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Review – The Biggest Estate on Earth

James Beattie

James Beattie

November 2, 2012

Book Review – The Biggest Estate on Earth – how Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage – I promise it will forever change the way you look at every piece of Australian bushland you encounter for the rest of your days.

Being raised and educated in Australia I had always been led to believe that the Australian bush was a harsh mistress. I was taught that any description of the Australian landscape by early European settlers that didn’t describe the land as brown or arid was an embellishment, made only to dupe British settlers into moving down under in order to populate the fledgling colony. We were led to believe that early European settlers were confronted by a land where climatic extremes of temperature and rain – ‘droughts and flooding rains’ – were overcome by intrepid colonists who made the land productive and inhabitable. According to Bill Gammage’s latest book, The Biggest Estate On Earth, nothing could be further from the truth. The land was already productive and under cultivation by its original inhabitants, and had been for tens of thousands of years.

The Biggest Estate on Earth is a book, which, in many ways, turns the history books I read as a child on their head and drop-kicks them out the nearest window. And, it would seem, rightly so.

Aborigines managed their land and knew every square kilometre of it intimately.  Their main management tool of choice was fire. Fire has been a mainstay of Australian ecology for tens of thousands of years, and I had always been under the impression that much of our unique flora evolved in the presence of natural, uncontrolled fire. Hence the high proportion of species in Australia that have not only evolved to endure fire but have become wholly dependent on it to complete their lifecycle. Bar some tropical and temperate rainforest ecosystems, there isn’t one ecotype in Australia that is devoid of at least some fire-adapted plants. The conclusion that Gammage’s book reaches is that this is so due to well thought out, planned and systematic burning of vegetation for thousands of years. Fire as a tool of cultivation for aboriginal people isn’t a new concept, but the scale upon which Gammage points out such burning took place is a new and exciting interpretation of the evidence. And the evidence he presents is compelling.

The book relies on many primary accounts of the Australian landscape at the time of European settlement and beyond. Gammage has spent decades researching the topic. The book is a treatise on the early Australian bushland that settlers encountered and how – and why – it has changed since. First accounts of this strange, new antipodean landscape are surprising; not least of all for the unique flora and even stranger fauna the first ship loads of settlers encountered. The phrase “gentlemen’s park” pops up in many sources, a term usually used to describe the large estates and pleasure gardens of Britain’s elite of the time.  But this was a term being applied to the Australian landscape in c.1788, not one in Britain. Large tracts of space that were sparsely treed with herb-rich grassland understorey – completely devoid of middle storey – abounded.

Exactly how did the Australian landscape first settlers encountered come to be so open, so park-like and so seemingly amenable to be used for grazing? And why does much of the land first described and painted by early colonists differ so much in its appearance today? Gammage uses many sources to support his conclusion that fire was much more frequent in the past as it is now. Firsthand accounts of aborigines using fire to hunt game such as wallaby are common, and most Australians would be aware of this very effective method of hunting used by our indigenous counterparts. Some sources Gammage presents show that fire was used as much as a management tool as a hunting tool.

In one colonist’s diary, aborigines are described observing the first lots of ruminant animals being grazed around a New South Wales Settlement. In order to encourage the newcomers to graze animals on particular parts of land, one aboriginal man burnt a large patch of grassland a year before he suggested it as a place for running sheep. The resulting vegetation response was one of lush, green regrowth, transforming a somewhat browning patch of grassland into a green oasis. Evidence such as this points towards aborigines having an intimate knowledge of their surrounding environment, and how to get exactly what they wanted out of it with the greatest of ease. Being an art lover, perhaps my favourite aspect of the Gammage’s book is his approach to detailing the changes that took place in the Australian landscape once Europeans took over its management.

Glenara by Eugene von Guerard

Early paintings of the Australian bush stand in contrast to similar paintings and photos made as little as 100 years later. One famous landscape painter, Eugene von Guerard, completed several dozen paintings of the Australian landscape around 1850-80. One of Guerard’s most famous paintings of the homestead Glenara, now near Sunbury in Victoria, is more a triumph of detail than it is of composition. This painstaking attention to detail was a prevalent style of the time, when scientific inquiry and taxonomic description was going through a huge renaissance. Guerard has no reason to embellish the landscape he painted – he was foremost a documenter who prided himself on his accurate reproductions from life. Many of Guerard’s landscapes show sparsely treed expanses with much grass cover in between – pictures that bear a stark difference to the same areas when photographed today (as they are in the book).

Comparisons such as these are made throughout the book and are wonderfully illustrative of Gammage’s conclusions.

Gammage concludes, of course, that the landscape changed when Europeans took over because the scale of burning diminished rapidly, leading to a change in the vegetation in a relatively short space of time. Later landscape painters such as Streeton and McCubbin painted landscapes that were vastly different to the ones Guerard painted It was perhaps because of these later paintings that the myth emerged that early accounts of the Australian bush were somehow inaccurate or embellished. The vegetation had changed dramatically due to equally dramatic shift in the management regime.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a love of the Australian bushland, or any Australian gardener in general. I promise it will forever change the way you look at every piece of Australian bushland you encounter for the rest of your days. The shift in my thinking it has precipitated is something of a revolution, and an exciting one at that. As the by-line of the book suggests aborigines really did make the Australian bush, sculpting it over millennia into what was a productive and dynamic landscape – far from the harsh mistress I once thought it was.

Until next time, happy gardening.

The Biggest Estate on Earth – How aborigines made Australia, by Bill Gammage and published by Allen & Unwin, retails for $49.95 from leading booksellers. Bill Gammage recently won the Victorian Prize for Literature for this book, after taking out the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian Literature earlier this year.

You can also watch this fascinating interview with Bill Gammage from Ellen Fanning of The Global Mail

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Julie Thomson
10 years ago

What a wonderful book it sounds, James. It is no surprise the aborigines knew so much about the environment and practised agriculture that was productive and dynamic, when you understand how connected they are to the land. I must get this book. Love it when ideas are shaken and turned on their head.
Thank you for the post.

anne latreille
anne latreille
10 years ago

Catching up on this late, James. Great review and now I know what to request for Christmas from the person in my life who usually does the present-buying on 24 December. I’ll just have to issue directions to a bookshop to keep a copy of Bill Gammage’s book. I have done a bit of reading about aboriginal use of the land. I like this quote from a rainforest guy (Mossman, Queensland): “To understand the forest is to understand the way everything in it works together. The sun, the earth, the water, the plants, the animals, all make the rainforest alive”. I also remember reading a quote about aboriginals being very careful re time of year when burning off to regenerate the grass and control the trees. And (I think I remember it right?) when there are hills, to light the fire at the top of the hill so it can be kept under control it as it goes down, it’s much less easy to control when it is burning more quickly uphill.

10 years ago

Just had to share my excitement with this book albeit at this late stage.

It is an extraordinary book and the ramifications of it are immense. It is a must read for those entrusted with the control and stewardship of our (un)natural parks and resources. We are surrounded by a white fella compacted landscape and we have not learnt how to best manage it. We live in an idiot version as witnessed by our devasting fire storms.

I have heard that some enlightened souls in our government agencies have made the book a must read for those entrusted with environmental management. Here’s hoping they have the strength to act upon it.