Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

If we want to contain the fires of the future, we should look to the past

For thousands of years, the indigenous method of fire management ruled. But white settlement almost extinguished the practice, it is back with a new intensity.

 

 

I don’t know about you, but I am so, so tired. Not of the bushfires per se, but of the morons trying to profit from them. The politicians, but also the billionaires giving while forcing their ridiculous opinions on us.

I’ve said this before: the world has turned away from facts, science, and knowledge and towards feeling and bullshit, and even while people’s lives are burning to a crisp, we don’t seem to be able to turn back from that dead-end-street. I am a nobody, of course, but I will keep doing my darndest to counter misinformation and downright lies as long as I am able. In the case of the bushfires, that leads me back to where it all began: the arrival of Europeans in Australia in 1788.

When James Cook sailed past the east coast in 1770, he described that to his surprise there seemed to be ‘no underwood’ beneath the trees, who themselves resembled a ‘plantation’ in the way they were spaced out. There were lovely hills full of waving grass and all in all, the land looked like ‘a gentleman’s park’; green and pleasant. After Cook, generations of white observers, men like Eyre and Sturt and Mitchell, wrote about Australia in the same way.

Even Hunter, Macquarie and Oxley kept coming back to that same word: ‘park’. Of course, in the English understanding, ‘park’ meant something that had been painstakingly put together for rich people. There were no public parks yet in the late 1700, early 1800s, so the only people to know about parks were those who could afford to pay hundreds of gardeners to design and maintain them. And that confused the white visitors to Australia, because all they could see here were black people, people they considered wandering savages, dumb primitive barbarians who obviously needed our tutelage to even exist.

But now it seemed that these beasts had made parks. ‘It might seem a small jump to think this land man-made as in Europe. In fact, the leap was so vast that almost no-one made it. It required them to see Aborigines as gentry, not shiftless wanderers. That seemed preposterous’.

 

Within a decade of ‘Aboriginal people being prevented from operating their traditional fire regimes, the countryside was overwhelmed by understorey species. The land was no longer clean and well grassed and what had been productive agricultural land had become scrub’. And out-of-control bushfires became the order of the day.

 

The last sentences are a quote from a book everybody should read now, at least if you are interested in solving the problem of the bushfires. Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on earth came out nine years ago, and was echoed and added to in 2014 by Bruce Pascoe’s famous Dark emu.

Both writers based themselves on early white sources to conclude that Australia was not and never had been a ‘wilderness’ full of naked ruffians standing on one leg. On the contrary, before 1788 this land was carefully managed with, amongst other things, firestick farming. The Aboriginal land management was collective and based on the Law, ‘an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction’. It compelled people to care for all of the worlds they inhabited and ‘leave it as they found it’. It was an active, not a passive way to run the country, the whole 7.7 million square kilometres of it, and more to the point: it worked.

According to Pascoe and the best Australian and international scientists around, before Europeans arrived ‘wildfires were unknown’. A mosaic pattern of low-level burns was the method to prevent them. As a by-product, the soils were more fertile, there were more varied types of food (plant and animal) and there was more biodiversity.

Within a decade of ‘Aboriginal people being prevented from operating their traditional fire regimes, the countryside was overwhelmed by understorey species. The land was no longer clean and well grassed and what had been productive agricultural land had become scrub’. And out-of-control bushfires became the order of the day.

As surveyor John Lort Stokes wrote in the late 1830s: ‘these swarthy beings are able to be engaged in 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’.

Nevertheless, white people did nothing to learn, still believing that they were superior beings, destined by God to rule over the ‘swarthies’. ‘Colonial settlers ignored the Aboriginal method and contemporary Australians still suffer from the result’, as Bruce Pascoe rightfully concludes.

 

Before 1788 this land was carefully managed with, amongst other things, firestick farming. The Aboriginal land management was collective and based on the Law, ‘an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction’. It compelled people to care for all of the world they inhabited and ‘leave it as they found it’.

 

According to Dark Emu, there were five principles on which the Aboriginal approach was based: ‘One, the majority of the agricultural lands were fired on a rotating mosaic, which controlled intensity, and allowed plants and animals to survive in refuges. Two, the time of the year when fires were lit depended on the type of country to be burnt and the condition of the bush at the time. Three, the prevailing weather was crucial to the timing of the burn. Four, neighbouring clans were advised of all fire activity. Five, the growing season of particular plants was avoided at all cost’. As Gammage said: cultural burning was planned, precise, fine-grained, with local means, but to universal ends.

Aboriginal people, all tribes, in all languages, felt responsible for ‘the biggest estate on earth’. Burning was serious business, done by elders who knew what they were doing, with strict protocols. It required ‘an intimate knowledge of physical and spiritual nature of each portion of the land’. Leichhardt called it ‘systematic management’ and seemed to see it for what it was, but most others only saw what they wanted to see.

So, since 1788 we have been overgrazing and controlled Aboriginal burning has stopped. As a consequence, Gammage writes, ‘today’s bushfires devastate and decimate species which flourished during millennia of Aboriginal burning’. Since 1940, he says, almost a third of the world’s mammal extinctions have been in Australia’ and now we are dealing with the worst fire-season we have ever seen.

So, are we finally listening? Well, sort-of. For a number of years, the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation has been organising workshops for people who want to learn how to burn the right way for the right result: ‘healthy communities, healthy landscapes’.

Before this bushfire season, only a handful of fire authorities, rangers, land councils, farmers and property owners were listening. Recently, the demand for teaching has gone through the roof. Which is great, Oliver Costello told the ABC, because ‘normal hazard reduction burns are often blunt instruments’, only, or mostly, ‘based on fuel reduction’ and ‘often inappropriate for the area’.

A cultural burn, he explained, is not hot, but cold, and closely controlled in the way Pascoe described above. Costello’s aims are broader than just cultural burning, though. He wants to ‘restore the kinship to the land’ and ‘make our sick country healthy again’, which sounds just what we need to me. Craig Lapsley, the former Emergency Management Commissioner for Victoria, agrees. He has called on the Federal Government to fund and implement a national Indigenous burning program, and do it now. ‘It doesn’t need pilots. It needs funding, action and implementation’.

Will we be able to, though? Will we be able to get off our dumb, white horse and accept that the ‘swarthies’ know better? Or will we be back where we are now, covered in ash and soot and fire, again next year?

 

For this story I have used the following sources:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-09/indigenous-cultural-fire-burning-method-has-benefits-experts-say/11853096

Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on earth, Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 2019

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, Broome, Magabala Books, 2019 (2014)

https://www.firesticks.org.au/

 

 

 

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