Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995

Mindjongork: Legacy of the firestick

Rhys Jones
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU

The title of my talk is from the Gidjingali language, which is spoken at the mouth of the Blyth River. The term Mindjongork means 'a wild fire'. The other part of the title is a reference to a paper which was published exactly twenty-five years ago. It was in Australian Natural History in September 1969 and I called it 'Firestick farming'. That title has been used sometimes with inverted commas and sometimes with an ascription, but I am very pleased to say that it's actually slowly becoming accepted and it hasn't got the inverted commas, for example, in Russell Braddon's wonderful book about Thomas Baines, the artist on the North Australian expedition in 1855 to 1857, talking about the Victoria River. 'It was for the natives a time of plenty' is what Braddon says. 'The time also when they practised the firestick farming, that is as old as their rock paintings which were older than the pyramids.'

Very recently there has been a book of poems by the Canberra based poet, Mark O'Connor. It's called just 'Fire-stick Farming' and if you like I'm quite happy to read the poem at the very end of the session (see page 57). It is very interesting the way in which what was, initially, a scientific idea has drifted into a much broader philosophical concept.

I will go back to a period of twenty-five years ago that was at an initial stage in the development of our knowledge of Australian prehistory. There were about eight or ten dated sites in the whole continent. My firestick farming paper was written about four or five years after John Mulvaney had initially discovered radiocarbon dates beyond 10 000 years BP. But what was very interesting is that even at that stage questions were being asked. As soon as you started to 'discover the ancient history of people on this continent' there were fundamental questions to be asked about the nature of the relationship between people and the landscape.

In 1969 there was an idea of 'the natural landscape': that Australia was a 'natural place'. Part of that idea of a 'natural landscape' is Aboriginal people. If you look at, say, the iconography of paintings of Sydney Cove in the late eighteenth century – lithographs – there's a picture of the 'natural landscape' with all the rocks and the rock shelters and trees, the banksias and so on. In the middle is civilisation which has been built in George Street. And then somewhere to the side, watching it, uncomprehending, and it depends how sympathetic the artist is, there are a couple of people with spears. They are looking, and they are placed among the Banksia trees. They are part of nature. And here is culture being placed upon this land.

My first professional archaeological work was done in Tasmania. And for me one of the turning points of my professional life was the ANZAAS Conference in 1965 in Hobart. There were several marvellous papers given at that conference and one was by a person called Joe Jennings, who's a geomorphologist. His paper was called 'Man as a Geological Agent'. There was this idea that there was geology, the natural world. To what extent have humans interacted with the landscape? And Joe began the talk by dismissing the first 99.9% of human life, and he talked only about agriculturalists. In fact, it was a very fine paper because he wasn't just talking about the western world or the industrial, he was talking about early agriculture in New Guinea. He was talking about deforestation and so on. And his view was that humans had a very large impact upon the landscape and that this impact only started with farming.

At this conference a second paper was given by Bill Jackson who later became the Professor of Botany at the University of Tasmania. His paper was absolutely brilliant, and what he talked about was how to explain the floristic diversity of western Tasmania, particularly the relationship between so-called rainforest (the wet sclerophyll forest) where you have eucalypts on top, and you have rainforest forms and heaths underneath. He had this very complex mosaic and he showed photographs, some of which had been done by the Hydroelectric Commission and, of course, that was the great debate about the damming of Lake Pedder which was about to occur. This was the land he was talking about. And what Jackson said is that you could only explain this diversity through one factor and that is the frequency and intensity of fire. He also said that in his opinion this was not just a natural regime, but that what we were looking at in western Tasmania, particularly on the coast of north-west Tasmania, was a legacy of a major impact of fire-induced vegetational diversity. And this itself was the result of, and could only be the result of, not natural forces but human forces. In other words, that the Aborigines in the late 18th century and really from post-glacial times onwards, had themselves, through the use of their firesticks, affected the land so that this landscape was not a natural landscape. It was, to some extent at least, a cultural landscape.That paper was probably one of the most important papers that I ever heard and later Jackson developed his ideas which contain two very simple concepts but, I think, very profound concepts: you could only explain the present day distribution of floristics in Tasmanian forms with two factors. One was the frequency of fire or, more sophisticatedly, the probability that a fire will occur in any one place. The other was the intensity of that fire. So, you have the intensity on one axis and you have the probability of a fire occurring in any one place on the other. And you look at these two axes and you can then see a whole fluid set of successions as you change along these two axes. You can go from one set of floristic associations to others. And within this nexus of those two axes, of course, humans are present or, at least, have been present since Aborigines first arrived on this continent.

Now, that paper stimulated Betty Meehan who was at that time writing her BA Honours thesis. At that conference we also learnt about the journals of George Augustus Robinson, which had not been published at that time. We had access to the manuscripts of Robinson's journals, and they contained another revelation. Because, here was Robinson in 1829 and 1832 actually walking along the west coast of Tasmania recording the landscape he was observing. This was detailed stuff, day by day observations. The landscape he was observing was utterly different, utterly different from the situation if you and I were to go to western Tasmania in 1965 or 1967 or even now. To go to places like Point Hibbs, for example, south of Macquarie Harbour, would take you days, quite literally days, to walk two or three kilometres, through dense ti-trees, huge high Banksia growths and so on. It's very dense country. And, in exactly the same place, Robinson observed open sedgelands, basically, and he also observed the Aboriginal people with him with their firesticks, applying the firestick to little bits of bush. Indeed, this was not just randomised, as Mervyn Meggitt once described Aborigines, 'peripatetic pyromaniacs'. But the Aborigines who, with Robinson, were walking through little groves separated by open country, they not only applied the fire to the open country but they also tried to put the fire out as it got close to the groves. And Robinson actually makes the statement that this was a landscape formed, in some ways, by them.

There is the very famous quote by Thomas Mitchell which I probably don't have time to quote in full. In 1848 Mitchell, going across western New South Wales, said: 'Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.' And so on. He then says the fires are applied in certain seasons.

Some of the more perceptive of those first European observers in the landscape saw that landscape to be intimately tied in with what the Aboriginal inhabitants of that land were doing to it. It's also very interesting that some observant people also noted that there were great differences once Aborigines had left that country. For example, Mrs Louise Meredith, a very interesting poet and ecologist writing in 1840-1845 in eastern Tasmania says: 'I don't understand what's happened!' When Charles Meredith, her husband, first arrived here she says: 'Look, this open parkland. This looked like a great romantic English scene, like a great park with these trees and open country. Terrific! And now, look at it! Terrible bloody stuff! Thick bush everywhere and these terrible fires coming through every now and then.' And she makes the comment that what has happened in this part of eastern Tasmania is that the Aborigines had stopped burning and she was now observing thirty years after the event. And she observed a great change.

In this paper 'Firestick farming', I was thinking about what was happening in the so-called Black Friday, you know, those great fires in Victoria. This huge catastrophic thing, or even the fire in 1967 in eastern Tasmania. The energy equivalent of atom bombs is involved. Let's take the case in Victoria: the fuel load had so accumulated through a fire suppression policy that when the fire did go off it went off with explosive force.

The point about calling the paper 'Firestick farming' was not entirely innocent. I am an archaeologist, and my thinking is archaeological, and in the thinking in the late sixties there was a great debate about 'farming'. 'Farming' was seen to be the landmark of the neolithic (which is actually an archaic term which means 'ground stone' as opposed to just flaked stone which is palaeolithic). This has been the great divide in human history: on one hand, the neolithic, the farmers, the people who use the landscape, who affect the land and are civilised. On the other hand, you have the palaeolithic, the hunters or people who have no impact upon the landscape. They were thought to be almost irrelevant to the landscape.

Then there was the whole idea of botanical succession following the last ice age. I had the idea that through fire people were suppressing the succession of some species. In other words, that in Tasmania they were knocking off these 80 metre trees so that they could actually encourage the fire weeds, for example, bracken fern. They were disturbing the soil, they were getting sunlight into the area so that they were, in fact, increasing the food they as hunters could obtain. So, when I use the word 'farming', it isn't just a tongue-in-cheek term. I meant to indicate that through the use of fire people were affecting the land in such a way as to increase the food available
to them.

One thing which I'm happy to talk about later because I don't have time now, is that this whole issue of affecting the landscape is very deep in western ideas about ownership of land. You don't have to go any further than John Locke's famous two treatises on government which form the basis of our ideas about ownership of land and connect that to 1970, when Mr Justice Blackburn was presiding over the famous Yirrkala case which revolved around the issues of whether Aborigines actually own land. The discussions went right back to Locke, right back to 1860, straight back, there were no short cuts. It went straight back to Locke. And Locke said that as much as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use the product of land, so much is his property. And the distinction is made between the person who changes the land and the person who uses it. The ideas were coming from North America, the Mohawks and Iroquois and so on. Locke says that where somebody, for example, grows fruit and consumes it, of course, the fruit is their property but they don't actually own the tree. If you get a fish, you eat the fish, of course, that's your property but you don't actually own the river. You could only own the tree if you use your labour. In other words, if your labour affects the land, that produces a form of ownership. It was in that sense, according to Mr Justice Blackburn, that Australian Aborigines did not own land. Hence the term terra nullius, which in Latin means land belonging to nobody. It does not refer to unoccupied land. It refers to land that nobody owns.

I thought that the ethnographic evidence and the ecological evidence were quite contrary to that. I thought that through the firestick, people had affected that land. They had formed, to some extent, that land through their interaction with that landscape. I'm not saying that it's a perfect interaction with the landscape. I am saying that through the firestick, people actually formed the land which they were in. The land was not terra nullius in the sense that Locke and Blackburn intended. As a side issue I think it's very interesting that Eddie Mabo came from that one tiny part of the present Commonwealth of Australia which was actually occupied by gardeners. You know, these people are Papuan gardeners and, perhaps it's too difficult to discuss these days because there's so much politics attached to any discussion of these issues, or any dissenting view. But it is interesting that the Mabo case was in that part of Australia that was occupied by gardeners, and I still wonder – had the test case been a place occupied by hunters and gatherers, would you have had the same result? Would you have the same sort of arguments?

It is interesting that my ethnographic encounters with people came after I had written about firestick farming. These papers were written before I was lucky enough to spend about fifteen months with Betty Meehan with the Gidjingali people, on the mouth of the Blyth, hunting. As close to hunting and gathering as anybody European is ever going to do in the last part of the 20th century. Between 1972 and 1973, for fifteen months solid. That was at the very beginning of the outstation movement and people were back in the country. They'd left the country in about 1957 and until 1972 they went back just for holidays. But now, they were actually occupying it on a continuous basis, and Meehan and I were able to document what people did every day. What was very obvious was that fire was used in a quite systematic and continuous way, and from our records, there were only about two months at the height of the wet season that fires were not lit. And sometimes there might be 20 or 30 fires lit continuously on this land.

The speaker before me [Wali Fejo] talked about control of fire. In the Gidjingali language, people distinguish between domestic fire and other fire, and of course firing was not a random thing. The firing often occurred very early in the dry season. In general, the fires were controlled, and people knew there was a wind shift coming on. There's a north-easterly wind here. So, they'd set one fire and they'd know that the wind would be changing in the afternoon and would drive the fire out. People were very careful when there were things like bone poles – carved wooden containers holding bones of deceased people – in the landscape. They used to burn around the bone poles to make sure these were not burnt. We also observed areas which we call 'the jungles' which have vine thickets and often lots of yams and other foods. These are often places where ancestral spirits are believed to exist. For these and other areas, we observed very hard-edged decisions being made to stop the fires burning into those places.

After the 1972–1973 period, Chris Haynes, who was a forestry officer in Maningrida, wrote a very fine series of papers which gave some of the ecological background to the fire regime which he observed. It is paradoxical that he was at that time initiating a fire suppression policy in order to maintain the Callitris. But he then found out that having the fire suppression policy meant an increase of fuel. When the fire went through, it burnt the trees which had survived, say, during a hundred years of the Aboriginal regime. And Aboriginal people used to say to Haynes: 'What are you doing? Listen, you want that, do you want that tree? What are you doing? Why did you? You're an idiot because these flames are as high as this roof.' And then Haynes had his own Damascus change. What he found, so he said, was that he was actually an instrument of the destruction of the Callitris in the area between the Blyth and the Liverpool Rivers. Fires were systematically lit by Aborigines and were an integral part of their economy. Their firing massively affected the land. And this presents an important question. What do we want to conserve? We've got a choice. Do we want to conserve the environment as it was in 1788? Or do we yearn for an environment without humans as it might have been sixty or more thousand years ago. If the former, that is, as it was in 1788 at the time of contact, then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions. The days of firestick farming may not yet be over.