Sue Doessel, Queensland Regional Meeting.   

Bill Gammage is an unusual creature in this age of specialisation. He’s a historian who understands trees. In this book  he     reconstructs Aboriginal land management through a detailed study of both the historical record, and current vegetation patterns, interpreted through a knowledge of plants and particularly their sensitivity to, or need for, fire.

The historical record on which Gammage draws includes both written descriptions of many landscapes as first seen by Europeans, and the records left by the official artists. Again and again the written descriptions refer to, and the paintings depict, “park-like surroundings with extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife” that evoked a country estate in England.

These early park-like paintings have often been dismissed as a superimposition of European expectations on a foreign landscape, but Gammage counters that the official artists were the photographers of their day, paid to be accurate, and that their depiction of Australia is consistent with numerous written accounts.

He supports this by explaining how Aborigines combined a detailed understanding of the life cycles of plants with the most skilled use of fire known anywhere in the world, to create the park-like land the early Europeans found. And he describes, with numerous photographs, how to understand (via the trees) the changes that have occurred since, such as grassland that became scrub in twenty years in Western NSW, dense forest near Canberra where once a horse could gallop, and clearings in rainforest from Tasmania to Cape York now reverting to trees.

Gammage argues that the Aborigines created not only a pleasant, park-like land, but an environment where food was reliable, plentiful, predictable, and easily harvested. This was done by choosing a feature like water, hill or rock, and laying out a “template” on or beside it, in which different plant communities alternated in ways that either made plants easily gathered, or animals easily hunted. For example, yam beds screened by thickets to protect them from fire, or grass “fingers” running into forest so as to provide cover for hunters when kangaroos were lured by the new shoots after this grass “finger”, (but not those adjoining) had recently been burned. The major tool in creating these templates was fire. Not the large, hot bushfires we know now.

The fires the Aborigines typically used were small, perhaps targeting only one tree, cool, and frequent. The templates prepared the land for day-to-day working, and were maintained for decades, or centuries. Put together, many templates make up a mosaic. Gammage argues that collectively the Aborigines “managed an Australian estate they thought of as single and universal” and that this was experienced as a spiritual obligation so strong that, for instance, during the attempted capture of the Tasmanian Aborigines, people continued lighting fires even when the smoke would give away their position.

The book describes how grass templates were “farms without fences”. Gammage quotes accounts of people scattering seeds and moving on, knowing that when they return at the appropriate time there will be a harvest. Far from being randomly wandering hunter-gatherers living on the edge of survival, Aborigines are revealed as intensively and intelligently managing land. “People farmed in 1788, but were not farmers. These are not the same. One is an activity, the other a lifestyle.”

This detailed book includes accounts of the templates the first Europeans found in all the sites that are now capital cities, and many, many other areas. Australia will never look the same after reading it. Nor will our history.

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