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In The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2011), historian Bill Gammage describes a detailed vision of Aboriginal land management prior to European colonisation of Australia. While many Australians have a broad sense that “fire-stick farming” was (and is) a tool used by Aboriginal people, The Biggest Estate on Earth begins to fathom how finely tuned Aboriginal fire use was. With fire as one of a suite of tools, Aboriginal people across the Australian continent carved the landscape into a mosaic of ecosystems, each harbouring plants and animals of differing sensitivity to fire, each maintained to maximise ecological diversity and each nested within the other to increase the ease of hunting or harvesting. For Gammage, Aboriginal land management across the continent was directed by three main principles: “ensure that all life flourishes; make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable”; and to “think universal, act local”.

The Biggest Estate on Earth is exhaustively researched, and Gammage’s analysis of colonial artworks, accounts and early photographs of the landscape is inspired in its interpretations of a landscape meticulously managed. One of the strengths of the book is Gammage’s own skill in reading landscapes, to assess from the shape and species of trees the recent history of a place.

Throughout the book there is an awareness of the prejudice that has ensured Aboriginal land management has remained largely invisible since European colonisation. Early colonial accounts invariably described the landscape as “park-like”, comparing them to the cultivated gardens of the gentry back in their homelands, but rarely did they see human hands in their cultivation. Rather, to European observers these antipodean parks were somehow a state of nature. As Gammage implies, ironically, indigenous land management practices left Aboriginal people with a lifestyle that was perhaps closer to that of the European gentry than European farmers. With abundance the norm, it is thought that Aboriginal people typically had substantially more leisure time than their European farming counterparts, time that was often invested in the rich spiritual and ceremonial life that formed that basis for their land care practices.

Imagining a pre-colonial Fleurieu
Drawing from John Michael Skipper’s 1838 painting Onkaparinga, depicting a view looking westwards towards present-day Port Noarlunga South, Gammage reflects on what the Fleurieu landscape may have looked like under Aboriginal management. Onkaparinga depicts a largely open plain with scattered clumps of mallee and sheoak, a landscape that Gammage asserts would require fire about every three years to cultivate grassland for game. However, the open country is bordered by denser forest behind the coastal dunes, necessitating separate fire regimes. A similar landscape is depicted in William Light’s View at Yankalilla (1836), and echoed again in George French Angas’ view of the Entrance to the Gorge at Yankalilla (1846). (Our property is only a few kilometres beyond the gorge Angas depicts). Importantly, notes Gammage, these images depict “country always more open than is natural”. If left unburnt, such open landscapes would rapidly recolonise with fast growing pioneers such as acacias.

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Eucalypts tend to grow broad and spread their branches in open country, and grow straight and branch high on wooded land.

While my powers of observation are some way off those demonstrated by Gammage, I’ve been inspired to explore the landscape surrounding the farm drawing from clues suggested by his work. The low, spreading shape of the two old red gums in the centre of our block suggest that they have always grown in open woodland, such as that suggested in the early colonial accounts. An 1838 sketch by William Light of Second Valley shows a creek (presumably the Parananacooka River) winding through an open plain, lined by wooded hills. Based on The Biggest Estate on Earth, the open country around a watercourse may suggest a burning regime to cultivate grass and suppress seedlings. I’m reminded of another image that Gammage analyses, Eugene von Guerard’s The Sources of the River Wannon (1858). Here Gammage notes a land management template that associates water, grasslands and forest, creating a patchwork of habitats and providing open country for kangaroo grazing and subsequent hunting.

While taken 70 years after colonisation, I wonder how much of this 1906 photograph of yaccas in flower at Second Valley reflects the pre-colonial template. Yaccas flower profusely following fire, and the blackened eucalypt trunks and their epicormic shoots also suggest semi-recent fire. While there’s one substantial tree to the right of the image, most of the others look like they have grown more recently, perhaps in the cessation of Aboriginal burning practices. It’s interesting to note that there appears to be large open grassland, interspersed with fingers of forest on the valley floor. It’s impossible to know whether this has been due to colonial land-clearing or whether it’s a remnant of pre-colonial practices, echoing a template that Gammage describes often.

In detailing what are the only land management practices proven to be sustainable in Australia over millennia, this book raises some profound questions for contemporary land management. How could we utilise differing fire regimes to regenerate landscapes such as ours? Could a fire-generated landscape mosaic be reconciled with the current fire-sensitive rural landscape? What would that even look like? Does fire have a place in landscape management, or is the current mode of agriculture too far removed?

Gammage highlights that while pre-1788 Australia is gone, there remains a deep need to develop an understanding of the unique qualities and limitations of the Australian landscape. He pays tribute to mavericks and pioneers such as Natural Sequence Farming advocate Peter Andrews, demonstrating a subtext to his book, of the need to learn the land so that “one day we might become Australian”. By providing an exploration of how Aboriginal people shaped the landscape to maximise diversity and cultivate abundance in every corner of the continent, The Biggest Estate on Earth is essential reading for all permaculturalists, farmers and others who seek to cultivate sustainable relationships with the land.

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