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!’

This is just the beginning of Fran’s marvellous collection of stories, remedies and reminiscences. I could spend a solid week talking with Fran Bodkin and not even get close to scratching the surface of her vast knowledge of Australian native plants, animals and indigenous perspectives on the environment.

Fran is in her early 80s and is a descendant of the D’harawal people of the Bidiagal clan, from the southern parts of Sydney. She’s worked as a researcher for a NSW MP, studied a myriad of sciences at university, written a huge plant book called Encyclopaedia Botanica (she’s currently working on a revised edition), and is an Elder on campus at the University of Western Sydney. She also 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 taken from her family when she was three, but 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 studied a bachelor of arts and sciences, 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 doesn’t know why this is, but she reckons 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 solitary clump of palm trees in Central Australia 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 has a bunch of similar stories, reflecting a vast timescale I can only imagine, and a knowledge base worthy of serious exploration and understanding.

Western science has answers, of course, but it’s not the only path to understanding.

We live on a continent home to one of the oldest cultures on earth, who’ve managed the land for over 40 000 years. In the last 200 years we’ve done a great job of compromising our environment. If science is all about measurement and evidence, I reckon this is evidence enough to suggest we need to change our approach and that 40 000 years of knowledge is a good place to start.

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 – all the tips, the stories, the knowledge. My overriding feeling though, is one of inspiration.

It’s impossible not to be blown away by Fran Bodkin. Her wisdom and deep love of the natural world is phenomenal, and her storytelling skills are something else. I hope one day, thanks to people like Fran, we’ll start seeing things differently.

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.