Australia’s Original Landscape Gardeners
By Ellen Fanning, Mike Bowers, Daniel KirkwoodSeptember 7, 2012
Historian Bill Gammage argues that, long before whites colonised it, the country’s original inhabitants tamed the land by creating neat hunting grasslands fringed by bush through complex, planned land management — and he’s got the original paintings that prove it.
This story is going to come as something of a shock to supporters of The Wilderness Society. Australia’s leading environmental activist group campaigns to "protect, promote and restore wilderness in Australia".
But a new book by one of Australia’s leading historians, a book which has this year won the Prime Minister’s literary award for Australian history, declares there was no wilderness in 1788.
Where Did All Those Trees Come From?
When European settlers arrived, argues author Bill Gammage, the indigenous people had for thousands of years used sophisticated local fire management to turn many areas in Australia into what these European migrants described over and over again as being very like an English gentleman’s park. Not national parks, mind you. By parks, they meant the carefully tended acres of the landed gentry’s country estates back home.
In other words, nothing at all like the expanses of dense bushland in much of Australia today.
Captain James Cook, travelling through the Whitsundays in far north Queensland in 1770, reported seeing "land on both the Main and the Islands … diversified with woods and lawns that looked green and pleasant".
Thousands of kilometres further south in Tasmania, this early settler found "the beautiful and rich valley of Jericho … more like a gentleman’s park in England laid out with taste, than land in its natural state".
A famous Queensland explorer found the south of that state to be "parklike and most inviting".
Almost simultaneously, way over in Western Australia, another settler exploring east of Perth wrote "the trees [do] not exceed more than eight trees to an acre and [are] laid out by nature in the most park-like scenery".
Right around the country, Europeans noted that eucalypt forests, rainforests and other dense bushland would abruptly open out to tame grasslands, with just individual or small groups of trees studding the landscape, at what they imagined were natural intervals.
Their paintings record what they saw. And together with their observations in diaries and journals, these images seem totally at odds with the wilderness areas of modern Australia.
Unlike generations of Australian historians, art historians and ecologists, Gammage, an adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, did not simply dismiss the Australia of the colonial record as some nostalgic, romanticised European view of a foreign landscape.
A Park Estate Right Around the Country
Painters, he argues, were the photographers of their day. Their purpose was to produce an accurate record of a strange, new world.
Over 12 years of work, 69-year-old Bill Gammage concluded that since 1788, the Australian landscape has radically changed.
He makes a compelling argument for that view in his epic work, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, which just this week earned him yet another trophy, the history book prize at the Queensland Literary Awards.
The landscape in those colonial artworks, he writes, was not natural but man-made by indigenous Australians who knew which plants to burn, how hot to make their fires, when to light them — in the dry of summer or the cool, moist winters — and how to keep them under control. They also knew which areas not to burn. Their aim, he says, was to produce the distinctive templates of heavily treed areas neighbouring grasslands, ideal for attracting and ambushing game, like kangaroos.
In areas where indigenous people were dispossessed by European settlers and could no longer tend their land, the trees grew back. And an Australian wilderness began to be brought forth, just a few hundred years ago.
Learning the Land. Becoming Australian.
It has always been acknowledged that indigenous people used the fire stick. But Gammage reveals the science and sophistication of their fire management and the scale of their enterprise: a local land management system consistent across the continent, common to a multi-cultural, multi-lingual people in vastly different parts of the country. Such land management was a requirement of universal Aboriginal law. Failing to create a landscape to sustain all plants and animals would have put their souls at risk, he writes.
"Aboriginal people had a totem system," says Gammage. Each person was aligned with a plant or animal — their totem — so that "somebody was responsible for every blade of grass, every bird, every reptile, every animal in the whole of Australia," he explains.
"And that being so, you can't have an area where nobody's responsible, where it’s left alone. Of course there were wild areas where Aboriginal people might not have been for a long time but [these areas] were always in their heads. They were always thinking about that country.
"So wilderness is something that Europeans made. There is no such thing in Aboriginal Australia," he says.
Indigenous Australians then were not the simple hunter-gatherers the settlers took them to be. It’s something modern Australia still struggles to fully comprehend, he says.
"[Their] management made resources as predictable as farming … mere sustainability was not enough. Abundance was normal. It made life comfortable," Gammage writes in the book.
"Like landowning gentry, people generally had plenty to eat, few hours of work a day and much time for religion and recreation. A few Europeans recognised this, but for most it was beyond imagining. They thought the landscape natural and they preferred it so."
This revelation, backed by years of patient fieldwork and untroubled by any ideological position in Australia’s bitter "history wars", explodes once and for all one of the key untruths in the myth of terra nullius: that indigenous people did not really own the land because they did nothing to alter it and make it truly their own.
It’s a notion summed up by the Sydney Herald in 1838:
"Their ownership, their right was nothing more than that of the Emu or Kangaroo. They bestowed no labour upon the land and that — and only that — it is which gives a right of property to it."
Such ignorance blinded Australians to the true nature of the land they occupied.
Arguably though, nothing but ignorance could be countenanced. They simply could not acknowledge that indigenous people used precise, controlled fires to sculpt landscapes, let alone learn the science of such nuanced land management. To do so would have meant recognising that indigenous people were the custodians of the country, upsetting the basis of all land title in Australia. That didn’t happen until the modern High Court’s Mabo decision.
In the intervening centuries, Australians have diagnosed land degradation caused by overstocking, land clearing, salination, invasive plants and feral animals and pests but have struggled to reverse it. We rely instead on the general principals of environmental management while academic ecologists play catch-up, having largely lost the opportunity to be tutored in the solutions developed over thousands of years, which would match precisely the conditions on this unique continent.
It could have been so different.
Gammage scours the colonial records to discover that some European observers did glimpse that the indigenous people were expert land managers.
He quotes John Lort Stokes, a long-time officer on board HMS Beagle, which ferried Charles Darwin on his voyages of discovery. The vessel was also commissioned to survey Australasian waters and so Stokes was able to observe Indigenous men at work, writing in November 1840:
"[We] met a party of natives engaged in burning the bush, which they do in sections every year. The dexterity with which they manage so proverbially a dangerous agent as fire is indeed astonishing … kindling, moderating and directing the destructive element, which under their care seems almost to change its nature, acquiring, as it were, complete docility, instead of the ungovernable fury we are accustomed to ascribe to it."
Later, settlers tried to imitate Aboriginal fires. One observer, Lew Scott, is quoted as recalling that in the 1920s "the real oldies followed the burning patterns of the natives in keeping the place green … learnt to burn little patches that they wanted for their existence the same as the blackfellow."
One of those "oldies" could well have been another squatter Edward Curr. A currency lad, born in Hobart in 1820, who bucked the European convention that insisted aborigines were wandering nomads who didn’t tend country, writing "it may be perhaps doubted whether any section of the human race has exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia."
But Gammage says the pastoralists simply didn’t have the skill to maintain the lush meadows the early explorers found.
"They knew it was done with fire. They could see how it suited their stock in particular. I mean, it's no accident that sheep is the first major land-based export that we have.
"[But] they don't know about the variety of Aboriginal fires. And then pretty soon they can't do it because they build fences. They build haystacks. They build houses. And once you [have] those you can't burn with the same freedom as without them."
To illustrate how Indigenous people "made Australia", Gammage — a keen bushwalker — travelled the country with colour photocopies of colonial art. He found the precise spot where each artist had set up an easel and then compared the landscape depicted on canvas to what he saw around him.
So often what was grassy and park-like in 1788 had become densely wooded. Why, he asked, did tall trees grow today where none existed in 1788?
And what would it have taken to produce the grasslands they faithfully recorded, in soil which a few kilometres away supported dense forests? The only possible answer, in ecological terms, is that there must have been repeated, controlled fires over hundreds of years to eliminate the growth of seedlings from beneath the ground and from charred trunks so common after today’s bushfires, he says.
That logic produces one of the more astounding quotes in the book.
"Clear of settlement," he writes, meaning cities and town, "there may be more trees today than in 1788."
As a young man, Gammage worked during university holidays as a wheat lumper, hauling bags of grains onto waiting trucks. It was a job that gave him a chance to "look about the place," he says. It’s made him something of a bush whisperer, and his book provides a guide for how to "read" a eucalypt tree to discover what the landscape was like prior to 1788.
Take the presence of single large eucalypts, some of them hundreds of years old, which grow well away from neighbouring forests in parts of Australia. Such trees are depicted over and over again in colonial artworks. They still survive. Gammage offers the example of a 210-year-old Tasmanian swamp gum, called a mountain ash on the mainland.
If allowed to flourish naturally, writes Gammage, "such a species usually grows in dense thousands".
Eucalypts, however, betray their heritage with their shape.
These distinctive Australian trees chase light. When they grow in forests, the saplings shoot up tall and straight. In shaded areas he writes, "They bend and branch to the light."
The Swamp Gum with its majestic layers of branches expanding out at right angles from the trunk, all the way to the crown, therefore grew out in the open. Never in its two centuries of life, did it have to alter its expansive shape — compete with its neighbours in a forest — to chase the sun.
"Only centuries of controlled fire could burn back adjacent rainforest without ever touching this fire sensitive tree," he writes. "It tells of [indigenous] Tasmanian management."
Gammage "reads" landscapes in modern photos or colonial paintings in much the same way, absorbing what the shapes and density of trees tell us about what has gone before.
His masterwork cannot be read as an argument against conservation but rather a plea for a more nuanced understanding of how to manage this country. It’s a warning that by seeing fire predominantly as a tool for hazard reduction, we expose ourselves to unnatural killer bushfires. And by favouring trees and forests in our popular imagining of what’s worth conserving, we are destroying many of the habitats, which would sustain so much of our endangered wildlife.
"In places we like to call wilderness, we like trees to grow. In the centre of our heads is trees. We think of them as good," he says, "In the centre of Aboriginal heads is grass.
"Locking up country and letting trees recapture it disadvantages grass in those places. When we allow trees to grow, we are really disadvantaging the species that would prefer grass. That's pretty obvious," he explains.
"At the same time, the 1788 grasslands, the Aboriginal grasslands are the very places that we put our farms and our stock and pastures," he says.
"So grassland [areas are being] squeezed [out] where we abandon it to trees and by where we make farms and cities.
Click on the three paintings in the story to watch Bill Gammage talk about the the often thrilling historical detective work behind his landmark work, illustrated by some of the nation’s most significant artworks from early colonial times made available by our leading galleries and libraries for use in this story.
Gammage’s hope is that his work might finally allow us to "see" Australia as it was in 1788, free of our European perceptions of wilderness. And that in this way, we might become more fully Australian.