Friday, 4 October 2013

The Biggest Estate on Earth

One of the most persistent images in our culture is that of the "primitive" Aborigine, wandering naked across the face of Australia, living off the produce of nature and having little or no impact on the land they lived in.  This is one of the key images behind the convenient concept of terra nullius, Australia as a land which nobody owned.

I've known for a long time that this image is misleading.  From my time at Uni I learnt that Aboriginal people have a close connection with their country, that their travels are far from random and that they carefully monitored and husbanded resources.  Historian Geoffrey Blainey's book Triumph of the Nomads, first published in 1975, showed how extensive Aboriginal burning of country was and how big an impact this had on Australia's ecology.

In Blainey's depiction this burning is somewhat indiscriminate, a huge impact but not necessarily purposeful in a strategic sense.  Bill Gammage's 2011 book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, which I've just finished reading, tells a stunningly different story.  If you still think Aboriginal people didn't care for their country or cultivate it, read this book.  If its forensic detail defeats you, try this handy 15 minute summary by the author.

When the first Europeans arrived in various parts of Australia, one of their most frequent impressions was that the country was like a park, or a nobleman's estate.  Early landscape paintings show the same thing.  Broad grasslands, open forest, a beautiful blending of diverse habitats reminded them of the carefully created estates of European nobility.  They often assumed that this was natural, but Gammage marshals an impressive range of evidence to show it was not.

The first evidence is that of people who spent time in the country in the early years.  They observed and recorded Aboriginal people carefully tending the country - burning deliberately and carefully, hunting in rotation, creating and sustaining different habitats and ensuring that there would be enough food and a wide diversity to meet their needs - indeed, to provide in abundance. 

The second is the testimony of Aboriginal people themselves in the places where this knowledge is still alive.  They describe a detailed, purposeful system of land management and a detailed knowledge of what each species requires.  This knowledge is integrated with Aboriginal spirituality, ordained and guided by spirit ancestors and regulated by a system of totems and inherited responsibilities which, with local variations, was universal across Australia.

Thirdly, there is the evidence of the plants themselves.  Australia has a wide range of plants which tolerate and in many cases require fire.  Different plant species, with different fire requirements, lived side by side in pre-European Australia, often on identical soils.  The only explanation that makes sense of this is that the habitat was carefully managed, with precise and well controlled fire regimes designed for diversity.

Finally, there is the evidence of what happened when Europeans forced Aboriginal people from the land and the management regime was discontinued.  Places which were "park-like" when Europeans arrived are now dense forest.  Perfect grazing land is invaded by inedible grasses and weeds.  Open forest is choked by dense undergrowth.  Left to itself, Australia produces a very different landscape to the one which greeted the first Europeans.

The picture that emerges is of a land carefully and purposefully managed to produce an abundant supply of food.  The primary tool in this management was fire.  Aboriginal people were experts in controlled fire, knowing how often to burn different habitats, what sort of fire each needed, and how to ensure this fire did its job without running out of control.  Grassland was burnt before spring rain to provide fresh shoots for kangaroo and wallaby to graze on.  Forest understory was burnt every few years to keep forests open, but parts were also left unburnt as refuges for those species which preferred such habitats.  River banks were kept clear to grow yams and other root vegetables.  Compatible habitats were created next to each other and often moved gradually over decades so that exhausted soil could be returned to trees and new soil turned into grassland.  These areas created a mosaic, a template that was repeated across the length and breadth of Australia.

Backing up this regime of management by fire were the other techniques of agriculture.  Aboriginal people traded, planted and tended root vegetables and grains.  They provided pasture for large marsupials so that they knew where they would be at any time, and hunted sparingly so they would not become spear-shy.  They dug wells, built dams and dug channels to create wetland environments and secure drinking water.  They built and maintained fish traps.  They culled in times of overabundance and switched foods in times of scarcity.  They left land untouched, often for years at a time, to ensure there would be plenty for visitors at a major festival.  In some places they built permanent structures, solid huts of stone or timber.  The only things missing from what Europeans would recognise as settled agriculture were fences and permanent residence at a single site.

Yet many Europeans failed to notice this careful management.  Gammage quotes from the Sydney Herald in 1838.

...this vast country was to them a common...their ownership, their right, was nothing more than that of the Emu or Kangaroo.  They bestowed no labour on the land and that - and that only - it is which gives a right of property to it.  Where, we ask, is the man endowed with even a modicum of reasoning powers, who will assert that this great continent was ever intended by the Creator to remain an unproductive wilderness?

How is that the European settlers missed the intricacy and ingenuity of Aboriginal land management?  Of course there were many reasons.  One was simple prejudice - they did not believe that a people who seemed so "primitive" could be capable of such detailed planning, and did not recognise the techniques they used as they were quite different to European management.  There was also convenience - Europeans wanted this land, and it suited them to see it as empty.  Alongside this, by the time Europeans reached many parts of Australia Aboriginal society was already in trouble, devastated by imported diseases and under pressure from refugees retreating from areas already occupied.  Few Europeans ever saw Aboriginal society at its best.

Yet they benefited from Aboriginal management and suffered from its abandonment.  More than anything they sought pasture, and Aboriginal management had created pasture in abundance.  European cattle and sheep took over the grazing land created for kangaroo and wallaby.  Yet without the fire regime, trampled by the hooves of cattle, this pasture quickly degraded.  In the absence of regular, judicious burning, fuel loads in forest built up to the point where bushfires raged out of control and destroyed life and property.  Noxious tree species grew out of control where they had been previously confined to small stands.  Without regular hunting and culling kangaroo, emu and dingo multiplied to plague proportions which European methods could not control.

One of the lessons I took from Blainey's book, which has stayed with me and which I have expressed more fully here, is that humans are not something separate from nature.  We are ourselves natural beings, integrated with and dependent on the natural world for our survival.  As soon as we try to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, we become destroyers.  Europeans destroyed both Aboriginal society and the ecology it sustained.  We are still reaping the consequences of this twin destruction, and have a long way to go in learning to right both wrongs.  We can't go back to how things were, but we have yet to learn how to go on to something better.  I can't put it any better than Gammage's conclusion.

We have a continent to learn.  If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country.  If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.

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