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

Fire, people, landscapes and wilderness: Some thoughts of North Australia

Tony Press
Australian Nature Conservation Agency


There are many similarities in the papers that Rhys Jones and I are presenting at this forum. Rhys can take most of the credit because much of what will be said was raised by Rhys some 25 years ago.

Earlier this week I was listening to David Malouf speaking of the need for a form of Australian studies to be taught in schools. I agree with Malouf: the need to explore Australia and Australianness should be pursued in schools and among all walks of life. In recent debates on, for example, immigration, everybody proffered singular views of Australianness. In this room are indigenous people of Australia who have quite different feelings of Australianness than I do; different too than those of David Malouf or Geoffrey Blainey.

What has fascinated me about these discussions is that in the 1990s, Australians appear to be insecure about themselves, their place in Australia, and their knowledge of what Australia is. I thought, when I was at university, that by the time I reached this age Australia would have a stronger sense of identity than it had in the streets of Sydney in the 1970s – but I don't think it has.

One of the things that we are attempting to do here today is to tease out in a very concentrated way some parts of those issues about Australia and Australians. Some may dress it up as anthropology, or ecology, their own personal views about the fire. Whatever it may be, it is part of this process of trying to understand where we and other people fit into the world.

I was originally asked to talk principally about fire in Kakadu but I am not really going to do that. Most of the things I am going to say have a general application across all Australian landscapes, particularly those of North Australia. There are people in this room who know a lot more about the intricacies of fire management and ecology than I do.

What I want to do is explore three themes. The first is 'fire and the landscape'; the second is 'people in the landscape'; and the third 'wildness and wilderness'.

Fire and the landscape

The scientific tradition within which I was taught and in which I have worked half of my life is generally most comfortable exploring cause and effect; teasing out correlations; erecting hypotheses; doing experiments; knocking hypotheses down; and writing learned papers. Description and speculation have their role in this scientific tradition but they sit uncomfortably to one side of the main game: speculation is variously shunned, vilified or in some cases fetishised, while back in the mainstream, 'real' scientists do 'real' experiments.

One of the good things about this meeting is the chance for scientist and non-scientists to throw around some ideas and test each other out. There is nothing wrong with the scientific tradition: it has got us a long way; we know a lot more now about fire in the Top End than we did 20 years ago. But to the outsider, to those who know very little about scientific efforts and tradition, the speculations of scientists regarding fire provide a baffling cacophony of different ideas, contradictions and 'facts' which people find very hard to digest and make sense of.

One of the things that is often raised, and was alluded to by Rhys, is: 'if it wasn't for fire the whole of the Top End of Australia would be covered by rain forest'. Some people believe this, and it has entered the lingua franca of some local tour operators.

Rhys Jones's original construction of firestick farming was profound, but based essentially on speculation. After 25 years of discussion, much of what is said on this subject is still speculative, although some of it is well and reasonably argued. What we do know is that Aboriginal people do use fire, did use fire and were using fire in the millennia before the arrival of the Macassans, Ludwig Leichhardt and Captain Cook. We know also that vegetation has changed significantly over the past 50 000 years. We know also that the climate has changed dramatically as well.

When we look out the window this afternoon we will see the grey and orange sunset, smell the smoke and know we live in a fire prone environment. We know that some species of plants and animals are sensitive to fire and will become locally extinct through the effects of fire and that the distribution of some plant communities can be changed by fire. Some species are favoured by fire and some disadvantaged.

What we do not know is that humans were directly responsible for gross changes in vegetation associations. It is much more likely that it was climatic change that drove gross regional changes to vegetation. Humans as a contributing factor adapted their lifestyles to the new environments and changing climate and helped produce the landscapes we see today.

Even if we could stop humans causing fire in the landscape, the very climate that we have now – the wet/dry tropical climate with intense annual periods of drought for half the year – would prohibit the spontaneous generation of a rainforest. I could spend a lot of time fossicking through various theories about whether the vegetation associations of the Top End are driven by water or by drought. In summary, it is my view that they are driven by drought and not rainfall. Even though the wet season rainfall is intense and spectacular, for half the year there is no rain at all. For the plants and animals sitting on laterite in the shallow soils of the Top End, it isn't the rain that they get in the wet season that affects the distribution of those species, it is the intense drought of the dry season.

People in the landscape

I think human beings have a very stubborn habit of considering that what they see around them today is what has always been.

Today's generation of children will be the first, with the marvels of technology, to be able to historically document their world. They will be able to see that the world that they live in isn't the world that their parents remember and grew up in. I think that this is going to have a profound effect on the way we look at issues like landscape in Australia.

Recent research has shown that Aboriginal people were in Kakadu 60 000 years ago. If 60 000 years is a provable date, then, by all probabilities, Aboriginal people occupied the landscape tens of thousands of years before then. When Ludwig Leichhardt came down the gorge near Jim Jim Falls and headed toward the coast through what is now Kakadu National Park, he found the landscape populated with a prosperous people. What he saw and what he had been travelling through in his entire journey was a landscape that had been fashioned as much by the hands of those Aboriginal people he met as by the forces of wind, spontaneous fire and drought.

The flora and fauna of Australia at the time of European colonisation was either there because of, or in spite of, the hunting, gathering and social practices of Australia's Aboriginal occupants. The landscape and its contents are partly a cultural landscape: one of the immense privileges of living here in Northern Australia is that most of that cultural landscape is still largely in place along with its associated flora and fauna.

Last year I drove through the Kimberley and its 'sense of place' was powerful. For me, this compared to the first time I saw Mt Brockman over the savanna, or Jim Jim Falls, or travelled for the first time through the South Alligator River valley. This sense of place is somewhat ephemeral and difficult to define, but for me at least, it relates to the cultural features of the landscape as well as the natural features and flora and fauna in that landscape.

One of the things that fascinated me about travelling through the Kimberley was what seemed to me to be a conscious effort not to recognise Aboriginal people in that landscape. In what appears a denial of its Aboriginal heritage, Aboriginal place names are not apparent and tourism maps for the whole region use them sparsely. Although I was driving through this fantastic cultural landscape (one of the most beautiful drives in the world – I think as beautiful as the Rockies), I felt that Aboriginal people were being left out of the equation.

The more I learn about the natural environment, the more I am interested in its cultural context. One thing that is certain is that fire was and still is an important component of the ecological, geomorphological and cultural landscape.

Wildness and wilderness

I want to finish by talking a little bit about wilderness. In the ongoing debate about nature conservation the issue of wilderness has been both controversial and confused. The reason I raise this issue is that I believe that the ongoing conservation of flora and fauna in the wet/dry tropics requires the active management of, among other things, fire.

In the debate over wilderness there is confusion between nature conservation and recreational values: that nature conservation benefits by the declaration of wilderness is, essentially, opportunistic: an area does not have to have any special biological value to be wilderness, and conversely, wilderness does not necessarily contribute to the overall conservation estate. We should be very clear on this. We shouldn't mix up our efforts to sooth heart and soul by providing places where we have a wilderness experience and equate that with doing a good job to preserve the environment and biodiversity.

Similarly this discourse regarding wilderness has been often mistakenly or inadvertently contemptuous of Aboriginal aspirations. The classic North American notions of wilderness are fashioned out of a notion of landscape devoid of human beings and their artefacts, a landscape that is left to itself to be managed, or should I say left to manage itself.

This view has pervaded Australian attitudes to wilderness and it is essentially a racist viewpoint derived from a period of American history that saw European settlement in the wild west in a landscape in which indigenous Americans had been driven out by disease, force or slaughter. Like Australia, the wild west was not terra nullius. When the first white man got into the wild west it was not empty. What was there was a cultural landscape that lasted for only a short time before conquering Americans occupied that landscape.

Australia, for the most part, is no different: there can be no part of the Australian mainland or Tasmania that has not manifested the results of Aboriginal stewardship, at least as close as the last century.

The irony is that the further that one goes from the obliteration of that stewardship in the cities and large towns, the closer we get to the managed landscape, the visible manifestation of Aboriginal ownership. Travel through Central Australia to Uluru: the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people of Central Australia haven't really left that part of Australia, and that landscape is as much a managed landscape as the market gardens next to the airport in Sydney.

I will finish by saying that fire is probably the most visible expression in the landscape of Aboriginal land management: fire is an essential ingredient in the proper management of flora and fauna in Northern Australia.