24 January 2020

Gardening Terra Nullius

In the late 90s my parents left Sydney for a large patch of rocky brown dirt atop a hill in the Southern Highlands of NSW. A paddock really, this was to be the site of their new home and the canvas for a garden of grand proportions. Twenty something years later grows a majestic garden full of mature trees, manicured hedges and lawns, an orchard and seasonal flowering plants. It has been a labour of love for my mum in particular who has likely devoted many days a week for two decades to transforming the land.

Tending to land is no small feat, it requires vision, insight, intuition and love.

Imagine then that a space ship lands in the back yard and after examining the surrounds, the aliens conclude that the land is unoccupied and empty other than a well-aged primitive and her husband. So, they claim all the land as their own and proceed to flatten the garden, demolish the house and set up their own martian civilisation. Surely they can see the evidence of people living their lives together in community and tending to the land? Surely they see culture and the work of these people? Clearly the land is not unoccupied.

It sounds fanciful but that is basically what took place in in 1770 when Lt. James Cook in his journey around the great southern continent declared the land to be terra nullius – empty, unoccupied and ripe for the taking. And that mind set returned with devastating consequences in 1788 when Arthur Phillip established the first colony in Sydney cove. Sure, they found people but not civilisation as they understood it – the British kind. And because these people lacked so many of the cultural and technological markings of modern life, they were simply treated as unsophisticated primitives, lesser humans with no claim to the land. The church, echoing this imperialistic mindset, thought the best thing it could do was teach them how to wash regularly and dress appropriately, and do away with their own spirituality!

What they failed to understand, let alone appreciate was that Indigenous Australian culture was not only socially complex but perhaps the most ecologically sophisticated culture to ever exist – the product of thousands of years of refinement.

Caring for Country was the vocation of every inhabitant of the Australian continent before 1788. Land management was no indulgence, no ancient version of Better Homes and Gardens. Life was land care, it was a spiritual mandate of the Dreaming and a social necessity for communities. Too much fuel on the ground not only might unleash a hot, angry fire that could not be controlled, but it may unnecessarily kill precious flora and fauna so vital for the balance of the local ecosystem. Fire was the daily tool of trade for Indigenous people (under strict guidance from elders) and they could wield it with the sharpness and accuracy of my mother’s secateurs. Patches of bush were carefully burnt each year across a tribe’s land, determined by a multitude of carefully considered factors. Land was often burnt in a mosaic pattern which preserved cover for vulnerable fauna whilst killing or clearing other vegetation or fuel in others. Indigenous peoples had such a vast and intimate understanding of how every plant and animal beneficially interacted with fire. Tens of thousands of species were catalogued in their collective memory. It showed as Bill Gammage wrote, “the breath taking complexity of land management at a continental and scale.” Particular animal and plant communities needed and got very precise fire timings and intensity. Gammage illustrates,

“Northern grassland was burnt annually, Kangaroo grass every 2-3 years, Mulga at most once decade, dry ridges every 15-25 years, Tuart every 2-4 years, Jarrah every 3-4 in early summer, Karri about every 5 years in late summer. Mountain Ash needs fire every 400 year or so.” 

“Gliders and possums like frequent fire, but rat kangaroos need casuarinas burnt about every 7 years, a native mouse needs heath burt every 8-10, mainland tammar wallabies need dense melaleuca burnt very hot every 25-30. In the centre, ‘when little emus are on the ground you do not burn.’ 

All plants and animals thrived in 1788 and people timed a great variety of local and specific fires over years, decades and even centuries. Many parts of the continent was burnt about every 1-5 years and one of the most frequent observations of new arrivals from 1788 onward was the continual and systematic burning of the land, accompanied by smoke. Aboriginal elders from one tribe would be concerned if neighbouring land was not marked with rising smoke - it suggested something was wrong for the tribe to not be burning land, and people should go and visit!

A byproduct of this continental curation was that many early settlers could not help but think that the Australian outdoors had been landscaped by gardeners. Gammage details dozens of early accounts, summarising their observations, he says - “trees planted as if for ornament, alternating wood and grass, a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country, a civilised land.” Much of Australia was like this in 1788 and the most common word newcomers used about Australia was not ‘bush’ but ‘park.’ At Bong Bong for example, Lachlan Macquarie named Throsby Park for its very ‘park like appearance’. Hardly terra nullius!

At some stage in the future my mum has admitted she won’t be able to maintain such a big garden. I imagine when the time comes, the disconnection will be a source of grief and concern. Grief because any true gardener will tell you, they have a deep connection to their gardens. And concern because of the uncertainty of whether the future owners will have the same devotion. How much more must our indigenous peoples experience the trauma and dislocation at being separated from Country (which is inseparable from culture), and anguish that the grand estate they, and a hundred generations before them had so carefully stewarded, is a shadow of its former glory.

As a Christian I am challenged by all of this because there are some ageless parallels between Indigenous spirituality and my own. The Bible begins with a creator’s vision, insight, intuition and love. And the final act of creation is God breathing into a creature that will bear God’s likeness and creativity. In Genesis 1 we read The Lord God, took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

The very first command given to humanity was to work it (the land) and take care of it. Here are two fundamental roles built into a biblical vision of life. We have a dual role to work the land in productive ways, but equally to take care of it, love it, enable it to display its glory. These have become opposing rather than complementary forces today. And the result is a planet increasingly diminished in glory and capacity to sustain life.

It seems to me that our Indigenous peoples understood this transcendent mandate in a way that all of us, the church in particular, should urgently recapture. Christians, the gospel begins in creation and ends in the renewal of all things – How did we forget this? How did we think the gospel was only about saving souls and exiting the planet? How do we recapture this creation mandate? How might we partner with the one culture that just might have the answers we need?

If you would like to dig deeper on any of these issues I can recommend the following books:
The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia - Bill Gammage
Deep Time Dreaming – Uncovering Ancient Australia – Billy Griffiths
Dark Emu – Aboriginal Culture and the birth of Agriculture – Bruce Pascoe =
Blood on the Wattle – Bruce Elder