In Central Australia a fire shrank to ashes. Black women rose from red sand. Spirits of ten thousand generations stood up with them. Pink streaks screamed through a blue desert sky, over small scales and bones. “When the wildflowers come, the sleepy lizards taste sweet.”

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The horizons swung without end, shrinking the twisted myall trees where the women brushed sand away in the shade. Indents in the ground separated by wriggling sand walls marked the movements of a monitor lizard hunting through the night.

Like Russian dolls, the wildflowers inhabited a world within worlds within worlds. The women knew them all. Where the daisies ended, on low ground, desert peas became giants dwarfing cranesbills. Purple mulla-mullas wandered among pearl bluebushes. Above them the cassias carried mistletoe. Spiders spun webs between eremophillas.

The women headed for a hill in a low range rising behind a myall plain. Sun reflected from the loose rocks studding its slope, separated by occasional saltbushes, knee high. One woman donned her sunglasses. It was like walking on the skin of an enormous animal. A stand of straggling shrubs broke free of the straggle of saltbush like a tuft of hair. Hordes of flies sought water in eyes.

“Here is the bush medicine.”

The women fanned through the shrubs, passing out plastic shopping bags. They inspected twigs like buyers in a market. They broke the best twigs of grey-green leaves and dropped them in the bags.

“Bush medicine smells different to other emu bushes.” The bulging bags headed down the slope. “When it dries, the leaves will fall away. We will grind it the old way, on the concrete, with rocks.”

Forty thousand years had honed a recipe changing with the times. Back at home, in three bedroom houses where fourteen people lived, they dropped some older leaf dust in a saucepan of water. The oven did not work. The oven’s open door had been the only heating when winter chill froze the dew. They added olive oil as the pot bubbled. Woolworths sold oils that were easy to catch. In the old recipe, the first step was to say “Wati, I need you to bring me back an emu. I need some fat.”

When the saucepan cooled in the night, powder of emu bush leaves sank. Green gunk settled beneath the water. Essences floated in oil. The women bundled the oil in pots.

“It is good for everything. You rub it where the body is sick. You can drink a little bit in your tea to help you sleep. If you wash your hair in it, your hair will shine.”

Hundreds of kilometres south, deep in a laboratory, scientists bubbled the knowledge of the women in test tubes. They wanted to understand why it worked as an anti-inflammatory, and as antibiotic. Unknown to pharmaceutical sellers, it presented hope for treating infections resistant to chemist’s wares.

Hundreds of kilometres north, other women spooned oil loaded with emu bush into jars. The claws of the Internet reached Amata, two and a half hours of hard travelling south of Uluru before the global pharmaceutical sellers staked claims to their birthright. Amata women opened their own shop. They sell their bush medicine, and other things, in cyber space. http://www.bushrub.com/



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