Australia: The Gentlemen’s Park

biggest estate on earthDon’t we love it when someone comes along with new information and changes the way we feel about our relationship to the world around us? Looking at things in new ways can be challenging but very rewarding. This article is about a humungous gentleman’s park.

Over 200 years ago the invading British saw the Australian indigenous population as mere primitive savages. I would say that a lot of Australians still see the Aboriginals of that time as a bunch of nomads who wandered about destroying the land with fire and who invented little more than some variations on a stick. Ignorance knows no bounds.

I have learnt a great deal about the forest living on our property in Australia but, as I have a deep love for “Country”, I have often asked the question – what did Australia really look like 200 years ago? The prevailing “wisdom” was (and somewhat still is) that white man came and cleared the forest for settlement with the large tracts left standing today being “natural”. These tracts of bush are more indicative of how much of Australia would have looked pre white settlement – at least those areas where a forest or woodland ecosystem would flourish if left untouched.

Only relatively recently has this idea has been turned on its head. Aborigines certainly altered Australia for their own ends – called fire stick farming. But the question is to what extent? Bill Gammage in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia gives a remarkable account of how  Aborigines developed an extraordinary complex system of land management using fire and the life cycles of nature to manipulate and oversee a landscape resembling a giant park.

For decades after white settlement (invasion if you like), time and time again the treed landscape was described as a “gentlemen’s park” which a person could easily ride a horse through (it’s important to note that the notion of a park in England was a cleared landscape with scattered trees – it was a gentlemen’s private property not a national park). The conclusion being that rather than the nomadic aboriginal population seemingly randomly burning areas and moving on, they actually used highly sophisticated methods to manage the landscape to ensure an abundance of plants and animals, planning many years into the future. Even”farming” large areas of edible plants such as yams and millet. They were lean, very strong and athletic, having a natural upright grace with a lifestyle of ample time for rest and ceremonial activities.

The book is very detailed looking mostly at historical records such as the writings of the settlers and drawings and paintings to support an argument. It’s all very convincing. So now when I look out across the forest from our property I see the landscape differently. Just as beautiful but understanding that “natural” is not necessarily what it seems.

In the book there are also two excellent chapters on Aboriginal culture. “Heaven on Earth” and “Country” which include the Aboriginal Dreamtime and Songlines. I was deeply moved and thoroughly inspired reading this very important book. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand Australia better.

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