d think the land was haunted and leave!’

Fran reckons Australian farmers should be growing wattle seed, not wheat, as they fix nitrogen in the soil and the seeds themselves are very nutritious.

Ants can tell the weather! For example, small black ants build a mound around the nests four days before rain. The highest side of the mound will tell you the direction the rain will come from.

A tea made from the young flowers of paper daisies (Xerochrysum spp.) fixes intestinal worms.

Leptospermum petersonii (lemon-scented tea tree) is a great treatment for colds. Make a tea from its leaves or put a sprig of it between your pillow and pillowcase and the heat from your head will release vapour and help clear your nose.

A tea made from the leaves of Eucalyptus paniculata (ironbark) is good for indigestion

To improve your memory, rub the leaves of a mature Eucalyptus tereticornis tree in your hands and breathe in the vapour.