Glenn Wightman is an ethnobiologist at the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management where he works on recording traditional biological knowledge across north Australia.
Glenn Wightman is an ethnobiologist at the Northern Territory For mine he is Australia’s leading ethnobiologist, not just because of the length of time he has been working in this field but also because of the extensive body of work he is, in part, responsible for.
I caught up with Glenn at Adelaide airport last week as we returned from a traditional ecological knowledge seminar conducted by the South Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.
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Bob Gosford: You’ve been working with biocultural knowledge since the 1980s?
Glenn Wightman: Yes, I started in 1982 and sort of went full time on it in 1990.
BG: Can you tell us what it is you do, where you do it and who you work with?
GW: Yeah. It is pretty simple. I work with Aboriginal people in the Top End of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley of western Australia recording knowledge of plants and animals.
I mainly work with old people. So any biocultural knowledge that elders want to record for the future we just write it all down and put it into books.
BG: Do people come to you?
GW: Yes, that’s right. We don’t go out and humbug people to do this. I just respond to requests from language groups for assistance to record knowledge.
BG: Are there some you’ve not finished?
GW: No, there is no use starting a project if you aren’t going to finish it. I see people start projects and not finish them and it’s not – it is just really sad, because people have wasted their time on it. We always try to finish our projects. Finishing things is really important.
Over time I’ve come to realise how important it is – if you start a project with Aboriginal people then you’ve got to finish it. That is part of the job.
BG: How many projects would you have on the go at any one time?
GW: Quite a few. Probably ten or a dozen at any one time. For a while there we had far too many language group projects running and I wasn’t able to manage it, so I made a conscious decision to try and finish them so we could reduce the number and make it much more manageable.
We’ve completed work with people from 33 languages up to date. Probably about 30 because we’ve done a few languages together. That is across the Top End and the Kimberley.
BG: Is anyone else doing this sort of systematic long-term work anywhere else in Australia?
GW: Well, people do, possibly not across as big an area and probably not with as many languages as we do and probably not full-time like I do. This is all that I do.
We are a bit different because we have the support of the NT government and we have the support of the cultural scientific institutions that provide knowledge to the projects and we have good support from other scientists – ecologists and the collections that government has that help us to get things right.
We try to maintain scientific rigour but work in culturally appropriate ways. We try to be flexible and evaluate projects as we go along and see what suits the particular people we are working with. Some people want to be more scientific about the project, some less so. I don’t really mind.
BG: All of your books are approachable and accessible at a number of levels, good to look at, easy to read and scientifically and linguistically rigorous and accurate.
GW: Yes, well that is because the old people we work with present their information in a way that is easy to relate to. It is just a common sense scientific approach that old people have.
We take scientists into the field and bring Aboriginal people into the lab – and vice-versa. Sometimes Aboriginal people come into the Herbarium and work with us looking at particular plants specimens, we also go to the George Brown Botanical Gardens, the Berry Springs Wildlife Park and to the NT Museum at Bullocky Point to check out artefacts and specimens.
We are really just looking for the best ways to elicit information about plants and animals.
BG: You started off mainly working with plants but over time you now look at plants and animals and other taxa. Was that a response to what people wanted to read, what you wanted to do, or what people were telling you?
GW: It was what people were telling us. They wanted to record knowledge of animals as well.
I was trained as a botanist and I worked in the Herbarium for seven years as a botanist so the old people at the Herbarium taught me a lot about plants. So I knew the plants reasonably well and I could talk to Aboriginal people in a sensible way about plants, but I didn’t know a lot about animals.
But everyone we worked with wanted to record animal knowledge as well as plant knowledge.
When you are talking about plants animals always come into the conversation all the time and you can’t not talk about animals. I listened to the old people and tried to learn as much as I could about animals and then we started to record knowledge about animal.
It is logical, it is common-sense to do that together. Everything is connected. And the best scientists that I’ve worked with will take that approach. They will have their specialist fields but they are very interested in all parts of nature. The really good naturalists – the scientists who are interested in nature generally – are the best ones – they are really interested in everything.
BG: So what next?
GW: There are a lot of people that are interested in this kind of work. It can be hard for some people to do a lot of fieldwork all of the time – working in a mix of cultures and languages.
It can get a little complicated and can be very challenging. But we are always looking at ways to do things better, to see if we can record more types of knowledge.
Each book is different and I like to think that each book is better than the previous one. We are always interested in improvement, because we’ve learnt a bit more.
Old people are really interested in new technology and new ways of doing things. Everything is in the book so they can be pulled apart and be turned into something new for computer or whatever. But the old names and the old knowledge are all there.
In 2009 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and went to the United States and the United Kingdom and I spoke to people who worked in ethnobiology and about what worked for them – and what didn’t.
I spoke to some native American people about what they thought were good ways to do things, spoke to traditional knowledge custodians in the UK about what they thought was the best way to look after knowledge.
It was really interesting and I learnt a lot. I’m not really sure how or why but I do know that since I did that project I’ve been a lot more productive in finishing projects and getting work done. So it really was wonderful experience.
BG: Pen or pencil?
GW: Both. Yeah. Pencil because it is permanent. When you put fruits and flowers in alcohol the pencil remains but ink dissolves in the alcohol. There is an incredibly important cultural association between me and my coloured ink pens. Would you like me to tell you about it?
BG: Yes, I’m sure the readers would be fascinated …
GW: When I work with people on a manuscript we are constantly updating and adding to that material as we work through the list of plants and animals that we’ll use in the book.
Often we’ll work for 3 to 5 days in a row and we’ll be working on the same manuscript for all that time. And each night I have to type up the notes from that day …
BG: That is an important methodological point – you have to write up the day’s work every day …
GW: Yes, it is really important. If you don’t do it disappears into a miasma of knowledge and you don’t really know what is going on. So typing it up every night of the same day that you talk about the plants and animals that you type it all up is really important.
So as soon as I finish field-work – as soon as we stop talking about plants and animals during the day – I sit down and start writing it up.
And it often takes some time – quite a few hours. The coloured pens come into it because each day I use a different coloured pen – so I know what to type up from each day’s work. I’ll start with black, then move to blue, then to red and then to green and after that you get into fancy colours like pink and mauve (laughs).
It may look like a rainbow but there is absolute logic behind it. Each day is a different colour and you know what colour relates to each day – so you can go back through the data and check what you’ve spoken about each day.
BG: Methodology is just as important in ethnobiology as in any other scientific endeavour.
GW: Yes of course. You need to be able to check and confirm your information, confirm it, reiterate it. There are a number of ways you can do that.
You can do it with different people working independently on the same language.
If you haven’t got a lot of speakers of that language left – if there are only a few people left and they like working together and they are more comfortable working together and don’t want to work independently – which is usually the way it goes – then we will work together as a group.
We will record knowledge one year as good as we can get it and then we might come back a few years later and check it again with the same people at a later date to corroborate it.
We generally work at trying to record every bit of knowledge – that we will use – three times.
Sometimes with the same person on several occasions over time, sometimes with different members of the same language group.
I try not to ask too many questions. It is a funny thing that sounds illogical but we just go out in the bush, look at what is around us withhold people and start talking about what is around us.
And different ethnobiologists work in different ways. A lot of people like to work through a set list of questions about the plants and animals and the place they are in. We don’t do that so much, we just let the old people – or the plants and animals – do the talking.
The classic response to asking questions all the time is that you can ask people about a plant or animal – “Can you eat it?” and people will say “Yeah, you can eat it.”
And that is the end of the question so you write down “Edible.”
Then later on people might say “Yes, you can eat it. But it will kill you.” So you’ve got to be careful with questions. Asking questions all the time can be pretty annoying – a real humbug.
Obviously sometimes I do ask questions but the best way is to get the balance right, letting people tell their stories – you don’t have to ask all the time. Sometimes we just sit in the bush quietly, just looking at what is happening around us and don’t say much at all.
There is nothing wrong with just looking at things, observing what is going on around you.
A lot of the old people I’ve worked with have passed away. Very sad. One of the best part of the work that I do is the wonderful people you work with. They are great. There is a lot of knowledge there but there is a quantum loss of knowledge as old people pass away.
They have unique knowledge sets. That is the reality of what is happening when we are working on specific languages and people pass away.
There is a loss of knowledge – and the person of course – that goes with that. And it is good knowledge, old knowledge that has probably been around for many thousands of years.
BG: Thanks for your time, Glenn.