Book review

Published 13/09/16 | by Karl Just

The Biggest Estate on Earth — How Aborigines Made Australia

Bill Gammage 2011 Allen & Unwin, 384 pages

Fire management in Victoria appears to be ruled by a science of idiocy. Burning of the land is focused on reaching senseless area-targets with little regard to effects on ecology or even on reducing further fires. With all our science, technology and civilized ways, it seems that overall we are still a long way from appropriately managing and understanding the country we live in.

The main theme of The Biggest Estate on Earth is that Aboriginal fire management was and still is an extremely complex science, involving an intimate understanding of ecological processes and plant-animal interactions, honed over many millennia. This book argues more than any before that many of the Australian landscapes that the first Europeans encountered were almost totally an artefact of a complex management regime by humans. Consequently, as dispossession of the caretakers of country proceeded, so did the ecosystems they sustained for countless years begin to unravel. Whole landscapes were to change rapidly beyond comprehension.

This book draws on a massive amount of research (over 1500 separate references), using excerpts from old journals, newspapers, paintings and photos. It then skillfully draws the evidence together to paint an eye-opening perspective of Australian ecology, describing just how aboriginal burning ’made’ the land. As the book proceeds you begin see the pre- 1770 Australian continent as a managed estate of massive proportions. Gammage shows that aboriginal fire management didn’t involve merely setting the scrub on fire whenever it was deemed too thick; it was an intricate science. Balanced mosaics of open and treed vegetation were created to provide ideal habitat for particular fauna. The frequency and intensity of fire was often altered at a fine-scale to favour one plant species or community over another, while rainforest was in some parts of the country transformed into open grassy plains by lighting fires on hot summer days, using the right winds at the right time. Like many others, Gammage argues that with the use of fire, aboriginal peoples sculpted complex ecosystems, sustaining diverse communities of plants and animals.

One of my favourite chapters is ‘Heaven on Earth’, where Gammage describes the inseparable nature of aboriginal theology and ecology. As Gammage writes, ‘ecology explains what happens, the Dreaming why it happens’. Here science and spirituality run on parallel spheres. An example is given of a group in northern Australia who took great care to avoid burning a jungle thicket, so conserving a restricted community and its dependant fauna. However this was not explained in conservation terms, but rather that if the area was burnt, the spirits of the place would blind them. Again, aboriginal women harvesting yams in the top end would always leave the top on the yam and cover it with earth. This allowed the yam to re-grow and provide more food later, but it was explained ‘if dig it all out, then that food spirit will get real angry and won’t let anymore yam grow in that place’. For aboriginal people there are deeper processes at work than just plain science; if the Dreaming is followed, the land flourishes.

Another great chapter is ‘Canvas of a Continent’. Here Gammage has reproduced a range of early paintings and photographs, and for each one points out clues to fire patterns that can be seen in the various landscapes. He has actually re-visited a lot of these sites to provide evidence of changes that have occurred since European invasion.

‘A Capital Tour’ presents a wonderful tour of all of Australia’s capital cities, including descriptions from early explorers  and colonists. One of the most fascinating of Gammage’s observations is that it was the shaping influence and management of these areas by their traditional owners that led to them being selected as the sites worthy of our capital cities. Some of these future cites, such as Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney, contained country described by colonists as resembling English ‘gentlemen’s parks’. These ‘parks’ were well maintained grasslands and grassy woodlands, easy to walk through and abounding with wildlife, which Gammage argues had been partly created and maintained by Aboriginal burning regimes. It is sadly ironic that many early settlers found the country so agreeable that they believed it had been prepared for them by the hand of God. Little did they know it had been significantly shaped by the very people they claimed did not manage the land at all, leading to the to the Crown’s stamp of Terra Nullius (land belonging to no one) across the continent.

I must say that I did find the reading a bit frustrating at times. Gammage will occasionally jump all over the place when illustrating a point, listing numerous quotes from various times from places all over Australia. In his popular book, Victorian Bush, its Original and Natural Condition (Reviewed  in Indigenotes 22:1), Ron Hateley argued the point that there has been a lot of assumptions made of Victorian aboriginal burning based on burning by aboriginal peoples from northern Australia, where the ecosystems and culture are significantly different. Gammage occasionally appears to make this same error, illustrating a point based on evidence from vastly different places. I was also sometimes worried with some of the content. Most of the work is backed up by frequent references, but then occasionally a rather bold statement is made without any reference or evidence. One example includes a discussion on Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests, which he claims  ‘must have been’ regularly burnt at low intensity to reduce undertsorey cover. While I don’t think this out of the question, to my knowledge there is still very little evidence that aboriginal people managed this community with fire. There are also a few inaccurate statements, such as a claim that Kangaroos have vanished from Kangaroo Ground north-east of Melbourne (they were recently being culled due to high population numbers) and another describing how the Otway Ranges have shifted from a mosaic of heathlands, woodlands and forests to climax rainforest. Anyone who has even driven through the Otways knows that climax rainforest is still of restricted occurrence, being largely confined to sheltered gullies.

There is still wide controversy regarding to what extent aboriginal burning shaped Victorian landscapes, with many believing that the ‘fire-stick farming’ concept has been greatly exaggerated

One Australasia-wide study recently released has even claimed that aboriginal burning had a negligible effect on Australia’s landscapes, which is certainly at odds with the findings of many historians. The Biggest Estate on Earth is certainly a hefty body of evidence that should be considered by anyone involved in fire management. Whatever the case, Gammage’s work certainly doesn’t support current Victorian fire management, which is purely focused on ‘putting runs on the board’ — burning as much public land as possible with little regard to the ecological attributes or fire hazard of the site.

Despite some of the draw-backs I would still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in environmental management, particularly fire ecology. It is a remarkable synthesis of ecology and culture, bringing together an enormous range of natural themes into one fascinating book. For me it greatly reinforced the understanding that management of landscapes with fire is a complex art, and that mismanagement can have drastic consequences. I hope that the book will contribute to raising this awareness in our community, where fire management is currently at the whim of politics and poor science.

Gammage concludes the book with some grave but important insights:

‘There is no return to 1788. Non aboriginals are too many, too centralized, too stratified, too comfortable, too conservative, too successful, too ignorant. We are still newcomers, still in wilderness, still exporting goods and importing people and values. We see extinctions, pollution, erosion, salinity, bushfire and exotic pests and diseases, but argue over who should pay... 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.’