by Bill Gammage
© all rights reserved
What exactly is a desert? Geographers say it is land averaging less than 200mm of rain a year. Many Australians equate it with central Australia, each setting the other’s limits even though some of the Centre averages better than 250mm a year. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘1. Uninhabited, desolate; uncultivated, barren. 2. Waterless & treeless region.’ These meanings jar those who know the Centre. Little of it is desert in those senses. Dune systems circle 4000 kilometres through it1, and some move in the way film-makers seek out, but most are stable, with richly diverse flora. ‘A veritable botanic garden’, one expert calls the Great Victoria Desert2. Trees, bushes, grasses, in the right season miles of flowers, make our deserts beautiful. The dictionary meanings become statements of mind, not ground. They reflect the time in European thinking when land-use ranked them and classified others, when lords held domains or estates, peasants worked tenements or plots, and peoples were farmers or herders or hunter-gatherers or gardeners.
In Australia Europeans met people who seemed not to use land at all. So light seemed the touch of the Aborigines that early voyagers speculated on whether Australia was occupied, and for 200 years the fiction of terra nullius – empty land – lay under Australian law. Arriving settlers found none of their landscape words adequate for what they saw. They confused what they meant by ‘forest’ or ‘brush’ or ‘plain’, and they resolved the confusion by broadening the meaning of a word brought from South Africa: ‘bush’. In Britain a ‘bush’ was singular, usually gardened; in South Africa it was generic; in Australia it became generic and symbolic. The Australian National Dictionary has 13 dense double-column pages, its biggest grouping, of specifically Australian meanings for ‘bush’ and such derivatives as ‘bushman’, ‘bushranger’ and ‘bushcraft’, many of which have entered English world-wide.
In the bush, travellers used another word to describe particular landscapes: ‘park’. ‘Park’, the Concise Oxford says, is ‘1. Large enclosed piece of ground, usu. with woodland and pasture… large tract of land kept in natural state for public benefit.’ Early Europeans used ‘park’ more than any other word to describe beautiful and seemingly natural places. Parks dotted the bush. This is striking, for two reasons. First, ‘park’ was not a word Europeans elsewhere then associated with nature. Until ‘National Park’ was later coined in the United States, a park was man-made. Second, few now see parks in Australia ‘s natural landscape. Instead non-Aborigines use another US word with exactly the opposite meaning: ‘wilderness’. ‘Wilderness’, the dictionary says, is ‘Desert, uncultivated & uninhabited tract… part of garden left wild.’ In 1836 an Englishman used that meaning of the site of Adelaide, calling it ‘a desert; a wilderness’3, but Australians today are not biblical: we no longer think like that. Today ‘wilderness’ is seemingly untouched forest, as in south-west Tasmania. Where the dictionary defines desert as treeless and wilderness as desert, Australians see arid lands flush with plants, and wilderness in their densest forests.
Aboriginal Australians would think this still too Eurocentric. For them three words from my dictionary might describe Australia ‘s landscape today: ‘garden left wild.’ Their ancestors worked hard to make the park-like landscape early Europeans found. In 1788 Australia was everywhere made and managed. It has changed dramatically since, fallen into disorder, part transformed but part rarely touched, left wild.
The Aborigines made and managed Australia by shaping and distributing its vegetation. Plants and therefore animals were where Aborigines put them or let them be. Some areas were managed more intensively than others, but there was no wilderness. Aboriginal Law required every inch of ground to be cared for. It taught that the world began in the mind of God, who made the land, gave it light, and made creator ancestors. Each creator ancestor began a species, travelled the land making landmarks and legends associated with its species, then rested in the land, where he or she remains today. People and animals alike saw the existence of all life and all the land’s features as proof of a creator’s action and presence. They were under the most sacred obligation to preserve that. They could not make the land ‘better’ or ‘worse’, for that was not theirs to judge. They must leave the creators’ gifts as they found them.
But it did not follow, as many non-Aborigines assume, that they must leave the land untouched. That would let an ordered landscape decay – let the garden go wild – threatening species habitat and survival, for example of species which need open country in areas prone to become bush. Instead Aborigines inherited a regime of attentive and integrated management. Land care was a fundamental duty of life, linking the beginning of creation to the infinite future. It followed that all land must be maintained. Even the harshest country was cared for not simply for its productivity, but because it was alive with ancestors and descendants. Senses of purpose and place reinforced each other.
Over long periods, usually centuries, people laid down a template of plant communities – rainforest, open forest, scrub, heath, grass and so on. They could leave as it was what climax (natural) vegetation they needed, but they made the other communities, and distributed them not randomly, but linked to each other, or associated. A common association was a grass plain near water and ringed by open forest; another was swamp, grass, and scrub or heath. Associations provided habitats or edges between habitats for each plant and animal species, and balanced their myriad conflicting needs. Aboriginal landscapes were consciously made to let all creation survive.
People used the templates to make resources abundant, convenient and predictable. For example, they fired plains before rain to bring on green pick. Grazing marsupials travel to fresh grass; red kangaroos especially chase rain for many miles to find it. Having spaced a template of plains, people fired them in turn to move the marsupials in a predictable sequence. The forest rings both sheltered the animals and made them easier to hunt. W hen they grew spear-shy on one plain, another was nearby, fresh with green pick. On Cape York the grass–forest edges people made for kangaroos were three or four miles apart, the distance kangaroos there travel when frightened4. Good feed made kangaroos abundant, and feeding them in sequence made them convenient and predictable. Other plants and animals required different fire regimes or no fire at all. Burning therefore followed numberless intricate local patterns. We call this mosaic or patch burning, but these words miss the variety and the purposeful association of plant communities which made Aboriginal practice so remarkable.
The essential for making and managing land was ceremony, which people and animals alike performed. The chief ally was fire, even in the desert5. A desert fire is not a contradiction in Australia, though deliberate desert fires were fewer in the south than the centre and north 6. Fire was an important totem, like all creation dangerous when out of control, but usually a valued friend. People placed and moved plant and thus animal communities by judicious burning or not burning. This demanded hard work, care, and restraint, but the Law threatened obliteration if it were not done, and people could do it because they had minutely detailed local knowledge. Each family cared for its own country, so that no land was left uncared for.
Thus Aborigines did not depend for food on the whims of nature, as cultivators like Robert Malthus imagined. They controlled their food supply. They did not merely hope to chance on food, but chose what food to seek, and went knowing where to get it. In bad droughts, when there was no grass to burn or less point in burning because there was no rain, and particular foods were under stress, people responded not by intensifying the search for those foods as Europeans might, but by banning their consumption to ensure their future. They fell back on less preferred foods. In tough times desert people increased rather than reduced the range of foods they ate7. But nowhere did people expect to starve. They had made their resources predictable.
The extent of that achievement is seen in the deserts. Aborigines lived in them permanently. Australia ‘s most characteristic desert plant is spinifex ( Triodia spp ). For Aborigines it is more an association than a plant: different words are used for the stages of its growth. Many small animals eat young spinifex and shelter in old, so spinifex was burnt in patches to make the edges they needed. Because Europeans stopped such burning, many such species are now extinct or endangered8. Another desert association was mulga and grass near water, which European explorers often came upon. In the far north-east of South Australia in February 1845, late summer, Charles Sturt saw
This is bleak country today, as is a creek runout west of Alice Springs, which Ernest Giles, a tough and observant traveller, described in September 1872:
The little plain looked bright and green… The grass and herbage here were excellent. There were numerous kangaroos and emus… [and] many evidences of native camping places about here; and no doubt the natives look upon this little circle as their happy hunting grounds. Our little plain is… fringed with scrub nearly all round… thick, indeed very dense, scrub, which continued to the foot of the hills; in it the grass was long, dry, and tangled with dead and dry burnt sticks and timber, making it exceedingly difficult to walk through. Reaching the foot of the hills, I found the natives had recently burnt all the vegetation from their sides, leaving the stones, of which it was composed, perfectly bare… [Returning to] the racecourse plain, we then entered some mulga scrub… [it] had been recently burnt near the edge of the plain; but the further we got into it, the worse it became 10.
In April 1889 WH Tietkins called this same spot ‘park-like and very attractive to the eye’, and in April 1873 Peter Warburton thought similar country nearby ‘beautiful, with park-like scenery and splendid grass’12.
Unlike my dictionary these men knew they were in desert, but not that its parks were made. On Giles’ plain the least flammable vegetation was burnt; the most flammable was not. People had fired the plain gently, carefully not burning a surrounding ring of scrub and dry grass, but burning clear the rocky hill edges beyond. That took skill. Giles described many such associations, widely dispersed, including in 1875 at Boundary Dam on the Western Australian border far to the south, in what he called ‘probably the worst desert upon the face of the earth’13. But he had more time to write than I have to talk, so I offer just one more example:
On each bank of the creek was a strip of green and open ground, so richly grassed and so beautifully bedecked with flowers that it seemed like suddenly escaping from purgatory into paradise when emerging from the recesses of the scrubs on to the banks of this beautiful, I might wish to call it, stream… Natives had been here very recently, and the scrubs were burning, not far off to the northwards, in the neighbourhood of the creek channel14.
Parks were places of use and beauty. Desert travellers picked them out. But notice that no matter in what month they wrote – February, April, August, September – they saw no people. This is because desert people managed their country so well that they could reserve their parks for large gatherings or bad droughts. Sturt wrote near Dieri country, where the missionary JG Reuther later reported that people deliberately reserved their most productive areas for bad droughts 15. So did the Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara in whose country Giles, Tietkins and Warburton were16. In October 1896, in really tough desert he thought ‘absolutely useless to man or beast’17, David Carnegie noted of Helena Spring that it was the best water for hundreds of miles, much used by birds and animals, but
Curiously enough, but few native camps were to be seen, nor is this the first time that I have noticed that the best waters are least used… These desert people… have some provident habits, for first the small native wells are used, and only when these are exhausted are the more permanent waters resorted to18.
This was a most significant achievement. Aborigines everywhere managed their country so that they could set aside their most productive areas for special purposes: that is why they could hold ceremonies so often. But for desert people to keep the same Law, in cultivator terms to make productive not the oasis but the desert, not the garden but the wilderness, was remarkable.
How mentally disabling European notions of desert now become. Roget’s Thesaurus (172) associates it with ‘Unproductiveness… aridity, dryness, desolation, wastelands, lunar landscape, wild, wilderness, howling waste, dustbowl, treeless, bleak, gaunt, bare, barren, infertile, sour, sterile, withered, shrivelled, blasted, unprolific, unfruitful’ and so on. For Aborigines who obey the Law, no land can be hostile. It is both a priceless gift and a sacred duty. A desert is a Garden of Eden, in both these senses.
Because people managed plants and animals so well, examples of cultivation are sporadic, probably aberrant. Even where a cultivator’s word might be apt, most non-Aborigines are squeamish about using it. To ‘farm’, my dictionary says, is to ‘Cultivate, till’. In south-west Victoria people built intricate systems of stone canals and weirs, each covering several kilometres, to farm eels, and on nearby plains they grew yams. If the season was right they burnt to expose the yams, dug over the ground so thoroughly that Europeans compared it with ploughed fields, and re-planted yam tops for future harvests19. Yams were similarly cultivated in the mid-north of both South Australia20 and West Australia21. There and elsewhere yams were stored.
In tuber country people rarely ate seeds. Even desert people delighted in winter harvests of yams22, and ate grass or tree seeds only when they had to23. But, perhaps like Europe’s and Asia ‘s ancestors, they often had to, and in that 200-250mm rainfall belt circling the deserts they farmed native millet, Panicum spp. In western New South Wales they protected millet from fire, harvested it, stacked and winnowed the grain, and ground it ‘into a kind of paste or bread’. ‘Dry heaps of this grass,’ Thomas Mitchell wrote:
that had been pulled expressly for the purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the [Narran] river, in which we rode through this grass only… it was what supplied the bread of the natives…24.
Other travellers saw millet, portulaca and other seeds being protected, harvested, winnowed and stored25. In the Northern Territory in 1870 Christopher Giles:
discovered a native granary. This was a rude platform built in a tree, about 7 or 8 feet from the ground, on this were placed in a heap a number of bags made of close netting. Dismounting, I climbed the tree to examine the bags, and was astonished to find that they contained different kinds of grain, stored up for the winter, or rather the dry season26.
In the same region in 1871, AC Ashwin found two granaries, one with ‘about a ton of seed stored there in 17 large dishes’. It was like rice, and tasted so good that Ashwin remarked, ‘pity we did not take more’27.
For cultivators farming is more than cultivating. It is essential for survival; it is a way of life. No Aboriginal person farmed in that sense. For months each year the Victorian eel and yam farmers lived by their crops in stone villages of up to 700 people. West Australian yam farmers too built villages, and early Europeans thought them de-skilled by dependence on yams. ‘They seemed very little addicted to hunting’, one official wrote, ‘and very few of them are even expert at tracking a Kangaroo. This may result from the great variety of edible roots, particularly the A-jack-o or warang which grows here in great abundance.’28 Harvesting and storing grain may also have anchored people. But it does not follow that they were on the way to needing to farm. They may equally have been moving away from it. Around the crops they kept up the same carefully distributed plant associations as did the rest of Australia. Perhaps they saw the danger: crops meant cleared land, which destroyed plant associations and made plains too large and too populated for much else. Mono-cropping diminished biodiversity, and edged people towards sedentism, making it harder to care for country as the Law required.
A ‘garden’, my dictionary states, is ‘1. Piece of ground devoted to growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables; ornamental grounds for public resort; specially fertile region.’ Scores of pieces of ground across Australia were devoted to growing plants29, and probably there were more before Europeans obliterated them unnoticed. They were in both ‘specially fertile regions’ and especially infertile regions. People on fertile Cape York, influenced but not persuaded by gardeners in Torres Strait, transplanted and protected tubers and fig and coconut seedlings30, yet still shaped their country into plant associations. Desert people burnt to fertilise yams and bulbs ( Cyperus bulbosus ) with ash31, and cultivated small areas of particular plants, notably bush tomato ( Solanum chippendalei ) which has an edible fruit, and two species of pituri ( Duboisia hopwoodii or Nicotiana spp ), tobacco. They protected these plants from fire, watered them if necessary, harvested, stored and traded them, and replenished the crop by leaving fruit or seed plants32. They thought this desirable obviously, but not necessary. Daphne Nash argues that they cultivated for social and cultural reasons, notably for ceremony and keeping in touch with country and kin33. Their gardening was sporadic and within the Law, not undermining plant associations or offending rules on fire, local control, or species diversity.
How might we describe Aboriginal Australia? Not with cultivator words for terrain, such as bush, wilderness or desert. Australia was a made land, made under the same Law. In that sense it was the world’s largest, but the world’s largest what? Estate? Park? Farm? Garden? N one is apt. All distinguish cultivators from hunter-gatherers, and all privilege cultivator land-use: managed above seemingly unmanaged, cultivated above uncultivated. These distinctions matter because Europeans believe them, but they are not peculiarly European. Peter Dwyer has compared three Papua New Guinea Highlands groups, one gardening, one gardening and hunting, and one hunter-gathering. The more a group cultivated, Dwyer found, the more it drew mental and physical boundaries around its cultivation. The hunters had no sense of wilderness: all their world was their domain, and the bush was welcoming. The hunter-gardeners were cautious of the bush but used it. The gardeners thought of their gardens as property, and the bush beyond as hiding hostile spirits, as wilderness34.
‘Wilderness’ and ‘desert’ have particular meanings for cultivators. They are places without estates or farms or gardens. Whereas cultivation is defined by what it is, they are defined by what they are not: ‘uncultivated’, ‘treeless’ and so on. Yet they help define cultivated places, by patrolling their boundaries. Gardens for example are imagined by what is without as well as within, as in Babylon, Eden, Gethsemane, Botanic and backyard. Boundaries are cultivation’s unspoken essential. If non-Aborigines tended crops or pituri as Aborigines did, they would feel obliged to put up a fence, and then, depending on the scale, they would call it farming or gardening. How then can cultivator words describe a whole continent managed as one? A continent, perhaps uniquely, without a single fence, a single marker which cultivators might recognise as bounding property, ownership, limits? Without fences, Aboriginal land management became invisible to invading cultivators.
Cultivator land-use words reflect ways to replicate nature, or order it, or ‘improve’ it. Each requires nature to be controlled, and that controlling makes boundaries not merely physical and mental, but habitual. I suggested earlier that how the dictionary defines ‘desert’ engenders notions of landscape utterly foreign to Aboriginal people. We speak of ‘desert gardens’; if they used our words they would speak of ‘garden deserts’. Our words trap them. Thinking of land as a garden or farm can turn a creator’s gift into desert, a park into wilderness, a decent, God-fearing plant into a weed. It can make some people feel civilized by thinking others barbarian. Our words also trap us. They leave us unable even to see, let alone say, how an entire continent was managed for thousands of years.
Bill Gammage is a fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University.
5. For examples RA Gould, ‘Uses and effects of fire among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia’, Mankind 8, 1971, 14-24; ND Burrows et al, ‘Nyaruninpa: Pintupi burning in the Australian Western Desert ‘, Native Solutions Symposium, Hobart 2000.
8. AA Burbidge et al, ‘Vanishing desert mammals’, Landscape 2, 1987, 7-12; ‘Aboriginal knowledge of the mammals of the central deserts of Australia ‘, Australian Wildlife Research 15, 1988, 9-39; Burrows et al, 2.
19. GA Robinson 1841 journal in NSW Governor’s Despatches 1842, 927-30, Mitchell Library A1230; I Clark (ed), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Melbourne 1998, vol 2, 162-3, 196-7, 308; H Lourandos, Continent of Hunter-Gatherers, Cambridge 1997; H Lourandos in DJ Mulvaney & JP White (ed), Australians to 1788, Sydney 1987, 298-307.
20.EJ Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound , Adelaide 1964, 42, 27 June 1840. ( Georgetown area near Crystal Brook).
25. H Allen, ‘Where the Crow Flies Backwards: Man and Land in the Darling Basin’, ANU Anthropology PhD, 1972, 77-83, 92-3, 96-7; Sturt, vol 1, 226, 285, 294, December 1844 – March 1845; RG Kimber, ‘Beginnings of farming? Some man-plant-animal relationships in central Australia ‘, Mankind 10, 1976, 142-50.
30. DR Harris, ‘Subsistence strategies across Torres Strait’ in J Allen et al (ed), Sunda and Sahul, London 1977, 452; RA Hynes & AK Chase, ‘Plants, sites and domiculture: Aboriginal influence upon plant communities in Cape York Peninsula’, Archaeology in Oceania 17, 1982, 38-50.