AT SOME point in the next few days posting will come to a temporary halt. It is summer, the fish are biting and the Professor is getting all hobbity about hitting the road and heading into the bush, which has not been this verdant in an age. Best to visit now, before the weather heats up and all the rain-fostered grass and undergrowth dries out and burns, which sooner or later it will. If the rain eases and temperatures rise, Victorians could be living atop a bonfire by the end of February. All it will take is a spark and we will see a replay of Black Saturday, which was itself a reprise of Ash Wednesday, Black Friday and the score of other major eruptions of wildfire that have riven this state since Aborigines, their knowledge and their firesticks vanished from the scene.
Amongst people who spend a bit of time in the trees, the burning issue – and that is not a pun – has long been a topic of campfire conversation. The one sensible thing Tim Flannery has ever written dealt with fire and the Australian landscape, his argument being that Aborigines transformed the country via a generational policy of setting things alight. Being Flannery, however, he still managed to come at it from the wrong perspective, as many readers of his Future Eaters will have noted. Forever the green romantic, he regards the changes wrought by both black hands and white ones as being to the detriment of the landscape. It is as if, in Flanneryworld, there was once a stable and ideal, human-free state of nature and it has been all downhill since our pesky species arrived.
Until now, Flannery’s acknowledgement of fire’s importance has been the handiest argument for those who, like the Professor, see current standards of bush stewardship as a disgrace. If you are unsure just how bad it is, wait until you are almost brought to grief by a 400-pound deer running in front of your vehicle late one night on the Bogong High Plains. The bush is overrun with feral species and noxious imports, from cats to deer to dogs and pigs, not to mention invasive weeds like chinese honeysuckle, blackberries and cape broom. As late as the 1960s, you might have seen the odd native cat in and around Suggan Buggan. Not these days. Foxes and cats have put pay to the lot.
Koalas? We are told their populations are in trouble, but where is it ever stated that they prefer open forests, the sort the First Fleet’s diarists noted as characterising Sydney Cove’s original landscape? In today’s bush, cluttered as it is with tangled, unburned ground cover, the poor little buggers need machetes to reach their next meal – and because the very nature of the bush has changed, those food sources are increasingly scarce. When you see a roadside sign saying “Koalas next 5km”, know that they are braving the bitumen because they cannot find dinner on their side. Know also that if cars don’t get them, dogs just might. Officialdom’s answer to all this has been to install long-drop dunnies in approved camping grounds, whack up signs exhorting visitors to love nature and restrict access to everywhere else. It is as if they do not want people to see just how bad they have allowed things to become.
The good news is that Flannery’s qualified authority need no longer be the touchstone for any conversations about fire. Now, thanks to the historian Bill Gammage, there is a marvellous new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, which all bush buffs should read. Do so, and the cant and academic theorising that passes for wisdom about the care of the bush will seem as empty as the skulls of the ivory tower careerists who promote it. Their influence has been disastrous, and documented as such. After the High Country fires of six-or-so years ago, Victoria’s then-Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin commissioned a voluminous report that examined, amongst other things, if Aboriginal fire models needed to be re-introduced. It concluded that blackfella knowledge was gone forever and that any further discussion would be pointless. Better to leave the academics in charge, and as they generally dislike the very idea of any but the most limited burning, one consequence, to put it bluntly, was the loss of almost 200 lives and immeasurable environmental damage of Black Saturday.
Gammage’s book, which the Rufous Bird slipped into the Professor’s Christmas stocking, has the potential to remedy this sad state of affairs, but only if its wisdom is heeded. His approach was both simple and remarkably obvious: First, he assembled examples of Australia’s landscape as rendered by the first white eyes to see it. The images are of open country dotted with trees, sometimes in lines, and often in mixtures of fire-loving, fire-tolerant and fire-averse plants that could not have occurred naturally. Then he found the spots where the artists set up their easels and surveyed what greets the eye today. Without exception indigenous burning’s cessation has crusted those vistas with a thick, pubic fuzz of incendiary foliage. When it burns, it does so with such an intense heat that all but the most fire-loving species are eliminated, meaning more dry sclerophyll rubbish carpeting places like Gippsland, where red gums once were found in profusion. As Gammage notes, indigenous fire – although not the random blazes of white settlers bent on promoting only pasture – controlled the caterpillars that stripped the red gums’ leaves and killed them off. The next time you happen to drive the Princes Highway near Sale, observe the grey, lopped trunks of red gums dead beside the road and know that it was mismanaged fire regimes which reduced them to that sad state.
Important to note is the gulf that separates Gammage from Flannery, who regards all human influence and intervention as a problem. Gammage, noting that Aborigines shaped Australia, argues that human involvement is essential.
As readers may have gathered, there is little sympathy and less concern at the Billabong for upcoming generations, which deserve all the problems us oldsters bequeath as recompense for the expense, bawling and anxious nights they inflicted as infants, children and teenagers. But denying them the bush, a healthy and ecologically coherent bush, is too much of a punishment.
Gammage has offered part of the solution to restore that legacy. His book needs to be bought and read – and the policymakers it implicitly indicts must be held to account.
A NOTE: In addition to restoring fire’s proper place in eco management, one of the best things the soon-to-be Abbott government might institute would be a national body that formulates and implements a rational war on invasive species. Consider just brumbies, for example. In NSW, where they do immense damage to the Snowies, they are shot. A few miles to the south, where Victoria’s laws hold sway, they are trapped and put up for adoption. Intelligent beasts though they are, horses pay no heed to the cartographer’s line separating the states, meaning that any reduction in numbers in NSW is compensated by fresh arrivals from the south. A coherent federal policy would open the way to eliminating this absurdity. Moreover, the practical considerations demanded by such an exercise would oblige that policy to be removed from the realm of theory and that voices such as Gammage’s be heard.
At the moment they do not get a look-in. And neither, sadly, does the bush.
The first step would be to banish the starry-eyed otherworldiness which talks raptuously of "wildnerness". With the possible exception of a tiny pocket in southern Tasmania, there is not a part of Australia that has not been touched and transformed by man. This needs to be acknowledged and pragmatic policies embraced. Man has been an agent of change for perhaps 60,000 years. The dominant green piffle, that lock-up-the-bush sentimentality which moistens Fairfax environment writers' bicycles seats, is every bit as dangerous and damaging as a mad ring-barker's axe.