Ours is a land shaped by licking flames
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Ours is a land shaped by licking flames

Research on Aboriginal land management is not to be ignored, JOHN BLAY writes

I n fire we find the great Australian paradox. It must be the most terrifying element of our landscape, with its destructive potential the stuff of nightmare. But up close, its intensity, the heat, the smell, the sounds and that roar make a mix that can be little short of intoxicating. Flames have an undeniable beauty and, most importantly, an influence that is everywhere across the nation.

Australia is a fire place, whether we like it or not. The form of the country so appealed to the Europeans that they hastened to proclaim sovereignty and inhabit it. And yet, paradoxically, what they thought was the land's natural state was engineered. The often parklike appearance, the gentleman's estate, was the conscious production of its occupants and owners, the Aboriginal people. So much has been brought home to us in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How the Aborigines Made Australia by historian Bill Gammage, who recently spoke at a public lecture for the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra.

From the Alps to the coastline, through desert and rainforest, the story is apparently the same. Gammage includes a series of photos and colonial art, along with journals from the earliest periods of European exploration, that demonstrate what shaped the flora of the greater continent. There are many messages in the history Gammage weaves about the impact of man-made fire on the countryside. He describes how ''in 1788 Australia had more grass, more open forest, less undergrowth and less rainforests than made sense to Europeans''. Yet he also sees a ''tandem puzzle. Typically, good grass grew on good soil and trees on poor.''

Gammage describes how eucalypts could be converted to grassland by the use of fire and outlines methods for maintaining the grasslands. ''In 1788 people judged that grass needed rich soil more than trees, and moved forest to suit. Being able to do that made almost any plant distribution possible.''

Gammage's book is heady stuff, a remarkable intellectual achievement. The production is handsome. The reviews have been close to rapturous. Praise is one thing, yet since my reading I have looked in vain for serious engagement with his findings. His themes go to the heart of what Australia is all about, but is there a message for the present day? Should we investigate their more local applications?

This summer, fire was a subject that barely troubled anyone's mind. But then what comes next year? An old farmer whose land lay close to forests once told me, ''In the old days if we saw smoke on the horizon, we didn't worry at all. We knew everyone had their little patches burnt all along the way. Nowadays, we start packing.''

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Part of the fire paradox is that the hotter it burns, the more the country scrubs up afterwards; the cooler, the more the land is cleaned up. A cool fire might trickle along hither and yon until it goes out with the coming of nightfall. In one sense a hot fire is a disturbance, and has much the same effect as any other disturbance, like bulldozing, grazing or ceasing to graze the land. It can make the land more fire-prone.

In painting such a big, national, picture, over-generalisation is the danger. When I consider my own regional or district influences, it gets more complex. The closer I look, the more tiles appear to be missing from Gammage's mosaic.

At a regional level, the Monaro includes not only treeless plains but also grassy woodland, forest, and so forth. Of those parts usually known as the Treeless Plains, he writes of ''natural regeneration''. He observes, ''Millennia ago the Monaro was not frosty, and presumably trees protected seedlings then. How did it get clear?'' He attempts to demonstrate that cold is not the reason and that Aboriginal burning is. But why should both not figure in the shaping of such extensive tracts of varying elevations?

He chooses not to hear the words of the local Aboriginal people and to disregard scientists who have studied the area closely. In fact, he is at pains to dismiss parts of the science for confining its researches to a limited study area. This, he says, deprives some scientists ''of sources and context''.

The science of cold-air drainage is also dismissed, so that Gammage can describe the ''frost hollow'' concept as misleading and suggest ''fire hollow'' as a better term. He cites one scientist as observing ''that even if frost did inhibit one tree species, this would merely let others in''. But the statement is far too general. Even though the eucalypt might be a rapidly evolving genus, there are nonetheless niches to which it still has not adapted. Many parts of the high country are too cold for eucalypts. And sometimes even the lower country. Surveyor Ryrie reported from Delegate in 1840 that the ''greatest part of the timber about the plain is dead, which the Blacks ascribe to a heavy fall of snow some years ago''.

As well, he disapproves of some very reasonable statements on the high country by ecologist George Seddon, who said that ''Aborigines rarely burnt this country''. In fact, the alpine tops and the wet ash forests of the shady slopes are seldom capable of being burnt. They simply don't dry out sufficiently. Studies of charcoal at Club Lake suggest fire frequencies at about 100-year intervals. And a knowledgeable Aboriginal man, Rod Mason, has said that burning thereabouts was only to clear travel routes as necessary, ''for spiritual reasons they rarely went to the highest tops.''

In a well-documented journey during 1842 from Twofold Bay to the Monaro with Budginbro showing him the way, Oswald Brierly wrote of fire-blackened landscapes in the mountains and drew grassy scenes along the Towamba River. On route to Maffra station south of Cooma, he drew a scene of granite outcrops of the treeless plains which appears to show small Aboriginal-style fires. This kind of evidence adds up to confirm how widely fire was used, albeit selectively.

But, by taking 1788 as his fixed reference point, Gammage misses the movement of things, the ceaseless slow comings and goings during geological time. At the height of the most recent Ice Age about 14,000 years ago, for example, when much of today's high country was under ice, the Monaro and coastal ranges had a similar climate and vegetation to the parts that lie above the present tree line. The alpine, sub-alpine or cold steppe was so cold as to limit the vegetation types. Most of the land between Kosciuszko and the coastal plains would have been treeless, apart from some of the more-protected refuges.

Meanwhile, scientific research at different ends of the Monaro at Lake George and Bega Swamp show a considerable increase in charcoal some 140,000 years ago. Could this have been when the first Aboriginal people arrived with their concerted fires? Through the analysis of pollen grains in cores taken at each site, it appears that grasses and daisies and some casuarina predominated. Eucalypts didn't start their spread through parts of today's Monaro and south-east forests until more recently in the past 10,000 years. The research suggests that rather than wresting grass from eucalyptus, the grasslands of the Monaro have been there for a long time.

Those golden landscapes were in many ways managed by the Aboriginal people. Their skilful fires helped not only to keep the basalt grasslands treeless, but also encouraged the bountiful wildlife and yamfields. Fire-resistant trees were brought on where needed, mostly on the harder hillsides where there was less competition from grassland species and fewer much-valued yam and seed-bearing plants that made such prime tucker. In granite country, burning patches of grassy woodland produced the patterns suitable for the fire-stick hunting techniques Gammage describes. Tree-growth rings confirm that high-intensity fires only came with any regularity after European settlement.

He urges scientists to study historical sources as they are not inherently wrong. In return, the same might be pressed upon historians with regard to scientific sources. Whatever happened to inter-disciplinary studies?

Gammage has built a thesis that is as solid as a rock, despite - naturally enough - some gaps appearing as you look at finer landscape details and local quibbles. There is something so terribly obvious to his conclusions that I began to wonder why. Perhaps we have been too involved in our own little patches.

And yet the local observations can reveal complexities that underlie the greater landscape. I have long been troubled by the account of Australian fire written by Englishman and natural historian Alfred Howitt in 1851. He had brought his sons - one of them, A. W. Howitt, destined for renown as bushman, natural historian and ethnographer - to Melbourne to visit the goldfields and found the aftermath of the Black Thursday fires, perhaps the worst in recorded history, and set about writing a detailed account.

In those days of limited communications there were few who could give an overview, for the inferno had swept away so many witnesses. Howitt noted how the calamity extended from Portland, through the Dandenong Hills, and into Gippsland, the whole vast expanse scorched in one day. His account flagged factors that can turn a bushfire into a firestorm, the heat and scorching north-westerly wind, and continued:

''Cattle in vast herds were seen careering madly before the fires, which not only leaped from tree to tree like lightning, but travelled at once with its velocity and deadliness. Troops of horses, wild from the bush, with flying tails and manes, and neighing wildly, galloped across the ground with the fury of despair. Flocks of kangaroos, and of smaller animals, leaped desperately along, to escape the horrible conflagration, and hosts of birds swept blindly on, many falling suffocated headlong into the flames …''

His account provided the inspiration for the 1864 painting by William Strutt, Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851.

Then only 15 years after European settlement in the region, the countryside at the time was still subject to Aboriginal burning practices, not to mention those of the settlers. Howitt makes it clear fires were being lit all the time, however they were not enough to prevent the conflagration.

Other accounts describe how the sky turned dark and burning leaves rained down upon the decks of boats in Bass Straight as well as northern Tasmania. Intense flames were seen in near Malacoota that same day and the fires extended into the southern Monaro. Some scars are still apparent, especially in the form of scrublands. Such scale is almost unimaginable today. It dwarfs the awful reality of the 1952 fires in the south-east. It serves as a reminder that despite our best efforts, on certain days the land will be incinerated. The old Aboriginal people knew that and took measures to minimise the consequences.

Although it has been discussed in numerous publications since archaeologist Rhys Jones raised the issue of firestick farming in the 1960s, Gammage, reading of historical sources and the regions he surveys, develops his more sophisticated theme drawing on a canvas of greater breadth. The extent of that ''farming'' or intensive land management across the continent pre-1788 has at last been confirmed by a non-Aboriginal historian. What we thought was natural was man-made.

In the parts of Australia I know best there are countless ways Gammage's history could make a difference. The appearance of the south-eastern forests is now anything but parklike. The small-scale, trickling cool burns are no more. Much of the land, particularly that closer to the coastal settlements, has not been burnt for a very long time. Weeds like pittosporum are rampant and could potentially explode when the big fires eventually do come, as surely they will. Perhaps that open form is unachievable now, certainly in the short term. Hopefully Gammage's book will encourage new ways of seeing the countryside, not to mention respect for old Aboriginal methods of land management and a better acceptance of burning the bush.

By way of footnote, steps are being taken in parts of NSW to reintroduce Aboriginal ways of burning. Across the southern Monaro, in places associated with the Bundian Way, these are being used to encourage the endemic plantlife, such as that found in the most productive of the old yamfields.

John Blay has been working with Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council for many years to document the Bundian Way, a shared history pathway from Targangal (Kosciuszko) to Bilgalera (Fisheries Beach) at Twofold Bay.