What’s right with Bill Gammage’s book

WALFA Jawoyn rangers carrying out controlled fire burning.
Sunday, March 15, 2015

I take issue with Ben Courtice’s and Emma Murphy’s criticism of my review of Bill Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia in the January 28 Green Left Weekly.

I have two major arguments with their criticism. First, Gammage has made a major contribution to our understanding of how Aboriginal Australians cared for the land for more than 60,000 years right across the continent.

Obviously their complex methods of land care evolved over that period, but he points out it was done with intelligence, flexibility and in a systematic scientific fashion, with careful consideration of all environmental factors and a store of knowledge handed down over thousands of years. It was carried out with extreme diligence, with the twin aims of ensuring the greatest abundance of food, while also of maintaining the greatest diversity of fish, plants and animals.

Further information on this topic is contained in the book Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, which was published in 2014.

Pascoe has a Bunurong/Tasmanian heritage. He writes that palaeontologists Gurdip Singh and Peter Kershaw have evidence that supports the fact that Aboriginal people were using fire as a tool more than 120,000 years ago, even though most archaeologists believe human occupation occurred no earlier than 60,000 years ago. There is a long history of fire being used to gradually change vegetation zones, and to an increased reliance on grains and tubers instead of megafauna.

The Biggest Estate on Earth has enlightened many white Australians, who may not have had prior knowledge of the extensive care and thought that Aboriginal people put into their custodianship of the Australian continent.

The book was widely reviewed on radio and in the mass media. As Adrian Hyland wrote in a review in the Age, “the aim of Gammage’s book was to literally change the way we look at the Australian landscape — not just in the present, but how we imagine it before European settlement. In the popular imagination, European arrival reshaped a previously virgin bush, which the indigenous inhabitants had treated with a kind of benign reverence …

“What the first European settlers found on their arrival was nothing like the dense bushland that we imagine … and suggests that we should learn a new way of land management from the original inhabitants.”

Gammage’s book refutes the popular image of Aboriginal people, who are still widely stereotyped as careless, ignorant nomads, disorganised, primitive itinerants, immersed in spiritualism, without method or expertise, who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, dependent on luck to survive.

In fact, the opposite is true. Aboriginal people carried out irrigated yam farming, now almost entirely lost, built extensive fish traps and lived in stone buildings. It was a very clever way of existing in a natural environment. Anything that undermines white society’s predominant preconceptions of pre-colonial Aboriginal life has to be applauded.

There is enormous amount of evidence that Aboriginal people burnt the country. At a lecture given by Bill Gammage in 2013 at the Australian Museum in Sydney in honour of Corroboree Week, he clearly stated that, according to his information, Aboriginal people did not burn all the landscape, and many areas in the desert were never burnt.

Courtice and Murphy give the impression that Gammage indicates every area was burnt every 1 to 5 years. Aboriginal people did not burn areas with low soil fertility. They were left to generate forests. But they did burn areas with high soil fertility in order to grow many different crops. The ash from the fires gave further fertility to the soil and allowed many plant seeds to regenerate on exposure to heat. The native grasses that grew back also encouraged large herds of kangaroos to congregate.

Courtice and Murphy quote a recent study from the University of Queensland, which reviewed 4500 observations at different locations of colonial expeditions carried out by white men between 1844 and 1919. They concluded that burning was infrequent and restricted to small areas around creeks, grasslands and spinifex dominated vegetation. The weakness of this study is that by 1840, 50 years after white settlement, Aboriginal people had already been pushed into camps around the townships. As Pascoe states “within a few years of the Aborigines being prevented from operating their traditional fire regimes, the countryside was overwhelmed by understory species”.

Courtice and Murphy criticise Gammage’s work because he didn’t consult Aboriginal people when writing the book. However, Gammage is a historian at Australian National University, not a botanist nor an anthropologist. He used his specific historical knowledge of art and drawings to lay out his argument on the state of the Australian landscape before 1788.

He was heavily criticised by contemporary environmentalists and botanists, who still dispute the view that Aboriginal people created such beautiful, grassy parklands, with a few shade trees. They ridicule his theory that Aboriginal people took so much care of the country. For this reason, Gammage had to fill his book with hundreds of examples of colonial art to prove his point.

Another book needs to be written by Aboriginal people or those who have Aboriginal sources and the inclination to explain exactly how Aboriginal people managed the landscape. There is a dearth of knowledge because most of this has been lost in the generations since colonisation.

Courtice and Murphy, themselves, only quote one Aboriginal reference in defence of their argument — a project by the Ngadju people of WA’s Great Western Woodlands. The other references refer to academic studies by white sources.

The Great Western Woodlands covers 16 million hectares and stretches from the wheat belt, some 350 kilometres west of Perth, to Kalgoorlie in the north, to inland deserts to the north east and the Nullarbor Plain to the east. There is no permanent water in this area, very low, variable rainfall and any rain that does fall flows into salt lakes where it evaporates.

Further, 60% of this Great Western Woodlands is covered by operating mines. So a region full of mines and deserts is why the Ngadju found that “only specific relatively small parts of Ngadju landscapes were actively burnt”. This doesn’t at all conflict with Gammage’s theory of burning specific areas at particular times, adjusted for the season and the status and type of vegetation.

Second, the argument is not really about the value of Gammage’s book in relation to how much burning took place of the Australian landscape. It is about how we are to tackle the problem of massive bushfires in the era of unprecedented climate change, with Australia suffering hotter temperatures and worse and worse fires with even greater loss of life and property. How much back-burning should be carried out to control the undergrowth?

It is not the fault of Gammage that right-wing organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs and Jennifer Marohasy from the Australian Environment Foundation have used the book to push for large areas of our native forest to be burnt, as Courtice and Murphy have argued.

Nor should the book be used to contend that there never was any virgin bush in Australia and therefore it does not have to be preserved. These anti-environment groups will use any argument to remove land management legislation.

It is clear that Aboriginal people set limited but small fires very soon after the wet season or heavy rain and before the vegetation grew thick, to prevent the risk of massive fires.

Gammage argues that every committee or government body throughout the whole country that deals with fire risks should automatically have an Aboriginal representative to put forward their knowledge of how the Aboriginal community used fire in that particular region to control the risk.

It is unfair to blame Gammage when reactionaries use it to justify all sorts of ecologically dubious practices. His whole book is an argument for respect for Aboriginal knowledge and to use this knowledge to deal with the problems that have evolved after 227 years of disastrous land management.

In the 2013 lecture, Gammage mentioned the case of the Jawoyn Association who manage the land by burning through the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA), undertaking their own programs.

The approach is to use traditional knowledge to burn on the ground, as well as aerial burning, as the wet season subsides and vegetation begins to dry. WALFA traditional owners, the NT Bushfires Council and neighbouring land managers meet each year before the burning season to develop a strategic, controlled burning plan for 2,800,000 hectares of Western Arnhem Land. They are planning to extend this to the Nitmiluk National park, and Kakadu adding another 2 million hectares to the program.

There should be further examples like this, funded by the government and corporations, to help control the coming fire disasters when climate change really gets going.

Gammage has done a very useful service to Aboriginal people, environmentalists, academics and the bushfire services in alerting us to ancient practices that conserved the country over thousands of years.

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This youtube video is worth watching. The speaker is a linguist from southwest Victoria who has a detailed knowledge of the culture of his people. He's not a fan of Gammage's theory.