Monday, January 14, 2013

The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Bill Gammage’s deep reading of the historical record left by European newcomers demonstrates that Australia and its original owners in 1788 were not existing in a rude state of nature, dependent on good luck and chance. Rather he shows Australia was a carefully managed estate. The landscape was beautiful, food was abundant, and it was all created by Aboriginal technology: a complex regime of fire management.

This is in many ways a visionary book, in that it imagines a pre-1788 Australia as a highly evolved and sophisticated estate managed by Aborigines. When Europeans first came to Australia, they repeatedly described the landscape as like an English gentleman’s park, or pleasure garden. To their astonishment, they found exquisite grasslands and beautifully set trees, so wide apart that horses could comfortably be ridden through them. There was no scrub or underwood, what Aboriginals would call ‘dirty country’.

We know these attitudes and observations because European newcomers wrote them down. Bill Gammage provides page after page of fascinating testimony to the breath taking beauty of the land, the pristine clearness of the waters, the abundant and varied plant life and the rich assortment of animals that lived off this unique environment. The general tone of these early written accounts by European foreigners was one of deep admiration at the extraordinary beauty of the landscape.

How did the Aborigines of 1788 create such a paradise? Fire is the simple answer. Through controlled and skilful burning, they created a pristine environment. By regular and planned burning they promoted new growth, using fire as a sophisticated technology to landscape the environment. Large grasslands were created, which in turn lured animals to feed, which in turn could be hunted with ease. Staple food plants were also burnt back to promote more vigorous growth. Using this type of environmental management ensured food was never in short supply. The long periods of leisure time guaranteed by the Aboriginal economy could be used for corroborees and religious ceremonies, sometimes going on for days. To the Aborigines, European farming methods seemed foolish and excessively time consuming.

Most Europeans on first coming to Australia thought its landscape a natural endowment, and that the Aborigines simply lived by luck or chance. The more astute European observers knew that Australia’s first peoples created the landscape using a sophisticated fire technology. They knew how to burn, when, where, with what intensity and at what intervals. Aborigines made the country beautiful and its food sources abundant.

In creating this 1788 portrait of Australia Bill Gammage uses the historical record and contemporary paintings. The amount of reading listed in the bibliography is extraordinary. The extensive diary quotes and letter excerpts from frequently astonished European newcomers builds up an evocative image of a fully functioning and sophisticated human made eco system. Food was plentiful, the environment was beautiful, the people were free and in splendid health. Life was by and large good. Contrary to the beliefs of most, including such sophisticated visitors as Charles Darwin, Aborigines were not rude savages living purely on luck. They created a way of living on a dry continent, working it in such a way that it could sustain life with minimum effort.

This is a book that lingers for a long time in the imagination and provides much to think about. It suggests that Europeans seriously shot themselves in the foot by treating the first Australians as savages rather than geniuses.

The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781743311325  RRP: $39.99