Bill Gamage – the Biggest Estate on Earth

the-biggest-estate-on-earthThe Nature of Australian Wilderness

We tend to cherish our natural areas and believe that the more natural they appear the better; indeed we work hard to return landscapes to their “natural” state. Further, we can particularly value the most natural spaces in our environment as primeval, pristine wildernesses to be untouched, unsullied by human hand.

Yet Bill Gamage’s work (The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia, 2011) leads to a different conclusion about the nature of the Australian landscape and wilderness: that dense bush wilderness is a modern creation no more than 200 years old.

His understanding is that aborigines managed and indeed domesticated our landscape on a grand scale thinning the bush and reducing the danger of wildfire. Their landscape was open woodland not unlike an English park thus maximising their chances of survival. When the aborigines were forced to withdraw from the land the thick bushland vegetation moved in changing open landscapes that had existed for thousands of years.

Perhaps the natural bush of our dreams is our own creation. We therefore need to think carefully about the nature of the bushland we are protecting – is it no less a creation of European settlement than the urban environment we often decry?

Review by Julian Sheen, November 2013

2 comments to Bill Gamage – the Biggest Estate on Earth

  • matt allison

    I am totally unqualified to comment but there is no doubt that Aborigines used fire as a tool for more optimum hunting grounds but they would have favoured certain areas over others where topography dictated easier movement. The total population of Aborigines spread over all the land would surely have meant only a small proportion of vegetation would have been torched at one time leaving surrounding areas of dense bush available to the more vulnerable creatures who relied upon such sanctuary. Similarly today small vulnerable creatures rely on dense bushland to survive in a sea of paddocks and concrete.

  • Col Gibson

    Gammage conveniently dismisses all other impacts that might have contributed to shaping the ecology of the continent, such as wildfire, soil type, climate variations and millions of years of marsupial grazing (mammal grazing, it is said, shaped the prarie grasslands of North America, so why not here?) You’d think that these might have played a part, but no, according to Gammage. He says aboriginal burning even created the Monaro downs, but presents no evidence to support it. Anyone who knows the scrubby sandstone bushland of Sydney margins and Blue Mountains will find very little mention of it in Gammage, and where he does refer to the historical record in these areas to support his case, he pften gets it wrong. Check out Andy Macqueen’s critique of this here http://www.bluemountainsheritage.com.au/imagesDB/wysiwyg/Heritagenletter28July-August2013_2.pdf He also claims the button grass (which isn’t even a grass) plains of Tasmania were created by aboriginal burning. Now the burning has ceased, will rainforest over run these plains? I somehow doubt it. For aboriginal fire impacts see http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/10/30/3879452.htm as well as http://www.spiffa.org/biodiversity-in-flames.html (note the Firestick Farming graph in the latter and compare it with Gammage’s plea to burn the bush everywhere – it’s what we’ve already been doing over the past 200 years).

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