Sharee Harper, Victoria Regional Meeting

Some of the most positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have been forged during get-togethers to care for the land – when Traditional  Custodians and local environmental and land-care groups share their knowledge and passion in a combined effort to restore tracts of land and “care for country”.

At first contact the introduction of hoofed animals to south-eastern Australia radically changed the landscape. One could say that the introduction of sheep and other such livestock to Victoria caused something similar to the Irish potato famine for the Aboriginal people. Murnong and other “root vegetables” were a staple part of their diet, and these were soon eaten out by the introduced animals and the soil was compacted so that they could no longer grow.

Furthermore, some traditional knowledge of plants was lost from Aboriginal communities when they were forced onto reserves and unable to access some of the plants used for medicine, food, weaving and tool-making. Some of this knowledge, however, was written down by early explorers, officials and interested individuals and now, through the work of ethnobotanists such as Beth Gott, this historical information is brought together so Aboriginal communities are able to access and reclaim this lost knowledge.

When Beth Gott was asked in an interview what she found particularly satisfying about her job, she replied: being able to return traditional use of plants recorded in scattered old sources to present-day Indigenous communities. Through her pioneering work and through books such as Dark Emu non-Indigenous Australians are slowly coming to understand that the land was not “pristine wilderness” when Europeans first arrived but a landscape that had been carefully managed by Aboriginal People for tens of thousands of years. That indeed the biodiversity of so-called wilderness can only be maintained if these earlier management practices are followed. To this end some ecologists are trying to understand how Aboriginal people’s careful, mosaic use of controlled fires to alter the vegetation created space and the essential conditions for many plants to reproduce and thrive.

Microseris lanceolata – Murnong or yam-daisy. Picture courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Understandably the use of fire can evoke fear in those who are more familiar with wild, uncontrollable, destructive bush fires that have lead to catastrophic events. Yet Aboriginal people, using generations of knowledge of when and how to burn, carefully used controlled, low intensity, burns in mosaic patterns to increase the supply of plants that provided the staple part of their diet – the tuberous roots of lilies, orchids and yam-daisy (murnong). Such burning, referred to by some as fire-stick farming, provided space for these small herbaceous plants to grow, enabled many seeds dependent on fire to germinate and added ash to the soil thus increasing fertility. The subsequent increase in plants also increased the biodiversity of animals in an area.

Beth Gott has spent over three decades researching how  Aboriginal People of South Eastern Australia utilised plants for food, fibre, tool making and medicine which she has recorded in databases. She not only returned knowledge back to Aboriginal communities but spoke with present-day Elders to record knowledge that had been passed down. Thus there has been a respectful exchange of information; with Beth Gott always acknowledging  that it was Aboriginal Intellectual Property.

Beth Gott in the Aboriginal garden at Monash University’s Clayton campus

In searching Beth Gott’s databases I was delighted to see that one of the people who had carefully recorded the early use and care of plants by Aboriginal People was one of the earliest Quakers to visit Australia, the botanist James Backhouse. An Aboriginal Elder of Melbourne had told me she had heard of good relationships between her ancestors and some Quakers around “first contact “. She did not know the Quakers’ names but they must have been Backhouse and Walker.

Now Elders, the keepers of traditional plant and land management knowledge, are starting to enter into Land Use Agreements with various levels of government to once again care for their country. Aboriginal Land Councils have rangers who combine traditional and contemporary land management practices to care for land, and these and local environmental and land care groups are working together to restore and revegetate large tracts of land and to protect and care for State and National Parks.

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