The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, xxiii + 434 pp, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011, ISBN 9781742377483 (hbk), $49.99.
Throughout my life as a plant ecologist, I have yearned to ‘see’ the grasslands and grassy woodlands as they were in Australia before 1788. I felt that I might have had the smallest glimpse 34 years ago, as I crouched in a tiny remnant of grassland near a railway siding in Sunshine, Melbourne, one that had been regularly and recently burned. Since then, my imagination has been drip fed by fragmentary historical accounts and years of work in the more intact and extensive woodlands of southern Queensland. Stephen Pyne’s book Burning Bush: a Fire History of Australia (1992) convinced me that Aboriginal burning was frequent and deliberate, for a number of reasons, including the manipulation of vegetation to attract fauna and make them easy to access. The account of people leaving camp for water or wood at dusk, illuminating their way by setting fire to the vegetation struck me deeply – that is a lot of burning.
I have often wondered why Pyne’s book had relatively little impact on the debate around fire regimes and vegetation management, but no such fate awaits Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth. This book sings – it is vivid, richly illustrated and forcefully argued. The annotated pairing of historical and current day landscapes with interpretation is engrossing. Gammage goes on to argue that the park-like vistas described by European newcomers were as man-made as those in their homelands. These were achieved by deliberate, frequent and planned use, and withholding, of fire. While no one can be comprehensively correct in all aspects of a book of this size, the broad evidence and message is clear: Aboriginal land management was active, knowing and wide-ranging. If Gammage’s message achieves a mind shift in the general community it will be a great thing, particularly in southern Australia. Even greater will be our treasuring, adopting and adapting the values and fragments of knowledge that enabled Aboriginal people to maintain the landscapes at a level of functionality we can only aspire to. The tragedy of their dispossession is not only theirs, but ours, seen every day in degraded pastures and despoiled waterways.
In his book, Gammage reveals that he is deeply troubled by the attitude of plant and landscape ecologists, who in his view, apply the standards of science to history, while not necessarily applying them in their own profession. This, according to Gammage, results in ecologists discounting historical evidence and failing to understand the deeper elements of history that take one into the mindset of peoples in the past. Appendix 1 is a frontal attack in anticipation of criticism of the book, and is rather startling. Nonetheless Gammage is quite right – scientists are as prone to subjectivity as anyone else. For instance, ecologists are champions for the protection of species diversity and their ecosystems, and are highly sensitive to the way their messages might be (mis)interpreted when delivered to land managers and policy makers. Statements about 1788 tree densities caused some angst amongst ecologists (eg Benson and Redpath 1997) around the time of the introduction of vegetation protection legislation, with concerns that historically-reported low densities would support a case for ongoing tree clearing. In terms of Gammage’s own writing, the problem for me is not so much subjectivity, but the beguiling language that so lyrically and confidently fills in details of action and intent around the quoted evidence. I love it for its completeness of narrative, and of course he may be right, but I also know the ubiquity of uncertainty in all disciplines.
Gammage does not dwell on the implications of his historical account for current day land management in southern Australia where ongoing Aboriginal connections are fragmented or absent, and there is the massive job of translating all this evidence into the context of a landscape transformed by an industrial society. Straddling the cultural boundary of wilderness concepts and Aboriginal management, most land managers are confused; the threatened ‘woodland’ birds love trees and dense shrubs, but the rising tide of dense regrowth in reserves and post-agricultural land is a far cry from the open grassy places described so rapturously by the explorers and settlers in Gammages’s book. How does one re-establish a fire regime in small heavily treed patches of vegetation? Are native shrubs invading ex-pastures self-limiting or only controlled by fire? Should they be controlled at all?
We most definitely need to understand what the 1788 vegetation was and how it was managed, not because we could ever re-construct it on any but the smallest scales, but because it provides the clues to the persistence of native plants and animals, a context for fire management and a standard of land care that we need to aspire to. The landscape templates deduced from historical accounts are important, and are an unexpectedly positive re-enforcement of landscape design principles that have been developed for agricultural landscapes, with their elements of intensively used open areas necessarily concentrating on the better soils and lower parts of the landscape and stratified areas of decreasingly intensively used vegetation – functionally equivalent to being less burnt (McIntyre et al 2002). Gammage concluded that all the best country was treeless. It still is, but not for the same reasons that it was. We now have additional tools for controlling trees apart from fire – cropping and fertilisers disrupt regeneration and induce poor health, unfertilised land will naturally regenerate trees even under grazing, but herbicides can be used to thin these. Technology is a potentially useful substitute for fire, but we still need to be guided by the requirements of the biota (the ecologists’ task) and those tantalising glimpses of how things once were, to inspire us to greater things. The Biggest Estate on Earth amply provides us with the latter.
Benson, JS and PA Redpath 1997, ‘The nature of pre-European native vegetation in south-eastern Australia: a critique of Ryan, D.G., Ryan, J.R. and Starr, B.J. (1995) The Australian landscape – observations of explorers and early settlers’, Cunninghamia 5: 285–328.
McIntyre, S, JG McIvor and KM Heard (eds) 2002, Managing and Conserving Grassy Woodlands, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
Pyne, SJ 1992, Burning Bush: a Fire History of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences