#TeamHB4’s Anika Molesworth is a farmer, scientist and storyteller, who lives and works on Wilyakali land, the traditional home of the Wilyakali people.
Anika is an agroecologist with a Masters of Sustainable Agriculture and a PhD in Agriculture and Environmental Management. She has been working in international agricultural development for the past six years, giving her a holistic perspective of farming and food system issues at a global scale.
Her book, Our Sunburnt Country, tells of the heartache the decade-long Millennium drought brought, as she saw her beloved home ravaged by dust storms and heatwaves.
This was when she began to realise the correlation between the land, the climate and the food on our plates.
After consulting farmers, scientists, chefs and nutritionists all around the world, Anika began to realise that there was a way forward that could be both practical and sustainable – if only we could build up the courage to take it.
Homeward Bound is honoured to offer the first chapter of Anika’s hope-filled tale. Enjoy.
Win a copy.
Pan MacMillan have provided 5 copies of Anika’s new book Our Sunburnt Country to give away. To enter, fill in the form below and tell us your best tip to heal our planet. Entries close 30 September 2021. Good luck!
‘Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.’
Her hands are soft as silk and delicate as tissue paper, flecked with pale sunspots and faded scars that show they have worked hard in life. My fingertip traces the veins on the back of my grandmother’s hands. She lounges on a tan faux-leather couch distracted in conversation with my father about pruning the lemon tree in the garden. The tree is large and leafy, decorated with a bounty of golden- orb fruit. Pruning it properly is important, she says, and no lemon should fall wasted to the ground. Kneeling on the linoleum-tiled floor, I rest against her legs, my gaze following her fingers that move like a conductor’s baton, directing which branches can go and which must stay.
Her warm hand lands back in my upturned palm. It’s a strong grip, surprisingly tight for someone in her eighties. But for me, as a seven-year-old, it’s a grip that always makes me feel secure.
The best way to describe my grandmother is as ‘a force’. Her dark, captivating eyes could flash between humour to intent in an instant. Her wit cracked like a whip, and if you happened to be at the receiving end you felt momentary shock and a sting before a playful glint in her eyes reassured you of her good intent. She wasn’t the submissive type – Granny had a reputation of speaking her mind. On more than one occasion, she stared down a police officer while shaking her walking stick and delivering a fierce reprimand when something hadn’t quite played out as she thought it should. On more than one occasion, I peered around her ample waist to see the helpless police officer apologising profusely and agreeing that my granny was entirely correct and, whatever the error was, it would never happen again. There was an intensity in her loyalty to family and friends, a protective nature where the sole reason for her every action seemed to be looking after the people in her care. This is perhaps a common trait of grandmothers – sweet as fresh cream but with a lifetime of lessons ready to impart.
Granny’s small red-brick home was tucked behind my family’s house in an unusually large and vegetated garden perfumed by the scent of citrus flowers in bloom. The trees moaned when the wind blew strongly but radiated birdsong when all was still. It was an oasis in suburbia, only a short train ride away from Melbourne’s city centre. On weekends, my parents, two brothers and I tumbled through Granny’s door, her quiet house erupting in a cacophony of noise as we grandkids scampered between rooms playing hide-and-seek. Tucking myself into a linen closet, I would stifle giggles as my elder brother padded down the hallway, imploring my parents to reveal which direction I had gone to hide. When the suspense was just too much, I would burst from my den, grab the outstretched arm of my younger brother and we would sprint out into the garden with Granny’s little ginger-coloured terrier, Binnie, barking at our heels. I would wield a stick in the dog’s direction and give a mighty ‘Hi-yah!’. Outside among the trees we would run, as fast as our toothpick legs would carry us. ‘Slow down!’ Granny would call at our disappearing figures. ‘You’ll knock someone over!’ Shrill children’s voices tangled with the dog’s bark, cricket commentary on the television and my grandad, who was hard of hearing, asking for the third time where the morning’s newspaper had been put.
The house was full of life and the kitchen table was our meeting place. Here, conversation was as effervescent as the fizzy drinks we guzzled, full of laugher and adventurous stories. Over Sunday roast served on delicately painted floral chinaware, the noise only ever dulled momentarily, as plates were filled and appetites satisfied. There seemed to be a magnetism to the food in the way it brought us together – my mother wearing oven mitts pulling a tray of beef out of the oven, the wafting smells of succulent meat tantalising our bellies, my mouth watering involuntarily as plump juicy carrots rolled onto the serving platter. Butter-sautéed green beans and roasted potatoes with crispy skin that made a satisfying crunch – all gobbled down before the next round of ‘tag’ ejected us kids from the kitchen- table chairs.
This urban upbringing never gave me much reason to think about where my food had come from or anything else about it really. My only interest in food was whether it tasted good. For me, food began its life in the brightly coloured packets I swiped off the supermarket shelves while hanging onto the shopping trolley (though which- ever parent was pushing the trolley surreptitiously returned most of my selections). Food was produced under fluorescent lights and the sound of crackly shop speakers. Down the aisles I rolled, mesmerised by the abundance of fruit and vegetables of every shape and imaginable flavour. I was lulled by the shelves of plenty. Back home in the kitchen I would help unpack the shopping bags, bewildered that my selections had seemingly once again been pilfered by the nifty check-out teenager, but nonetheless happy to stack the pantry cupboard and fridge with another successful haul.
Food was always around, within reach, just ready to be plopped into my mouth. I was blasé about it really, despite Granny’s attempts to make me appreciate it more. She would tell me stories of her childhood on her family’s farm west of Geelong in Victoria. It was hard to imagine such a life in the countryside or the effort to grow one’s dinner. But in times gone by, she said, people thought of food differently and understood its importance. ‘We are lucky to have this meal,’ Granny would say across the kitchen table, ‘because times can change quickly. So you have to keep alert!’ She would give her walking stick a loud thump on the floor to empha- sise her point. She did this when she was getting serious and I needed to stop and pay attention.
Granny learnt about the importance of food during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a period of worldwide social disruption and food insecurity. Many communities lost normal access to food, and the painful hollowness of hunger became the puppeteer of many anxious bodies. During the Depression years, Granny took up nursing, tending to the ill and injured. She comforted those in distress and held the hands of weakened bodies. In the hospital ward, she delivered trays of food to each patient, hiding her fear of possible shortages from those under her care.
She was around 30 years old when World War II broke out in 1939, a horror that followed on from the Depres- sion. Food rationing became a fact of life in Australia from the 1940s. Meals became fewer and smaller for most people. Tea, sugar and meat disappeared from shelves, and eggs and milk were distributed under a system of priority for vulnerable communities during periods of shortage.
Such commonplace items were regulated and restricted to ensure that each person would receive equal food resources as the War continued. Every person was allocated a certain number of coupons per item. Adults, for example, were assigned one pound (450 grams) of butter per fortnight. This precious staple was used sparingly. Meals were prepared with what food was available and affordable. As soldiers fought one another on battlefronts, people’s bellies grew hungry and malnutrition rose around the world. Children and the elderly became vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies, and their weakened bodies made them susceptible to disease. Tuberculosis and rheumatic fever became rife. As the War dragged on, food imports were curtailed in many countries. In Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Oceania, there was a stark awakening to how brittle the food system really was.
The War was a shared social and human experience, and keeping loved ones well fed and safe became central in everyone’s minds. People at home in Australia were encour- aged to be as self-sufficient as possible, to keep backyard hens for eggs and to grow their own vegetables. Some public parks were dug up and converted into community vegetable gardens. During this time of disruption, there grew a sense of community through food. Everyone was in this crisis together. Recipes designed to cater for lack of eggs, butter and common cuts of meat appeared in news- papers and magazines, and animal parts like brains, tripe, liver and kidneys formed a more significant component of diets. Shortages in food could have propelled greed and ignorance, yet people chose to react instead with compassion and generosity of scarce resources, to be innovative and hopeful – an example of the banding together that is born from times of great need and finding courage during crisis.
Respect for food and conscious consumption were ingrained in the generation that lived through the Depres- sion and the War in a way that persisted long after the fighting stopped and official rationing ended. The true value of food, the precious giver of nourishment and health, had been brought to the forefront of Granny’s understand- ing, as it was to all people who learnt about food insecurity via this frightening experience.
So it was understandable that food was never wasted in Granny’s house. Even when she was in her eighties, five decades after the War had ended, no mouldy slice of bread or yellow-tinged tub of yoghurt was discarded. Sure, the bread crust of blue fuzz may have been trimmed, but even that was carried straight out to the chicken coop where, to my youthful amazement, old food scraps were converted magically into perfectly shaped brown eggs the next morning by the shed full of clucking feathered magicians.
Though this was impressive, I must admit that at this young age, I didn’t always see eye to eye with Granny on her mission to let no food go uneaten. I would scrunch up my nose at the pungent smell of acetic acid from fruit becoming overripe in the wooden bowl that sat on her kitchen bench. I dreaded those black bananas being sliced up for my afternoon fruit salad. Despite my protests and pleading to my parents, Granny wouldn’t have a bar of it. ‘Always be thankful for your food. Don’t ever take it for granted.’ And with a thump from her walking stick on the floor, the conversation would end.
Food turns from a subject of pleasure and complacency to one of concern when my elder brother falls ill. Our child- hood escapades end and a foreboding unknown ailment begins to cripple my closest game-mate. His muscles dete- riorate and he drifts in and out of consciousness. He lies in a darkened room in excruciating agony, unable to bear light and noise. Weeks drag into months. My parents frantically try to ease his suffering. I look on silently from a crack in the door as his body wastes away, his moonlight-white skin folded into crumpled sheets. Rendering him unable to lift food to his own mouth, the vicious disease strips him of his once-healthy, exuberant self; a pale, shrunken frame lies near motionless in his place. It’s a long time before special- ist doctors diagnose him with an extreme case of chronic fatigue syndrome, the outcome of a virus that invaded his young body.
He is admitted to hospital as his condition worsens. In the sterile ward he sleeps alongside other bed-ridden children, with faces too young to be lined up against white walls. Their characters prematurely aged by their conditions. I slowly approach my brother’s side, barely recognising the boy I used to battle with stick-swords on the lawn at home. His powerful jousting always disarmed me during our duels. I was too timid, usually fleeing when the game became serious. Now his contorted arms loosely cradle his favourite toy, a small gorilla we bought on a family outing to Melbourne Zoo before he fell ill. The gorilla looks as out of place as my brother in this strange stark room, its black eyes staring unblinkingly at the ceiling.
The smell of the hospital bleach makes my head thump as I sit quietly while my parents read my brother books of princes with enormous courage who overcome great odds. As they tell these stories my mind wanders, hypnotised by the steady drip from a small, clear bag hanging on a metal hook above my brother’s head. Each drip of liquid runs down a long, plastic tube taped to his cheek and disap- pears into his nose. The doctors tell me the fluid is full of good nutrients and is feeding him so that he will be playing games with me again someday. I trust these experts in white coats and the words they tell me.
But the games don’t resume anytime soon. I watch red-eyed family members embrace and offer support in a circumstance where no comfort can be found. My parents live in a state of dread that one day they will lose him. I find my mother crying into a basket of dirty laundry in the back room of our house. She can’t even catch her breath as she tries to tell me, ‘It’s all right, sweetie, everything’s going to be all right.’ I run to get my father. They cling together while I watch helplessly, crouched in the corner as they weep among the laundry until both their shoulders are stained damp with tears.
Some weekends my parents bring my brother home from the hospital for a day. I sit in his wheelchair while he lies on the couch under a quilted blanket. Occasionally my younger brother clambers up onto the wheelchair with me, and we stretch over the arm-rails and heave while turning the large metal wheels. We usually manage a wobbly half-circle before flipping the wheelchair over, quickly smacking our hands to our mouths to stifle our gasps so as not to wake our brother or stress our parents further. In the evenings when my parents are leaving to take my brother back to his hospital bed for the night, Granny appears at the front door under lamplight with her oversized handbag crooked under her arm and a packet of candied papaya for us to share.
My parents’ absence as they tend to my brother in hospital means more sleepovers with Granny. It’s a chance to practise my dance routines with her and to dress my younger brother in her fox-fur coat as my audience. Chopping vegetables and moving pots on and off the stove’s flame, Granny bustles noisily around the kitchen while I work on mastering the pirouette in my hot-pink lycra leggings. Granny critiques my form while stirring the food with a wooden spoon in a pirouette of its own. The soft bubbling sound of hot stew cooking in the pot is my background music, before Granny dishes dinner onto our plates and the kitchen morphs back from dance studio to dining room.
‘Food is life,’ Granny says, sitting at the kitchen table and ladling another steaming serve into our bowls. She reminds me how lucky we are to eat tasty and healthy food, as not everyone has food in their pantry, and even when some people have food their bodies reject it. I see the stark contrast in how food nourishes my body and not my brother’s. The food I eat gives me strength, sustains my energy and enables me to go to school. But without the ability to eat meals, my brother has increasingly become a mere shadow of the healthy young boy I once knew. I miss our games and having my parents home at night.
During those evenings, after dinner when my belly is full, I climb onto Granny’s lap, nuzzle my face into her bosom, and breath in her warmth and comfort. She opens up stories of her childhood as though they are books, describing to me her family’s farm where she rode her pony along a clear flowing creek. Imagining the green fields and the sound of hooves splashing in the water, I pull at threads on her woollen jumper as my eyelids become heavy. The street noise and sirens outside the window dissolve into the background, replaced by the whistling call of the barn owl and the bellow of cattle in the valley. Granny tells me about a land that is as fit and vibrant as her younger self. An environment full of secrets and wonder. In these moments, it feels like my brother’s illness and the troubles of the past are far away and long ago, and here within my four walls, with Granny’s arms wrapped around me and her hands holding mine, my world is safe and always will be.
Food is life. It is the nourishment for our bodies and the stability of our communities. It is the story of our past and the story of our future.