December 2011 – January 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ by Bill Gammage

By James Boyce

Modern environmental sensibility has not increased the number of Australians who are able to imagine what our dominant homelands – the coastlands of the temperate zone – were like before European settlement. Such has been the transformation of the vast grasslands in particular that little cultural memory remains of the old landscape; many of its diverse plants, animals, flowers and even colours and sounds have been forgotten. This absence has facilitated the persistence of a mythology that first settlers found the continent barren and ugly. In fact, the most common terminology early Britons employed represented the highest praise of an Englishman: the grasslands were park-like. By this was not meant a national park, but a gentleman’s park or estate, in which large trees were carefully situated within pampered grassland, providing sustenance and shelter to an array of grazing animals. 

It is from this once-standard analogy that Bill Gammage obtains the title and theme for his ambitious book. He shows that the comparison made by early settlers was far closer to expressing the full truth than their cultural blinkers would allow them to see. The Aborigines were indeed managing an estate that, despite a focus on local action, covered the continent.

Gammage is determined to open our eyes to the fact that in 1788 there was no wilderness, but a landscape that reflected a sophisticated, successful and sensitive farming regime integrated across the Australian landmass. Fire was not an indiscriminate tool of fuel reduction or grass promotion, but carefully employed to ensure certain plants and animals flourished, to facilitate access and rotation, and to ensure resources were abundant, convenient and predictable.

The thesis is not all new. Since the early nineteenth century pastoralists have often tried to mimic Aboriginal management techniques lest their sheep go hungry, and in the past 40 years the term ‘fire-stick farming’ has almost entered popular culture. The Biggest Estate on Earth is meant to prove how persuasive the visual and documentary record on the impact of Aboriginal land management ultimately is.

This book, though, is much more than a rigorous defence of an established argument, meaning its impact on the debate concerning burning and grazing regimes in bushfire-prone country may prove surprising. The emphasis on how sophisticated, interconnected and even intra-continental Aboriginal land management was seemingly poses a warning to those who would simply replicate traditional practice in any one place. 

Gammage’s point is more fundamental: with European settlement “a majestic achievement ended”, now “we have a continent to learn”. The sublime reality that is documented with comprehensive empirical care is posed as a challenge to us all: a revelation of what will be required if we are to one day “understand our country” and “become Australian”.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

'The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia' By Bill Gammage, Allen and Unwin, 384pp; $49.99
Cover: December 2011 - January 2012
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