The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal people made Australia
Allen & Unwin, 2012
This is an extraordinary book that details how Australian Aboriginal people cared for the land, or as Bill Gammage calls it the “Biggest Estate on Earth”.
Gammage describes, with many examples, how Aboriginal people looked after the land. No corner was ignored, from deserts and rainforests to rocky outcrops, across the entire continent for at least 60,000 years until British colonisers began to destroy all this work after their arrival in 1788.
Far from terra nullius, no part of Australia was empty or abandoned.
The Aboriginal people judiciously used fire to create park lands. They grew grass underneath the huge trees on rich black soil to harvest kangaroos and wallabies as well as 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 much more than just sustainable, it yielded an abundance of food. It could feed a large population ― some estimates say as many as 8 million people.
Gammage starts 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.”
The intensity of the fires was regulated in order to limit fuel and regulate plant growth. Aboriginal people created a sharp boundary between forests and grasslands.
Early explorer Charles Sturt noted in 1849: “In many places the trees are so … judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman's residence in England.”
The white colonisers thought the parks were natural. But the deliberate use of fire totally changed the natural vegetation. Burning every two-to-four years promoted perennial grasslands and supplied ash to fertilise the soil.
About 70% of Australia's plants need or tolerate fire. Aboriginal people chose which plants to burn, when, how often and with how much heat. Gammage says that “an uncertain climate and nature's restless cycles demanded myriad practices, shaped and varied by local conditions”.
Gammage points out there were few flies in Australia until 1788, with the arrival of cattle and sheep. Numbers of mosquitos, insects, mice and locusts were also controlled by fire.
Conscious management maintained an intricate balance allowing an complex landscape with tens of thousands of species of animals, birds, fish and flora.
This was reinforced with ceremonies and rituals, an important part of the practice. Gammage includes a wonderful chapter explaining the significance of “The Dreaming” in Aboriginal culture.
Among Aboriginal peoples right across Australia, including Tasmanian Aboriginals, 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, as set down by the Creator Ancestors, has to be obeyed by all. This law prescribes that people leave the world as they found it.
Under this law, ecological associations spilled over into social relations and determined kinship, marriage and trade. As they had to leave the land as they had found it, the land must be conserved and protected.
An early anthropologist, Ted Strehlow, described this connection to country: “[An Aboriginal person] sees recorded in the surrounding landscape the ancient story of the lives and the deeds of the immortal beings whom he reveres. The whole countryside is his living, age-old family tree.”
A “songline” is the path along which a creator ancestor moved to shape the country. Every particle of land, sea and sky lies on a songline.
Songlines threaded Australia together, linking people separated by great distances. Gammage explains the sanctity of totems. A person who was born under a certain totem was obliged to protect that animal or bird.
The book contains illustrations of numerous paintings done by early colonisers and compares them with the modern photographs of the same area. It shows a completely different appearance, now often overrun by undergrowth, wild brush, weeds and thick woods.
The different burning methods used were extremely precise. They patch burned to maintain certain plants and species. In Western Australia, some areas were not burned, as it took too long to regenerate. Each tribe negotiated with their neighbours as to when and how to burn.
Most Europeans had never a seen a bushfire until they reached Australia. Their ignorance of how fire was used to shape the landscape was understandable.
Further, as Aboriginal people were prevented from carrying out controlled fires, the dense wattle and sheoak began to grow back, clogging up the grassy areas.
Gammage explained in a lecture in November last year that the Aboriginal people could have created an agriculture similar to that of the Torres Strait islanders. But having examined that process, they decided it was more work than fire stick farming.
They had plenty of land to carry out this method of creating a surplus and they were mobile. Gammage explained that Aboriginal people 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.
The Aboriginal people never developed the sort of agricultural systems as occurred elsewhere ― leading to extreme class divisions of a landed gentry and an impoverished peasantry ― because there was no need to.
However, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether or not Aboriginal people were actually farmers, as they built bark and mud dams to farm fish and eels and increase the number of species. They replanted the tops of yams, after eating the roots.
They also reared dingos, possums, emus and cassowaries, and carried fish and crayfish stock across country, which Gammage calls farming without fences. They set aside sanctuaries for nesting birds, water birds and emus.
Early colonisers did not have to cut down dense bush and bash their way through impenetrable undergrowth. The land had already been cleared for them.
Australian white society never comprehended how the land was maintained. For these reasons, Gammage calls 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.
Gammage says that even though a lot of knowledge has been lost, any Aborigine would still know more than any non-Aboriginal person about land management.
The last section, called “Invasion”, describes the devastation that has resulted from Eoeopeans' ignorant arrogance. The parks maintained for thousands of years have now all gone. 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 ...” Since 1788, at least 27 mammal species in Australia have become extinct.
A well thought-out policy of burning the build-up of fuel could help us avoid many of the huge fires that take place each summer across the country. At the Fish River station in the NT, Aboriginal people have been contracted to carry out controlled burning of the land, as they would have done more than 200 years ago.
Gammage uses a very large number of examples to illustrate his points ― to the point of overkill. It is difficult to read all of them. But he obviously wanted to nail every single example.
Gammage says in the appendix that he got sick of refuting arguments by academics who refused to believe that 1788 landscape had been made by Aboriginal people and was not natural. He admits the academic condescension and quibbling forced him into more detail than might otherwise have been needed.