Review of ‘The Biggest estate on earth.”
In the “The Biggest estate on earth” Bill Gammage has created an exhaustive thesis that sets out that Australia at the time the first Europeans came was not the wilderness most Australians think it was. Rather, it was a managed landscape attended by an advanced society. The notion is contrary to the popular idea that Aborigines were primitive hunter-gatherers, and it challenges our concept of what might be the natural landscape of Australia.
Gammage’s research is exhaustive, although much of it as presented here is repetitive. For example, this quote from Sydney Parkinson, Banks’ draughtsman : ‘The country looked very pleasant and fertile, and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park,’ is a sentiment repeated from Tasmania to Cape York, from the east to the west coast, time and again, in quotes from explorers, settlers, and convicts.
Early art is further proof, and Gammage debunks the common opinion that the artists of the time painted not what they saw but what the people back home wanted to see — green fields and pleasant views, not dry barren land with a wilderness of tangled shrubs and trees. His contention is that the artist did indeed paint what they saw, a view co-incident with Parkinson’s description in the quote above.
The third part of the argument is in the growth and habit of trees whose shape reflects the type of vegetation they grew up within. Tall thin trees signify crowded forest, and trees grow with a spreading canopy in open country. These three bodies of evidence show that Australia was a managed and modified landscape at the time of European arrival. It is a compelling case and I commend every Australian to read this book. However, I suspect many will give up along the way as it is at times tedious. This is a shame, for reading the entire thing and not just my summary is perhaps the difference between knowing and understanding.
There is a trend to idolize indigenous cultures and first nations as being wise and sustainable. To take only that from this book would be a disservice. Towards the end of the book Gammage says, of the settlement of Adelaide and the clash of cultures there, ‘both of them lost’.
The Aborigines had a complex, successful and ritualized land management imbedded in their culture, a culture successful over tens of thousands of years. They were well fed and had a lot of spare time for dance and ritual. Modern Australia has a complex and frequently failing land management, we are overworked and stressed and don’t do nearly enough dancing. Can we learn something?
Well, yes, but probably not what you think. In his book ‘The Blind watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins explains how complex systems can evolve without the existence of God or some intelligent master craftsman — all it takes is a ruthless assessment of what works and what does not, and lots of time. In relation to species Darwin called it survival of the fittest and he recognized that nature was ruthless and had a lot of time. If things don’t work, the individual/species/culture dies out unless it can change.
And so, with 50,000 years of practice and a small population the Aborigines managed the entire landscape of Australia, a sort of nomadic farming that provided plenty. Their tool was fire. What they created varied over the expanse of the continent, but for example long cleared green pastures of succulent new growth, sloping down to a shelter of forest where hunters could hide. After a hunt they would move on to another similar area, thus giving the animals on that pasture time to settle.
This semi nomadic lifestyle- more correctly referred to as ‘planned seasonal migration’ — was necessarily devoid of permanent settlement structures, and this gave rise to the idea that the people were primitive and there was no land tenure, and it was all the justification Cook needed to stand on a headland, plant a flag, and declare for King and country. And yet, even Cook recognized that vast areas of what he saw was not natural : it was ‘like an English gentleman’s park’.
The term mosaic burning has been used for some time. In this book the complexity of it is revealed. It was a ritualized and religious duty of people. Each location was the responsibility of those who lived there and the duty was to maintain the land as it was found. Land was allocated equally as much as it is now, but without a public records office and with no fences. It was a remarkable achievement, but it was not the result of elders sitting down, making a plan and then allocating tasks. Darwin would say it evolved. Those that did things that didn’t work starved, and those who survived would be copied by their neighbors until the entire continent was part of a vast fire managed mosaic.
We owe first nations a lot. After all, we stole their land. But then, as now, life on this planet evolves ruthlessly and we need to always be mindful of what is working and not to mistake what might have worked in the past as wisdom. It is pretty clear a lot of what we are now doing does not work and it may be that we are running out of time, so this makes rigorous and honest assessment even more critical. And we have the tools — pen, paper, computer, simulation — to ensure that mistakes do not have to be as fatal as before.
For all that we can look back and learn it would be a mistake to be looking through rose coloured glasses. Maybe, food was plentiful and it was an egalitarian world. But was life easy? Was it a paradise? In any case, we can’t go back.
Acknowledging that one culture was superior to another does not insist that one people were superior to another. In ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ Jared Diamond answers the question of why we (white Europeans) invented ships and guns and antibiotics, while the indigenous cultures we subverted did not. And in ‘Collapse’ he examines those cultures who have failed without being invaded. (You can read my review here on Medium or at http://www.martinchambers.id.au/blog/book-review-collapse) In ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ we have proof that the culture we overran was far more advanced and sophisticated than at first thought, and that the ‘natural’ landscape of Australia was nothing of the sort.
But for all of us a future where we do not join those in ‘Collapse’ will be when we can take both cultures and merge the best of them together as equals. And that will require change from all of us.