In the Australian bush there is a stiff climbing plant with hard prickles sparsely placed along its entire length, and with broad shining leaves that have little tendrils at their bases. The vine climbs trees and twines itself about shrubs in such a way that it often makes travelling in the bush impossible.
It is named smilax. One variety is without prickles and is known as Smilax glycyphylla. It is also known as Australian Sarsaparilla, and from it our grandmothers (if they were in Australia) brewed a very refreshing drink. Children often chew the leaves of Smilax glycyphylla, and if I remember aright, the taste is at first by no means pleasant, but after a while becomes quite agreeable to the palate.
The aborigines of the Tuggarah Lakes district knew this plant very well, and their story is that a great ancestor was one day pushing his way through a jungle on the bank of a creek and a prickled smilax scraped his shoulder. He did not feel pain at first, but after a while, when the perspiration got into the tiny cuts, he became very angry, believing that he was bewitched. As well as being angry he was frightened. He had a firm belief in a sort of fairy or goblin which he knew as a "wullundigong," which signifies a "little man of the bush!"
He stopped at the foot of a big tree, and peered up amongst its branches and leaves to see if he could detect any of these little men. He did not wait long, for he was not at all certain that the wullundigong, if he were there and saw him looking, would not be able to do him a very great harm. He saw none, of course, but he did see the smilax with the prickles climbing all over a clump of Lilly-pillies just in front of him, and making a thick, dark arbor. To be sure that there were no little men in there he pushed into the place, and of course the little thorns of the smilax scratched him again, and the pain was in the cuts at once.
Then he knew what was the matter. He knew that there were not any wullundigongs troubling him at all, but that there was a plant just as bad and not able to fight. He wished that there were no such plants and he wondered what he could do to rid the land of them.
He had recourse to the clay, in the virtues of which the blacks had such faith. He was not a sorcerer, but he had been allowed to attend the corroborees that were the schools at which sorcerers were taught much of their arts. A great deal of the power of a sorcerer was not the result of any teaching. The markings were. The incantations were. The reasons for there being any sorcerers were. But much more was the invention of each individual humbug, and he generally hid himself for a time while he thought out his ways of frightening the rest. That made a real sorcerer. This man had not done that. He simply had seen that part of the profession that was taught, and he believed in it all.
When he was properly marked he muttered the incantations and waited for a result. That came only in the form of a thought.
He touched some of the glabrous leaves of the offending plant. He slowly passed his fingers along the whole length of the vine.
The prickles disappeared. The leaves changed. They became smaller. He was emboldened and he tried its taste. He found that to be to his liking. He took some to the great people of his tribe and they tasted them and found them to be as he had said. No one was forbidden to eat of the smilax, and everyone from that time took just as he pleased. In that way it was thought the plant would eventually pass out of existence. But the man did not reckon on the fact that he did not touch all, nor did he remember that no article of diet was utterly destroyed. The totem system prevented that. When no foodstuff was eaten by every one (by that wise decree that had been handed down through the ages, but was reserved for those only whose totem it was not, and when that decree was attended with dire pains and magical penalties), then no foodstuff could be entirely eliminated.
So we still have the smilax, one variety without prickles and the other, which some people call "lawyer vine" though there are other "lawyer vines," still with them.