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Climate, culture, country: The way forward

using fire to hunt kangaroos by Joseph Lycett  c.1820 (National Library of Australia)
'Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos' by Joseph Lycett c.1820 (National Library of Australia)

| Culture Heist

Country: Future Fire, Future Farming by Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, First Knowledges vol 3, Margo Neale (ed), published by Thames & Hudson Aust, 26 October 2021, 224 pages. ISBN-10 ‏1760761559. Available from Amazon here. Paper $16.05. Kindle $8.79

TWEED COAST, NSW - Worried about the prospects for life on earth?

Well, we have just been given a message of hope born out of profound historical knowledge.

CountryOn the eve of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations will spin their climate inaction into a web of words, the newly-released book Country: Future Fire, Future Farming points to a better way of living, drawing on Australian indigenous practices developed over millennia.

Authors Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe have joined forces to give substance to what many have begun to see, especially since the Black Summer of 2019-2020: that the lessons of First Nations land management and fire control are essential to sustainability.

Their book is the third in the series First Knowledges edited by Margo Neale, ANU adjunct professor and head curator of Indigenous Knowledges at the National Museum of Australia.

In 2017-18 she curated the museum’s ground-breaking exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, now touring Europe to critical acclaim.

These three – Gammage, Pascoe and Neale – are at the forefront of the greatest advance in understanding Australian history since Henry Reynolds’s revelations 40 years ago about the Frontier Wars.

Gammage is a much-respected historian and ANU senior research fellow. His seminal 2011 book The Biggest Estate on Earth showed how First Nations people before 1788 managed the land in systematic, scientific ways to foster open woodland and biodiversity.

Bruce Pascoe
Bruce Pascoe

Pascoe is an Aboriginal writer across a range of literary genres. In 2014 his Dark Emu dismantled the colonial myth of the ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer, exploring the complex practices and knowledge built up in more than 65,000 years of caring for country.

Dark Emu gradually became a best-seller among Australians eager to know the truth of pre-colonial life and pass it on to their children.

That made it a target for right-wing propagandists like Andrew Bolt, and then in June 2021 academics Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe published a vitriolic attack on Pascoe, defending the hunter-gatherer concept and accusing him of “poor scholarship” and of bowing to European ideas of the superiority of farming.

In their new collaboration Gammage and Pascoe transcend the unedifying episode of these attacks in the best way possible – by expanding our knowledge of pre-colonial society and offering ways to harness this knowledge for the future.

Pascoe notes in passing that he never held the positions attributed to him by Sutton and Walshe, but he focuses on explaining the cultivation of country of which hunting and gathering were just a part.

In recent years, on an old grazing property at Yumburra near Mallacoota, he has been working to return forest areas to managed landscape where well-spaced big trees and food grasses predominate, and biodiversity is fostered.

This makes him uniquely placed to explain the principal indigenous food groups, their nutritional qualities and their commercial potential. He is already making and marketing bread from indigenous grasses.

Bill Gammage

Gammage’s contribution centres on a revelatory account of what he terms the “fire and no fire” system of pre-1788 land management that created a mosaic of varied landscape, including the park-like country he so eloquently describes.

His deep scholarship encompasses not only the sophisticated techniques involved in using fire not as foe but as ally; it also involves a profound understanding of Law, the philosophy of First Nations peoples with their respect for Country, their songlines as the store of knowledge and their totems as a network for maintaining biodiversity.

Both writers document how quickly colonial occupation destroyed the managed landscape, trampling native grasses and good soil under the hooves of imported species and allowing the forests to be choked by the understorey that feeds modern bushfires.

They show how the racist theory of terra nullius combined with the arrogant disregard of settlers for land management other than European fenced farming to suppress knowledge developed over many generations.

“No legacy was so intricately woven,” writes Gammage, “or so brutally undone. Poor fella my country.”

Yet both writers conclude with hope for the future.

There can be no return to the past, but we can draw on its lessons and incorporate precious rescued knowledge into better ways of living. Gammage even has an eight-point plan for how this can be done.

Pascoe, based on his own experience, shows how the old practices can be brought back, and he makes a plea for Aboriginal people to be included in every project, for the knowledge of old people to be shared and for young people to be given training and connection to culture.

(I think of my friends Jennice and Raymond Kersh, who pioneered fine dining with indigenous foods 40 years ago, and always sought to train young First Nations people alongside them.)

The Gammage-Pascoe collaboration is invaluable in setting out ways forward.

There is much to be discussed, and some issues on which there is room for disagreement. Pascoe, while he detests the profit motive, still hopes that change can be effected within capitalism.

Yet the book Country both summarises the historical knowledge without which we cannot move forward, and sketches a road map out of crisis.  The looming climate catastrophe makes this work of the utmost urgency.

“The time has come,” Pascoe concludes, “to reckon with how history will judge us, for our actions or inactions.

“We cannot allow our country to be led by ideologues with such dangerous self-interest and disregard for the planet…

“They might hate their grandchildren but we, the people, do not. We will raise them with a love of country.”

Australian colonisation’s devastating impact

CoalCountry: Future Fire, Future Farming by Judith White, Tablo Publishing, 1 September, 223 pages. ASIN B09BJ79Y1L.  Available from Amazon here. Paper $24.84. Kindle $8.68. Or email Judith at

In this memoir spanning a century of family life, Judith White reflects on the pain inflicted on lives in Britain and Australia by an empire built on coal.

Born in the North of England, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, Judith rekindles childhood memories to tell the stories of the remarkable women and men who struggled through two world wars and the Depression.

Fleeing Britain in the Thatcher years, she learned, from First Nations people, and the writers and artists of Australia, what a university education had never taught her about the devastating impact of colonisation.

Children of Coal adds a singular voice to the rising chorus calling for the public reckoning with history that is needed to free society from the shackles of the empire of the mind.


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Paul Oates

One of the difficulties in learning about pre 1788 Australia was a previous dearth in written history. That should not be a problem in other parts of the world and yet amazingly, human cultures seem bent of recreating the same problems and disasters, over and over again.

My understanding of pre 1788 Australia and the multitude of First Nation cultures, languages and traditions is that they were basically able to maintain a balance in population numbers and so not deplete the natural resources available to survive. How they were successful in this axiom is not readily understood or publicised.

In all the fanfare and hyperbole about the Glasgow summit, there is one glaring aspect that appears to be conveniently forgotten and kept under the covers. Overpopulation and its effects on the finite world resources of land, water and unpolluted air.

No world leader is prepared to raise this aspect as it will get no votes and people don’t like hearing the truth if it means they will have to change what they are very fond of doing…….

Arthur Williams

The details of 'coal' are wrong as they are repeats of those for the Gammage & Pascoe book.

Thanks Arthur, now fixed - KJ

Chris Overland

I am glad to see an historian of the eminence of Bill Gammage throwing his weight behind Bruce Pascoe's efforts to publicise the fact that the history of Australia did not only commence in 1788.

The current neoliberal economic system is based upon the rapacious exploitation of the planet and rampant over consumption for entirely non-essential purposes. It is apparent to anyone who is willing to examine it in any detail that this system is unsustainable.

As a consequence, it makes sense to look back upon the way in which our ancestors, including Australia's Aboriginal people and traditional Papua New Guineans, created vibrant and sustainable economic systems based upon the central idea of working with nature, not against it.

This is not to suggest that we should abandon everything we have learned through scientific endeavour and experience. Rather, it is the notion of taking what is best from the past about sustainable living and using it to create a new economic system that combines both traditional and modern best practice.

But a critical caveat is this: an economy based exclusively upon mass consumption at ever increasing levels is totally inconsistent with sustainability or even survivability. Our collective ancestors knew this but, in our arrogance and folly, we modern humans have forgotten this central fact of human existence.

Unless those who lead us come to understand this then COP26 can only produce words and wind, not a viable long term plan to reach a sustainable future.

If they fail in this endeavour then we will all have to endure a very ugly and brutal lesson: nature will have its way with us.

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