Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Barbie Girl

My grown-up daughter accidentally left a flash drive on my desk with lots of backed-up music files.  Since I'm a musical bowerbird I've been listening my way through it, picking up on all sorts of stuff I haven't heard before or haven't really listened to.

One of the real gems is this little song, released in 1997 by the Danish-Norwegian bubble gum pop group Aqua.




Of course I've heard this song before.  How could I not have?  My first memory of it is around 1999 when we visited the UK and our pre-adolescent nieces were listening to it.  I wonder what they make of it now?  The song is a regular feature on lists of "Most Annoying Songs of All Time".  I doubt the group members care, given it means they never have to worry about how they will pay the rent.

However, listening to it properly and hearing the words, as opposed to being annoyed by it, is quite a revelation because it really is a very clever song.

I'm a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic, it's fantastic!
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation

I'm a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I'm your dolly
You're my doll, rock'n'roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky...
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"


Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please
I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees
Come jump in, bimbo friend, let us do it again,
Hit the town, fool around, let's go party
You can touch, you can play, if you say: "I'm always yours"


Mattel, makers of Barbie and Ken, were less than impressed and attempted to sue Aqua for breach of copyright.  They lost, the judge saying that parody is perfectly legal. 

It's possible the irony of the song was lost on many of the band's pre-teen fans but it obviously wasn't lost on Mattel's management.  Barbie, the seemingly innocent children's plaything, is exposed as the lurid sex-symbol and impossibly unattainable ideal she is.  Its cutting edge is aided by the plastic nature of the music itself and the relentlessly silly, up tempo beat.  This song is annoying because it's meant to be.   

Yet the song is taking aim at more than just a children's toy.  It's aiming at the passive sexualised images of womanhood we see everywhere - on catwalks, in fashion magazines, in pop music, in the cinema.  I could earnestly whack you in the face about all that, but they don't, they hide it deliciously in bold-coloured wrapping paper, weave it into a tune so infectious that no matter how hard you try you just can't stop humming it.

In fact it's just like Barbie herself, that insidious idea of womanhood that just will not get out of our heads.  It sounds like joyous fun, but its not.  It's deadly earnest and it can wreck lives.  Just ask Britney Spears.  Ask Miley Cyrus in a few years' time.

Apropos of which, you really know your song is a pop culture icon when it is made over into a spooky electronic dirge by an avant garde indy act like, say, The Flaming Lips or Camper Van Beethoven or, in this case, Electric Chairs.


Monday, 21 October 2013

The Beatitudes as Wisdom

After looking at the Wisdom writings in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, it happens that at church we've started a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount.  Last Sunday was the Beatitudes.  For once I'm not going to have a whinge, because it tied in very nicely with what I'd been thinking about the Wisdom books.

As I mentioned, the Wisdom writers faced a problem.  Why do those who do wrong seem to prosper while those who do right suffer?  They had two answers.  The writer of Ecclesiastes advocated humble submission - we don't know what God is doing or thinking, all we can do is carry out the tasks he has given us and enjoy our life as we can.  The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon was more confident - the righteous may appear to die unrewarded, but God will reward them in the life to come.

Jesus develops this theme further in the poem that begins the Sermon on the Mount, the eight lines we call the Beatitudes from the Latin term which means "blessed", "happy" or "fortunate", the word that begins each line.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
     for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
     for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Here we see an eloquent restatement of the kind of reversal of fortune we find in the Wisdom of Solomon - the righteous may be suffering now, but they will not suffer for ever.  This reversal is amplified in Jesus' many teachings on the Kingdom of God, in which social outcasts are gathered into the Kingdom while the rich and powerful are locked out. 

Jesus, and those who follow him, face the same problem as the Wisdom writers.  In our experience here in this world, these statements are more often untrue than true.  Those who mourn do so without hope.  The meek are trodden into the ground.  The merciful are taken for a ride.  The peacemakers are arrested and tried for sedition.  Is Jesus wrong?  Is it best to give up the whole thing as a bad joke and fight by the rules of the rich and powerful?

One option is to follow pseudo-Solomon and see the promised rewards as coming in the next life.  This certainly provides comfort for those who mourn.  Jesus leaves this option open.  He is not specific about the time. However, he takes our thoughts in a completely different direction.  We are not simply called to wait patiently for this reversal, we are called to begin living it here and now.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Why does the world not operate by God's rules?  This is the wrong question.  Are we, God's people, the citizens of his Kingdom, living this way?  If so, we become the salt which preserves the meat, the light which guides the way at night, the beacon on the hill for which weary travellers aim. 

If we live this way, there is hope, we can begin the task of making his kingdom real.  Those who long for mercy, who seek comfort, who long for peace, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, will receive the strength to keep going.  The Kingdom will grow here among us, like the yeast making the bread rise, like the mustard plants self-seeding on every available patch of dirt.  If we don't start, no-one else will.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Wisdom

Right then, back to something more esoteric after all this grumpy politics.  It's been a while since I wrote anything on the Apocrypha, so time I stopped procrastinating and wrote about the Wisdom books.

I find Wisdom literature hard for a number of reasons.  The collections of sayings can be a bit mind-numbing, and often the content is repetitive.  Much of it also seems self-evident - why bang on about what is so obvious?  How to write about literature that doesn't hold my interest very well?  Yet here it is, in the Jewish sacred writings as well as in the writings of other traditions, so perhaps I've been missing something.

Then it occurred to me that a good way of thinking about the Wisdom tradition is to see it in the context of the Law.  The five books of Moses are, in a sense, the primary source documents for Jewish faith.  They provide a set of laws by which the nation of Israel was supposed to be governed as the people of God.  They cover the whole range - the procedures and rituals for temple worship, rules about ritual purity, and more mundane matters like sexual morality, marriage laws, criminal proceedings, rules about boundaries, welfare and debt laws, regulation of slavery and so forth.  They also contain some things that are simply baffling.  What's wrong with eating shellfish, cutting the corners of your hair or using composite fabrics?

It's unlikely that these laws were ever implemented in their entirety.  They represent an aspiration, an ideal for the nation, rather than its reality at any point in its history.  However their implementation, even in an imperfect form, clearly required the existence of a Jewish nation.  Of course some things could be maintained in exile - like food laws, dress codes and so on - but Israelis in exile had to live under the laws of the nation in which they found themselves.  How were they to conduct themselves in these circumstances?  This is where the books of Wisdom come in. 

Just as Moses is the foundational figure of the Law, Solomon is the presiding genius of Wisdom.  1 Kings 3 tells the tale of Solomon asking the Lord for wisdom, in what is itself a kind of wisdom story.

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’  And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.  And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.  And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.  God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,  I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.  I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you.  If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’

Solomon could have asked for anything, but instead of asking for riches, power or long life he asks for wisdom to rule well.  As a result, God gives him wisdom and promises him the things he has not asked for as well - because of course these come with the application of wisdom.

The two Old Testament books of Wisdom - Proverbs and Ecclesiastes - are traditionally attributed to Solomon (at least, most of Proverbs is) and there is also an Apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon.  It is unlikely that any of these works were actually written by King Solomon himself - their literary form and language suggest that all are written in the post-exilic period - but they bear his name as a way of marking his status as the founder of wisdom thinking.  The Apocrypha also includes a long collection of wisdom sayings entitled Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, generally known by its abbreviated name, 'Sirach'.  Other Apocryphal books contain wisdom writing.  Tobit includes lengthy passages of wisdom material placed in the mouth of Tobit as advice to his son Tobias and the prophetic book of Baruch includes a song in praise of wisdom.

In contrast to the Law, Wisdom is universal and portable.  Indeed, much of the material contained in the Wisdom writings is cross-cultural, found in different forms in the writings of other ancient Middle Eastern societies.  It presumes the Law as a basis but instead of reiterating it, it focuses on universal ideals of conduct that are applicable in any situation.  Honour your parents and elders, work hard, be honest and chaste, be generous to the poor, stay away from evildoers, don't gossip, stay sober, respect the king, if you are a king rule fairly, value friendship and doing right over riches and worldly success, marry well and so forth. 

All of this seems fair enough, but why should you do it?  When you live in the midst of the Gentiles, or indeed the apostates of your own people, and you see them living ungodly lives, lying and cheating their way to success, why should you not follow suit?  The Law envisages a set of objective punishments for wrongdoing enforced by the rulers of God's holy nation.  If these rulers fail to uphold the Law, God will himself intervene to punish them.  On the other hand, if they follow the law faithfully, God will bless their nation and make it prosperous.  Now that they are in exile, living among a people who don't know God, what motivation do they have to continue?  The set of motivations encoded in the Law no longer apply.  What is to take their place?

The Wisdom literature has two answers to this question.  The first comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it has mystified preachers and interpreters for centuries.  Ecclesiastes is a meditation on the brevity of life and the futility of so much of our human striving.  This brevity and futility makes the author despair.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.  Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
    The wise have eyes in their head,
    but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?' And I said to myself that this also is vanity.

What is the point of continuing?  What is the point of anything?  Here is his answer.

What gain have the workers from their toil?  I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.  He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;  moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

It may seem that everything is stupid and pointless, but God has put everything in its place.  We should get on with our lives and enjoy ourselves, accepting our limitations and doing the things that are there for us to do.

The Wisdom of Solomon develops this idea further.  It starts out with a kind of parody of the reasoning of Ecclesiastes, placed into the mouth of the wicked.

'Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts...

‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,

and let no flower of spring pass us by....
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow

or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions...

This is not what Ecclesiastes is saying, but it's often interpreted this way.   If there's no point, why not just do what we want?  Here is how the author answers.
 
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.
 
Goodness, in other words, is in tune with the way God has made the universe.  In the short-term it may seem that the wicked prosper, but in the long-term God will vindicate the righteous.  In support of this idea, the author makes use of an idea which, as I have pointed out previously, makes its first appearance in the Apocryphal books.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.

This idea that death is not the end, that the righteous will receive their reward in the next life when God returns to vindicate his people, seems commonplace to us.  However, it was virtually unknown to the Old Testament writers.  For them, vindication was in this life, through God restoring his people to their inheritance.  For the writers of the post-exilic period, living in Persia or Egypt or as a minority in their own country, this vindication seemed a long way off.  They had watched many die without seeing it. 
 
Yet they didn't give up hope.  They continued to trust that God would vindicate them, that the universe was a place which rewarded virtue and punished vice, even if most of the time that looked untrue.  The faithful among them kept their virtue even at great cost to themselves, they kept on working and toiling to make God's promise a reality.  Can we say the same of ourselves?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Paradox of Power

As usual I'm late catching up with my periodicals and so I've just read the Spring 2013 edition of Zadok Perspectives, an edition focused on the election we just had.  Too late to help me make up my mind about the election, but it did help focus my mind on something I've been thinking about since the election, which I call (perhaps not originally) The Paradox of Power.  Two articles helped focus my thoughts - Gordon Preece's editorial on Kevin Rudd's Christian socialism, and Bruce Wearne's extensive review of Lindsay Tanner's book Politics with Purpose.

The Paradox of Power is especially strong in democracies although it also affects people in other political systems, and can be expressed in a few different ways.  The more political power you have, the less able you are to use it.  The higher you climb the tree the less freedom you have to act on your convictions.  A visionary in opposition becomes a cautious conservative in office.


No-one illustrates this problem better than Kevin Rudd.  When he was first elected Labor Party leader in 2006, Rudd nailed his colours to the mast in an article in The Monthly in which he expressed his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ideal of Christians fully engaged in the political process and redoing politics "from below", allied with the reforming zeal of the European Christian Socialists.  The result was an idealistic reform program which included strong action on climate change, a more engaged and enlightened approach to internationalism, humane treatment of asylum seekers, an apology and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a solution to homelessness, a comprehensive taxation review and so forth. 

His vision and passion struck a chord with the electorate, and his government was elected with a substantial majority.  Even in 2013, after a three year campaign of vilification by his Labor enemies, he was still the most popular political leader in Australia.  However, by 2010 his reform program was a mess.  His asylum seeker policy was as inhumane as Howard's, his apology had not been followed up by meaningful reform on Aboriginal issues, his climate change strategy was blocked by the Senate and then abandoned, his taxation review had morphed into a single abortive tax on big mining companies, and he only had a few baubles to show for three years of government.  It became a favourite sport of journalists and Christian commentators to ask what Bonhoeffer would say about Rudd's various actions, and the answer was usually not very complimentary.

Lindsay Tanner presents a more in-depth and nuanced, and perhaps in some ways more traditional, version of the same thing.  Tanner sees the Labor Party as part of a global social democratic movement, with a long term commitment to social justice both locally and globally.  He laments that during his time in politics the party seems to have lost this sense of purpose, that nothing else matters but winning elections, the party has been swamped by careerism.  "We are slowly transforming," he says, "from a party of political initiative to a default party, which seeks power on the basis of managerial competence...."

Here we see the Paradox on full display.  While Tanner never had Rudd's profile, he was one of the most influential people in the government, serving as Finance Minister and a member of Rudd's "kitchen cabinet" along with deputy Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swann.  Why, with such committed reformists at the helm, was the Labor Government able to achieve so few of the ideals it treasured?  Why was Rudd hounded from office while Tanner resigned in disillusion?

My sense is that the problem is not one of ideals, it is one of method.  The Labor Party wants to achieve change from the top.  It wants to get hold of the keys to the Lodge and use them to further its program.  However, there are strong vested interests which resist the kind of program they want to introduce and these interests have control of many of our key institutions - our mass media, our financial and business hubs, our banks, even our large public corporations.  Labor's reformist program, even in its most conservative form, is contrary to these interests, and so will meet resistance.  Look at what happened to the mining tax!

The Labor Party's response to this seems reasonable - they moderate their goals, take on board much the agenda of these powerful interests, in order to neutralise their opposition and win the election.  "After all", they say, "you can't implement your program from opposition."  What Rudd and Tanner show, however, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to implement it from government.  By the time they got there, much of the program had already been jettisoned, and most of the rest of it went by the wayside in those first three years.  Gillard succeeded in clawing some of it back with the help of the Greens, but she and her colleagues were extraordinarily ungrateful for this help.  Over the six years of their government their various compromises succeeded in alienating much of the reformist base which should have provided the impetus for the changes they professed to support.

Perhaps the best way to start to see through this issue is to join the chorus of those applying Rudd's words on Bonhoeffer to his own and the Labor Party's, practice.  In his Monthly article of 2006, Rudd says this about Christian engagement with the state.

I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

This implies a conscious and costly choice.  It is hard to take the side of the marginalised and oppressed and at the same time seek the favour of their oppressors.  This is even more so if you spend time with the oppressors and keep the oppressed at a distance.  If Gina Reinhardt has open access to the Prime Minister while the door is barred to homeless people and refugees, how is it possible to take the side of the latter?  If you can only achieve power by appeasing the oppressors, this power is an illusion and best abandoned.

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.