By Bill GammageNon-fiction Allen & Unwin
The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia
The Biggest Estate on Earth aims to literally change the way we look at the Australian landscape – not just in the present, but how we imagine it before European settlement. In the popular imagination, European arrival reshaped a previously virgin bush, which the indigenous inhabitants had treated with a kind of benign reverence.
But Bill Gammage shows, in this revelatory history, that the Aboriginal people had in fact managed and shaped the land to a significant degree, in a systematic and scientific fashion. What the first European settlers found on their arrival was nothing like the dense bushland that we imagine.
The word most often used by the first European arrivals to describe Australia’s landscape was ‘parks’, which implied more than they realised: a system of land management. Fire, Gammage says, was their main ecological tool; the Aboriginal people had ‘an intense knowledge of how to use it’ and created a mosaic of grasslands, with deliberate forested areas, that supported a range of flora and fauna.
Illustrated with full-colour reproductions of early paintings that clearly show a very different landscape, The Biggest Estate on Earth makes a convincing argument – and suggests that we should learn a new way of land management from the original inhabitants.
Reviewing the book in the Age, Adrian Hyland called it ‘history of the most readable kind: a fascinating amalgam of scientific enigma, bush lore and anecdote’.
This beautifully produced book provides a new perspective on land management prior to the European presence. It begins with the observations of early Europeans that the landscape they encountered, with its extensive grasslands and abundant wildlife, brought to mind a country estate. Using a rich array of written and visual records across the length and breadth of Australia and making extensive use of natural history as well as his own rural sensibility, Gammage reconstructs the Aboriginal peoples’ elaborate practices of land management. If his conclusions will be debated, they speak directly to contemporary concerns with land and land care.
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Bill Gammage’s historical tome The Biggest Estate on Earth, coming in at 400-plus pages and containing over 1500 bibiliographic references and 30 pages of endnotes, is pretty bloody hefty, both in size and subject matter. Yet for all its heaviness, it’s a work with a single, simple message – one that is conveyed over and over and over and over again. It’s a veritable broken record of a book, to be honest. Luckily – actually, ‘luckily’ is absolutely the wrong term to use here, for Gammage’s publication history as well as his activity as a historian and professor give at least some indication of the depth and breadth of knowledge he has of his field – it happens to be a beautiful record, not unlike Scottish conceptual artist Katie Paterson’s recent ice records, which are made from frozen glacier meltwater and pressed with a recording of the sound of the same glacier’s groaning movements. Like Paterson’s glacial LPs, which become more interesting and beautiful as the stylus draws a deepening groove in the ice, Gammage’s book is a record that gets better through repetition, rather than the opposite.
The central premise of The Biggest Estate on Earth is that pre-1788 indigenous Australians (Gammage refers to them as ‘people’; Europeans are referred throughout as ‘newcomers’) were mindful and meticulous caretakers of the territory they inhabited, one that we now know as Australia. These people, Gammage insists (and he does insist, but with commendable and tiptoeing care) who are so often pigeonholed as careless nomads – as disorganised, unorganised, primitive itinerants without method or expertise – in matter of fact practiced systems of land management that rivalled not only their whitefella contemporaries from across the oceans, but when studied today actually measure up as much more in-line with the current understandings of the ways human beings can sustainably exist in a natural environment.
The landscape of Australia today, Gammage argues – and argues, and argues some more (increasingly convincingly) – vastly differs from the stable conditions the continent knew for the thousands of human-populated years before European settlement. And not only is it now vastly different, but it’s vastly deficient too. Our flora and fauna has suffered because of white newcomers imposing continental land-management strategies on an environment that requires a unique brand of handling. Newcomers didn’t have (and still don’t) a full grasp of the importance of thorough, widespread burning.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to repetition in art; many famous artists and critics have weighed in over the years. One side says that repetition by an artist is a sure indicator of the search for beauty, for perfection, and is the only true way to snatch at the heart of life. Others bemoan the allegedly boring monotony of such an approach. The Biggest Estate on Earth, although not created nor positioned as a piece of art, but as an informational tool and lengthy treatise, is a piece of magic literature. Gammage’s hammering home of his point, whether it’s done through extensive quoting of explorers’ diary entries or the comparison of paintings made 200 years ago with photographs of the same sites today, very quickly takes on a rhythmic quality, as well as a kind of textual aesthetic beauty. The chapter titled ‘Heaven on Earth’, replete with connections between Dreaming and Songlines and totems and ecology, is a triumph on its own. Let me be clear: the reiteration of message combined with the spectacle of concept association acts to expand this book, so that not only is it a rigorously assembled reference tool and pedagogical monograph, it is also a thing of art.
Although this might be running the risk of rhapsodising, mention must be made of the various exquisiteness of language that bounces off just about every page. Some of it could be called accidental poetry, mostly found in lists of native flora or in the style and vocabulary of written journals two centuries old or more. But much of it can be put down purely to the mastery Gammage has with words. He is an exceptional writer. Passages of his down-the-barrel non-fiction is on par with the writings of luminaries like Tim Flannery, Stephen Pyne and Eric Rolls. And then more than occasionally he drops in a line that is poetry; the word associations and subtle assonance bestow the subject matter with a grace not usually found within academic non-fiction. Phrases such as ‘sawtooth tongues of forest mimic the mountain rims’, ‘drooping Sheoak needs at least seven fire-free years to seed’ or ‘fire is drought with legs’ had me underlining and underlining again.
Germaine Greer declared in her 2003 Quarterly Essay titled Whitefella Jump Up that ‘[t]he way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves, I suggest – guilty inheritors of a land usurped by our deluded, desperate forefathers – is the simple admission that ours is an Aboriginal country. All of it. Every single bit.’ The Biggest Estate on Earth not only asks of us this simple admission – it goes steps further, behooving the reader to apply the supplied wealth of knowledge to real world practice. And yet it’s always difficult for a book like The Biggest Estate on Earth, for the reason that it purports to tell the truth, finally and valiantly, while at the very same time looking to reveal and put paid to a long history of lies and mistakes. Still, the feeling the reader receives from this book as it unravels is that Gammage is standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before – or possibly even standing on eucalypt stilts of his own making, on top of said shoulders.
Some will say that the gist of this book could’ve been conveyed in an essay, or even a well-structured paragraph. These will be people who haven’t read the book, who haven’t sat with it and had one of those reading experiences whereby all control is given over to the voice rustling up from the page. The Biggest Estate on Earth is one of the most careful and caring books of recent memory, and its beguiling and spirited message is wholly necessary.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist