Australia: How the Aboriginal people managed 'the biggest estate on Earth'

Review by Coral Wynter

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia
By Bill Gammage

Allen & Unwin, 434 pp., 2012

March 13, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This is an extraordinary book, one that will increase your appreciation of the country’s first people, as we begin to understand their amazing knowledge and sheer genius in the way they cared for the land, or as Bill Gammage calls it the “biggest estate on Earth”.

Gammage describes with many examples how the Aborigines looked after the land. No corner was forgotten, including deserts, rainforests and rocky outcrops, across the entire continent for at least 60,000 years until the colonisers began to destroy all this labour after their arrival in 1788.

The Aborigines judiciously used fire to create parklands, with huge, stately trees and grass underneath on rich black soil to feed, then harvest kangaroos and wallabies, as well as to grow yams and spinach. They used cool fires to preserve and maintain the biodiversity of Australia’s orchids, ferns, fruit trees and edible plants. They used “templates” to judiciously burn areas with plants sensitive to fire.

Australia in 1788 was a paradise, which was much more than just sustainable, but instead yielded an abundance of food, which could feed a huge population, some estimates say as many as 8 million people.

Gammage begins his book with a quote from explorer Thomas Mitchell, in Sydney 1847. “Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests… But for this simple process the Australian woods had probably continued as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America.”

There was definitely no terra nullius and no part of Australia was empty or abandoned. The Aborigines burnt everywhere, even rocky mountains, and desolate areas. If any source of fuel built up, it was burnt. The intensity of the fires was regulated in order to limit fuel and regulate plant growth. They created a sharp boundary between forests and grasslands. They used the smoke from the fires to herd the kangaroos to a suitable place where hunters were waiting for them.

They back-burned around large trees to protect them and create the parklands. Explorer Charles Sturt in 1849 observed:

In many places the trees are so … judiciously distributed as to resemble the parklands attached to a gentleman`s residence in England.

Remarks by many early settlers echoed this point over and over again. The white newcomers thought that the parks were natural. The system of fire-stick burning totally changed the normal vegetation. Burning every two to four years promoted perennial grasslands and supplied ash to fertilise the soil. In forests, only the trunks were burnt and not the canopy, while the fires lasted for no more than a day. The dense roots of grasses trapped any rain that fell, keeping a layer between the dry earth and the salt below, preventing salination.

Some 70% of Australia’s plants need or tolerate fire. Fire allowed the Aborigines to choose which plants to burn, when, how often and how hot. Gammage states that “an uncertain climate and nature’s restless cycles demanded myriad practices, shaped and varied by local conditions. Management was active not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life.”

In the Red Centre, fuel took longer to accumulate and plants longer to recover, so most land was burnt less often.

There were few flies in Australia up to 1788, until the arrival of cattle and sheep. Plagues of mosquitos, insects, mice and locusts were also controlled by fire. No natural regime could sustain such an intricate balance and survival of 25,000 species that were found here. In this way, the Aborigines were able to create and maintain an incredibly complex and beautiful landscape full of animals, birds, fish and a wide variety of flora.

This was all reinforced with ceremonies and rituals, an important part of the practice, before the fires were started. Gammage includes a wonderful chapter explaining “the Dreaming”. Across Australia, and this included Tasmanian Aborigines, the creation story is essentially the same. Writes Gammage:

God made light, brought into being spirits and creator ancestors and set down eternal Law for all creation … time is irrelevant as in a dream. Change and time exist only as cycles: birth and death, the passage of stars and seasons.

The law has to be obeyed by all as set down by the creator ancestors and the law prescribed that people leave the world as they found it. Aboriginal law said that all land had a creative ancestor and the burning must be done with the permission of that ancestor.

Ecological associations spilled over into social relations and determined kinship, marriage and trade. The Aboriginal people’s belief was to leave the land as they had found it; the land must be conserved and protected. Their law determined that they be natural conservationists. Their commitment was so strong that a group of Tasmanian Aborigines, fleeing from the white settlers’ attempt to round them, burned an area even though it would disclose their position.

One of the first Australian anthropologists, Ted Strehlow, described the Aborigines’ connection to their country:

[They see] recorded in the surrounding landscape the ancient story of the lives and the deeds of the immortal beings whom [they] revere. The whole countryside is his living, age-old family tree.

A songline or story line is the path along which a creator ancestor moved to shape the country. Every particle of land, sea and sky lies on a songline, otherwise no ancestor was able to create it and it could not exist. Songlines threaded Australia together, linking people separated by great distances.

Gammage explains the sanctity of totems. For a person who was born under a certain totem, it meant not only that they did not eat that animal or bird but also that he or she had to make sure that that totem increased in number and was protected.

The book also contains illustrations of numerous paintings done by early colonisers and compares them with the same aspect, photographed today, with a completely different appearance, overrun by undergrowth, wild brush, weeds and thick woods. Examples are taken from all over Australia to prove the point that Aborigines managed the land to maintain ecological diversity and maintain an abundance of animals, fish and birds.

The Aboriginal people had many different methods of using fire to achieve particular goals for that area of land. The fire burning was extremely precise. They patch burnt to maintain certain plants and species. In Western Australia, they did not burn some areas, as it took too long to regenerate. Each tribe negotiated with their neighbours as to when and how they should burn.

Most Europeans had never a seen a bushfire until they reached Australia, so their ignorance of how fire was used to shape the landscape is understandable. As the Aborigines were prevented from continuing to carry out controlled fires, the dense wattle and sheoak began to grow back, clogging up the grassy areas. This can be seen clearly in Frederick McCubbin’s painting, “Down on his Luck” in 1895 (above), with a bushie, sitting on the ground and leaning against a fire scarred eucalypt. The background includes a view of the small, regenerating trees.

Gammage explained in a lecture organised by Corroboree in Sydney in November 2013 that in the Northern Territory, some months of the year Aboriginal people were settled and other times they moved to other areas so the land, rivers and seas could recover. However, their movement was very regular for each season of the year. They probably only needed about five hours of work a day to collect sufficient food, which left them plenty of spare time for singing, telling stories and dancing, even during the day.

The Aborigines were never part of the agricultural developments of Western-settled society which evolved into extreme class divisions of a landed gentry and an impoverished peasantry. There was no need to.

There is a discussion on whether or not the Aborigines were actually farmers. They built bark and mud dams to farm fish and eels. They replanted the tops of yams, after eating the roots. They reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, carried fish and crayfish stock across country, which Gammage calls farming without fences. They set aside sanctuaries for nesting birds, water birds and emus.

Another chapter describes what all the Australian cities originally looked like, where streams and middens were located in the city centre and suburbs and areas of special cultivation. This abundance due to their farming methods and the ability to move around made the Aborigines a free people.

So the early colonisers did not have to cut down dense bush and bash their way through impenetrable undergrowth, as the land had already been cleared for them. Australian white society never comprehended how the land was maintained. For these reasons, Gammage argues for an Aboriginal person to be a member of the board of any government group that is deciding policy on land care, fire management, and all aspects relating to the environment. He says that even though a lot of knowledge has been lost, at least, an Aboriginal person would know more than most non-Aboriginals. In addition he/she would be likely to stay on country and be committed to good land management.

The last section called “Invasion” describes the devastation that has resulted from white people’s ignorance and arrogance. The parks have now all gone and the notorious overgrazing of cattle and sheep has produced a waste land. Gammage says, “We see extinctions, pollution, erosion, salinity, bushfire, and exotic pests and diseases but argue over who should pay.”

Since 1788, at least 23 mammal species in Australia have become extinct. If a well thought- out policy of burning the build-up of fuel was maintained, we would be less likely suffer the massive fires that have occurred most summers, all over the country. At Fish River station in the NT, Aborigines have been contracted to carry out controlled burning of the land, as they would have done more than 200 years ago.

The number of examples that Gammage has used to illustrate his points is overkill, and it’s difficult to read all of them. But he obviously wanted to nail every single example he could gather to belabor the point.

Gammage states in the Appendix that he got sick of refuting arguments by academics who refused to believe the 1788 landscape had been made by Aborigines and was not natural. He admits the academic condescension and quibbling forced him into more detail than necessary. The Aborigines must be just sitting and watching and waiting for the white world to wake up to reality. The massive destruction whites have inflicted on the landscape is unforgiveable. Now we have no excuse. Gammage has told us how it was done. Let’s hope it is not too late. As Gammage says, one day we might be able to call ourselves Australian.