Dermot Daley reviews a valuable historical account that explores successful farming by Indigenous Australians over millennia and discusses the practice of using fire to manage Country.
IT HAS BEEN an ongoing tragedy for Aborigines in Australia that James Cook's passenger on his epic voyage of discovery was a botanist rather than an anthropologist.
The world's oldest continuous civilisation was invisible to the Europeans because they did not display the same customs and mores as the visitors. Ever since, the colonies and subsequently the nation have prospered under the entrenched racism that shamefully relegates Aborigines to the lowest social strata below, even, each successive wave of economic immigration.
Emeritus Professor Bill Gammage published The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia in 2011, and Aboriginal Australian writer Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu in 2014. Combined, these works made a compelling argument that the Aboriginal people of Australia had established an integrated relationship with Country over tens of thousands of years, utilising an accumulated knowledge of plant forms, animal behaviour, seasonal patterns and geography.
With First Knowledges, a series of compact volumes edited by Professor Margo Neale, Gammage and Pascoe have combined to present volume three, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming. Country is not the real estate coveted by English and later immigrant cultures; it is the physical manifestation of Songlines, the Dreamtime and law/lore. It is the underpinning of Aboriginal relationships. When a Blackfella meets another Blackfella, the first question is usually: "Where are you from?"
Pascoe offers an erudite and laconic synopsis of what we have done wrong and how we could do better. My only objection is in his introduction, where he describes his hip replacement as being like a degenerate disc pad on an EH Holden. (Car lovers would know the EH had drum brakes, so he might have said "brake-shoe" to describe the scooped body part.)
Pascoe writes from his knowledge of Indigenous edible plants and his respect for the intelligence of his Aboriginal forebears in husbanding seeds and crops to ensure food supplies. He argues with passionate logic that Aborigines farmed the land and met the parameters of "hunter-gatherer" to oblige the tunnel vision of European visitors. He maintains that Aborigines still hold the intellectual property rights to the many hybrids of crop seeds and must be deemed ongoing stakeholders in the way they are farmed on the dry old soils of Australia.
Underpinning Pascoe's description of 100,000-or-so years of successful farming by Aborigines are Gammage's studied essays on the practice of using fire to manage Country.
Gammage elaborates on ambiguities in several issues that he feels were potentially misunderstood in the Biggest Estate. He stresses the importance of management by fire and "not-fire" – with adjustments for seasons, latitude and vegetation types – as a constant practice by Aborigines right across the unfenced continent.
He discusses the practice of cool burns predicated by dew point; of maintaining feed for native animals and of the acquired knowledge to protect all species at different growing cycles.
Gammage also notes that fire management by Aborigines rarely allowed a fire to reach the canopies of trees. Thus, fire consumed mainly grasses and smaller shrubs and saplings.
Unstated, is that these controlled cool-burn fires did not release tonnes of carbon such as occurred in the disastrous bushfires of Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday and the recent Black Summer — which begs the question of how Australia would address the problem if global CO2 emissions were deemed to include wildfire.
Pascoe is a natural storyteller, whereas Gammage takes a more scientific approach and his language is so precise that the reader needs to tread slowly to capture the full measure of his observations. One can imagine that both of these authors would be very comfortable with a yarn around a campfire, contributing in their areas of expertise with a fluidity that is not immediate in the written word.
However, the written word makes a lasting record. This book is a valuable historical account of willing co-operation between Aborigines across the vast wilderness of pre-1788 Australia to manage the country, the lived environment, in a way that has been resolutely ignored by western values until recently — at a time when climate change and the ferocity of uncontrollable wildfires are forcing us to review our thinking.
One might readily surmise that non-Aboriginal Australians can help improve outcomes (education, health and technology) for Aborigines in the 21st Century. But, clearly, Aborigines can show non-Aboriginal Australians how to successfully and sustainably live on Country in Australia.
Country: Future Fire, Future Farming and the First Knowledges series offers a bridge, or more probably, a lifeline.
'Country: Future Fire, Future Farming' is available from Amazon for $18.94 (paperback) RRP.
This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.
Dermot Daley is a fourth-generation Australian living in Victoria, who is now retired from construction project management.
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