By Gib Wettenhall. Reproduced with permission from em Press Publishing.
Aboriginal mosaic burning once patterned the entire continent, as vital, intricate and connected as the scales on a crocodile’s back or the feathers on an eagle’s wing.
At a traditional Aboriginal-style mosaic burn in autumn last year, 30 of us were counter-intuitively removing logs and large sticks within a 300 square metre area defined by a broad line of yellow spray paint. We were preparing a patch of grass and weeds for firing within open box woodland in north-east Victoria at a workshop organised by the Wooragee Landcare group. The man-in-charge issuing instructions was ‘Uncle Rod’ Mason, a Ngarigo Elder from the high country, who had studied with a firestick in his hand from a young age. He had grown in responsibility, along with everyone else in his language group, learning through experience when and how to deploy fire. Where Western culture breeds fear of fire, Uncle Rod relishes it as an agent of renewal: “You got to fire it! When you burn Country, it makes it brand new fresh.”
Fire, we now understand, was the major tool employed by Aboriginal people to manipulate the landscape on a grand scale. They burnt to maintain vast grasslands to sustain mobs of kangaroos. They fired a patch in late summer to bare the soil so their underground larder of yam daisies and orchid tubers could surface. They set fire to hunt game, clear a path, attack an enemy, call a meeting, spiritually cleanse it.
Uncle Rod described the three principles of Indigenous fire management that underpin patch burning continent-wide. He cited these principles as:
- One – keep a fire small in area and the fuel load low;
- Two – burn backwards against the wind; and
- Three – gain expertise in reading weather patterns.
Reducing the fuel load was the reason Uncle Rod first fixed us with his intense gaze and oversaw the removal of logs and large branches from our defined patch of grass and weeds. Smouldering logs can burn for a long time and prove a fire risk, he pointed out. A year prior, at a cultural burn at the Teesdale flora reserve, Uncle Rod and his team removed the dead wood from under the large gums at the back of the block. On the left hand side of the reserve where the CFA planned, at the same time, to demonstrate their cool burn techniques, no such precautions were undertaken. Their fire flared much higher and dampening down the burning logs proved a struggle.
Next, Uncle Rod went down on one knee and made a small pyre of leaves and twigs. We were to dot these mini-bonfires at regular intervals throughout the patch. When these were spread throughout to his satisfaction, Uncle Rod tested the wind. “You got to trickle burn backwards into the wind,” he said. He lit the first mini-bonfire and gestured towards the neighbours we were to light up. They burnt low and slow into each other. A cloud of moist white smoke rose and enveloped us.
Uncle Rod stood in the centre directing traffic. He’d wave an arm: “Light more fires over there!” When the fire crept over the yellow paint boundary, he’d send a group to beat it back. He lay on the ground so he could feel wind flows and predicted from cloud patterns that we could expect a wind change that evening. “When the clouds are low, the wind is more predictable,” he said. “When they’re higher, you have more updraft. It’s important you know your local winds.” The slowly spreading fire was a wonderfully gentle process, which was accompanied by much laughter, chatter and no fear.
It’s not generally recognised, but even ‘cultural burnings’, as they’ve become known, are underpinned by a socio/religious aspect. I asked Uncle Rod what he saw as the cultural essence of Aboriginal-style burning. “Cultural fire is gender-based,” he answered without hesitation. “Man or woman, we had our own secrets. Woman looked after soft soil with herbs and grasses. Men cared for tall trees like stringybarks or ironbarks. Kids had a role crunching up kangaroo dung – it’s key to slow burning along with plants and trees to make charcoal, the magic ingredient for life springing up fresh.”
In reviewing the literature on Indigenous burning, ethno-botanist Dr Beth Gott found that most historians and researchers believe the major purpose behind lighting up a patch was as an aid to hunting game. In reality, as Traditional Owners frequently assert, it’s to “clean” country – to sweeten and refresh the grass for herbivores; to bare a patch for favoured food species; to remove ‘rubbishy’ dead long grass or tangled shrubs impeding movement. A trickle burn cuts through the swathe of old growth at ground level. It cracks open the soil, releasing dormant seeds, fostering new growth that is fertilised by the slow-cooked charcoal combination of trees, plants and kangaroo dung. “It’s how we make Country,” said Uncle Rod.
The patch being burnt was covered in the toxic weed, St John’s Wort. Baring the earth through fire was seen from Uncle Rod’s perspective as a first step in bringing back Country. “This country is wild. We’re getting rid of weeds and retaming it.”
Repetitive pattern work is integral to Indigenous design whether in a dot painting, clan symbolism, digging murnong yam daisies or management of land. Fire is no different. Large scale ‘hazard’ burning is antithetical to the Aboriginal approach of building a mosaic pattern, slowly and incrementally, until eventually a whole landscape has been burnt and remade. “We don’t burn the same patch again,” explained Uncle Rod. “We’ll burn next to it. That’s how we build Country.”
Pattern work even infuses how people collaborate on the fire ground. Wind, fire and rain – these are the “three laws” that those seeking mastery of fire must understand, said Uncle Rod. Totem groups with interlocking expertise serve each of these three ‘laws’ or elements. Ideally, you would have representatives from all three totem groups present when making fire, said Uncle Rod. “You have [for example] to get waterbird and eagle totems working together.“
The complexities of the clan relationships that underlie slow-burn, mosaic pattern work are yet to surface in the mainstream. Our historical perspective of fire in the landscape remains coloured by the ignorant and biased views of most explorers and pioneering settlers towards Indigenous peoples. To his credit, Captain Cook admired 250 years ago what most settlers saw only as threat. Near his namesake town in far north Queensland, he records in his journal sitting on the beach with some sailors while nearby an elder gathered a small group of young men, who, under his instruction, lit a small circle of fire. They were totally at ease and Cook remarks on how the Guueu Yimithirr people “produce fire with great facility, and spread it in a wonderful manner… and we imagined that these fires were intended in some way for the taking of the kangaroo…” But neither he nor those who followed could rise to imagine that Aboriginal mosaic burning patterned the entire continent, as vital, intricate and connected as the scales on a crocodile’s back or the feathers on an eagle’s wing.
Spreading cultural burning lessons more widely
I would contest that we can no longer leave it all to the fire ‘experts’ of a Western hue. As once occurred with Indigenous people, all of us living in the country ought to be trained in how to use fire and to collaborate with neighbours in trickle burning our forests and vegetation. Declaring war on the bush and burning the bag out of the landscape serves neither man nor beast. We need to replace our overweening fear of fire with a more thorough and nuanced understanding, including how local topography, climate and different vegetation types will affect the fire regimes to be delivered. We need to put aside the prejudice of the past towards Indigenous knowledge.
No doubt some will turn up their nose at the Indigenous affiliations of cultural burning, but wouldn’t it have proven more benign if the explorers and pioneering settlers had paid more attention to the facility with which the locals employed fire? Why don’t we devise a training course in how to deploy fire proactively to prevent conflagrations as well as to optimise our nation’s biodiversity? Such a ‘Fire Masters’ course for forest landholders could be similar in style to the Master TreeGrowers course that skills up farm foresters worldwide. It would incorporate the best of both worlds – Indigenous traditional knowledge on mosaic burning combined with the results of evidence-based scientific research on the impact of fire on native flora and fauna in differing ecotypes from heath and savannah through to woodlands and rainforest.
Once ignored, Indigenous traditional knowledge has become integrated with the tools and techniques of western science in the widescale burning of the northern savannah across Arnhem Land during the early Dry season. Indigenous ranger programs in northern Australia describe this as the hybrid ’both ways’ approach.
We must not, however, as so often happens, take over and speak for Aboriginal people when adapting their traditional expert knowledge of deploying fire. In the words of Minda Murray, a Next Generation Yorta Yorta environmental scientist who works in the Victorian public service on Aboriginal self-determination: “Cultural burning is done by our mob not only as a physical practice, it is deeply entwined in culture and Aboriginal lore. Aboriginal people should always remain at the forefront of protecting our culture and our land – that’s part of self-determination.”
Two issues stand out for serious consideration before making any attempt to roll out cultural burning more widely. First, little monitoring has taken place of the impact on native vegetation and wildlife from either cultural burns or Western cool burns. Anecdotal reports are an unreliable substitute. As a first step, more monitoring of both forms of ‘fuel’ reduction ought to occur as a precursor to implementing any wider landholder training in cultural or cool burning.
A related issue is the lack of knowledgeable cultural burners and who trains more of them and how. Richard McTernan, the coordinator with Wooragee Landcare, has worked extensively with Traditional Owners in north-east Victoria facilitating some 10 fire workshops led by them. “Burning country is not learnt over night and I believe local knowledge of the environment is essential,” he contends.
More tricky, thorny questions face those calling for cultural burns in their area: who has the right to speak for country and who holds the cultural fire knowledge for that country? The first impinges on often invisible Indigenous protocols and enters the dangerous territory of cultural appropriation if, as Minda highlights, “Aboriginal leadership is side-stepped.” Take Uncle Rod, for instance. Although a ceremonial fire man, Uncle Rod argues that it’s his peers, other Elders from each language group, “who determine my right to teach and burn in their Country.” The second question involves how we seek certainty that a cultural fire burner can deliver rigorous training, relevant to that location. Poor training may only lead to further devastation of land and wildlife. We will need to tread carefully round these thorny questions.
While ensuring senior Aboriginal knowledge holders remain at the wheel of cultural burning, training of new practicioners could provide another culturally appropriate employment pathway for Aboriginal people. At the Wooragee cultural burn, a young Wiradjuri man, Dean Heta, spoke passionately about how so many of his peers are keen to get back on their land, managing country. “It’s about connecting Aboriginal people back to their cultural identity.”
To paraphrase the environmental scientist and polymath, George Seddon: we live here, not somewhere else. After 200 years of searching for land management solutions from other people and places around the planet, it’s time we stopped ignoring the locals and paid attention to what they were doing in the 65,000 years prior to our arrival.