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My bush supermarket adventure and the lab work that followed it…

June 21, 2019

It’s not every day that you get to work in a laboratory on Groote Eylandt, a place that I only heard about  during my Help Desk duties at New Directions.  On that point I have to remind you all that as a professional cosmetic chemist I can’t always talk about the exciting things I do, you all must think me super dull. However, thankfully this isn’t one of those ‘ssshhhh’ times and so when the call for ‘HELP’ came in, both myself and the NDA team were onto it because helping businesses grow is what we are all about! That said, this isn’t an advertisement piece I just thought it would be useful for you to know why, how and who was involved, not least by way of showing gratitude.

So off to the bush I went but first a diversion…


I didn’t really plan to get into the cosmetic industry, have never really been a cosmetic ‘girl’ and being something of a tree hugger feel a groaning awkwardness about the waste and consumeristic nature of the industry I’m a part of.  That said, I stuck at it because I also recognised ‘it,’ this industry, as holding a special type of power over people.  No, not the power that tells women that they are saggy and wrinkly when they are not, that they need fixing, plucking, whitening and scrubbing.  More the side of the industry that helps us express our desires and goals, that invites us to care for ourselves and others, that facilitates some down time and pampering, that reminds us to touch ourselves and others with care and love.  That’s the side that I love and that’s the side that keeps me going.

In order to do that you need ingredients from which to make the products. It is there, in that supply chain, from the soil to the soul that I’m fascinated, obsessed even. It is there that this story goes.

The cosmetic industry is a hungry beast. Hungry for novelty it chews up and spits out any NEW ingredient it can get its hands on in a bid to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than all the others.  I see this all the time and to be honest, it’s hard not to get caught up on it, at least some times.  One year we saw an insatiable appetite for Dragons Blood Extract, next it was Kakadu Plum and then Hyaluronic Acid,  Rose Skincare, Topical Botox Peptides, Papaya Ointments and then Vitamin D skin infusions.  If it sounds exotic, great, if we can get some data behind it from which product claims can be made, even better. Brands are like kids in a candy store just salivating to dive in and taste what’s next and in many ways that’s understandable.

But what are we missing out on when we rush like that?

The market for Australian indigenous ingredients, especially those with ‘bush knowledge’ behind them is strong both here and overseas. Australia is seen as a country of extreme weather and unforgivingly rugged landscapes and as such, our plants have a reputation for being super-potent super-foods (and cosmetic actives).  One could argue that this commoditisation of our landscape first became a ‘thing’ in the early days of white settlement when boats would sail into Western Australia empty and out with a heavy cargo of Sandalwood.  Meanwhile on the other side of this vast island was Eucalyptus which was studied, squeezed, pressed and traded with equal zeal.  Thinking about it, that’s always been ‘our’ thing — we came, we stayed, we stole it.  Too harsh maybe? But really, has much changed?

You can’t ‘own’ Groote Eyelandt, it owns you or at least it feels that way.  The moment you step foot on the shores of this beautiful tropical island you feel part of another time and space, it reminds me of that song…

….And just like this song, the island means something and has a rhythm and a story that’s as rich and alive as it ever was, either in spite of everything or because of it, I’m not sure that’s for me to say.

From my viewpoint I can see that the islands narrative is complex, not for the feint hearted. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to get here and stay here. There’s the croc infested waters, the stingrays, box jelly fish and death adders.  The lively tradition of settling disputes by spears and the black gold that is manganese.  And then there’s the people,  the ‘locals’. People who I recognise instinctively and yet don’t know at all.  People who came here on song lines long ago, who became part of the soil and who grew strong in the shade of the trees they were born under.  They speak Anindilyakwa, a complex rhythmic language that I can’t even pretend to understand but you can feel it when you hear it. It feels like the words sing you home, weaving threads with each sentence that remind you who you are and why you came.

But none of that matters when you just want to capitalise on a bit of the bush.

We drove out onto lands that are under Aboriginal control – that’s true for much of Groote thanks to a 1976 land rights were granted to the people.  The path was dusty,  the corrugated road shook the truck and plants tried to invade our space every time we slowed down, popping a limb or leaf through the open windows. It was warm but not hot on account of it being the dry season, something I was quite grateful for – I feel that humidity is something to be endured rather than enjoyed!

There is no doubting the beauty of the landscape out here and on the day we went, the bush supermarket was quite full!  We picked, scraped and gathered a few bits and pieces to go into the Bush Medicine inspired balms that Bush Medijina are becoming famous for.  I won’t tell you what we picked because that’s not for me to say but suffice to say, every species has its story to tell.

Shopping like this really does ground you. I’m not a fan of shopping usually but if this was my supermarket, I’d be popping down here for a look every day!  However, I’m reminded of another way of seeing ‘this’ as just a series of opportunities for money making.  The proverbial cash-cow.

Some people don’t feel anything much. They can come in, take a sniff around and walk off with everything you value without a second thought about their impact. I know people like that and the worst part is that you often don’t even know you are being fleeced until it is too late.  It feels like this place could easily become that, there’s enough here to attract the sharks.

We took our goodies back to the laboratory and set up for the next day, a day where we would put the plants to work again, but this time in the form of their extracts, juices and infusions.  I shared some of my knowledge and invited them to play and run their own experiments with the test products I took along.  There was no lack of creativity or pride in seeing something so familiar transformed into something new, something ‘other’.  There’s so many layers here to explore, so much potential but I think it’s best if they tell you that.

I trained as a cosmetic chemist in the western tradition of being, doing and thinking.  Before that I trained as a chemist under the same thought regimen.  It may seem like nothing to many people but to me that isn’t nothing.  My nature and nurture only ever match up when I’m out on the land.  What I mean by that is that science, chemistry, education doesn’t make sense to me in its abstract ‘orphaned’ state.  The western way is to divide things up into knowable chunks of power that can be exploited in one shape or form.  It isn’t all bad, this way of dissecting provided a pathway for much closer observation of each individual part than can be seen otherwise.  However, I am constantly reminding myself in my head that we can’t know the true nature of a table by just observing one leg. This feels like that.

My western ways provide me with an ‘unnatural’ perspective on the situation be that ‘situation’ a plant, product or market opportunity.  But another way of knowing dominates here and that is a way I FEEL rather than KNOW.  It’s a way of being that requires you to step into the space fully, surrendering your individualised ego until you breathe as part of the whole.  Now all of this might be sounding a bit ‘oh my goodness woman, did you SMOKE something’ but I don’t mean it like that. Anyone who has met me will know what a blunt speaker and practically minded beast I can be.  However, this is a ‘thing,’ you really can FEEL it.  When you stop trying to take a plant away from its environment, stop trying to pull it apart into this part and that part you get a better insight into it as a whole dynamic being.  OK, OK Hippy Trippy again.  I don’t mean like that, I just mean that things start to make more sense, measurable things like the vitamin C concentration, the presence of antioxidants, the potential oil yield, the plant colour and smell, the reason that this tree is better than that tree and so on and so forth.  Sure we can communicate this in discrete scientific packets but we won’t truly value it until we let it tell its own story.

And it’s there that I leave this.

This place has many stories to tell and the best placed people to tell its stories are the people who grew here and are growing here.

I don’t want Groote to be seen as a trophy place where someone can come and do a drive-by plant heist, a ‘grab-and-run’ cowboy, a bio-pirate.  I don’t want THESE people to have to be satisfied with wild harvesting their green gold while some other fella gets rich on the up-stream. I want THESE people to swim all the way and swim so strongly against the tide of the modern world that they carve their own new song lines if that’s what they need to do. Song lines that bring with them ingredients, products and a sense of value that is so lacking in the world that sits outside of this magical place.  Let’s help them do just that.

Bush Medijina balms are beautifully made (and no, I didn’t formulate them) and have aromas that will make you yearn for some ‘me’ time in this great backyard we call Australia.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2019 11:44 am

    Beautifully written Amanda. Having lived in Darwin for 5 years, I totally understand what you mean by being able to feel the land and the nourishment it provides the soul. It also made me aware of how much knowledge indigenous people have that the western world simply ignores. What a wonderful opportunity you had to help these women. Good on you for jumping on that plane and sharing your knowledge and skills with them. I will follow Bush Medijina with interest going forward.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 26, 2019 12:10 am

      Thanks and yes, totally beautiful up there. It’s been a long while since I was in the Northern Territory so I’d forgotten. Well worth the trip and good to help a brand out


  1. My bush supermarket adventure and the lab work that followed it… | Pretty Random Health and Beauty Blog

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