Aborigines, "wilderness", and us.

(Extract from a publication on bush camping - currently in preparation)

When you are out in the wildest, least visited parts of Australia it is easy to believe that you are in a place that was forever thus; "virgin" lands, in which the only tracks, apart from your own, have come from the indigenous reptiles, birds, monotremes and marsupials.

 Firstly, Virginia, despite what you might have heard in primary school, there are heaps of Australian "placental" mammals (i.e. mammals that don't have a pouch and give birth to well developed live young, like rats, mice, dogs, cats, and you and me!) that pre-date European, and even Aboriginal, occupation of Australia. We have - or had at the time of white occupation, 56 native rats and mice, and 58 species of bats, quite apart the 40 or so species of marine mammals that either live on, or visit , our coastal waters. All told, this adds up to nearly 160 species of placental mammals, compared to only 131 marsupials and 2 monotremes.

There is even some evidence that placental mammals may have been in Australia prior to the arrival of the marsupials, giving the lie to the old story of the "backward" marsupials giving way to the inexorable march of the "more advanced" placentals. In fact, in Australia since white ocupation, the extinction rate of both indigenous marsupial and placental mammals has been about the same and the most successful indigenous animals since white occupation, the kangaroo and the brushtail possum, are both marsupials!

 More importantly though, wherever you are in Australia, you are standing in a place which was once (and in many places may still be) the traditional home of the first people to settle this country, and whose activity had played a major part in the development of its natural systems at the time of white occupation.

We often hear of wilderness being "pristine" or "untouched by humans". Outside of Antarctica, perhaps a handful of small islands, and the tops of the highest mountain ranges, no such places have existed on earth for many thousands of years.

Some, pro-development, lobbyists use this fact as an argument for the wholesale destruction of the "natural" environment. If it was lived in, and changed, by aborigines for thousands of years then why make such a fuss about a road here, a mine there, or a tourist resort at the end of the road? On the other hand, some of those opposed to development in such areas simply ignore it, and either assume that the absence of Aboriginal people has no significant effect on the environment, or believe that the areas are somehow "better off" and "more natural" with them gone.

I think they are both wrong.

 Firstly, let's look at the "they had already changed it so why shouldn't we change it some more" argument.

One of the fundamental issues involved in "change" , whether it be social or environmental, concerns the rate at which it occurs. In natural systems, changes are usually very slow (at least in human terms). The same can be said for the changes wrought by Aborigines. They were gradual changes occuring over thousands of human generations (the current evidence suggests that Aborigines may have lived in Australia for up to a 100,000 years, certainly no less than 40,000).

Gradual change allows "natural" evolutionary processes to occur. Australia's eucalypt forests spread significantly as a result of Aboriginal fire management practices, but at a pace which enabled the maintenance of a high level of natural diversity through migration and selection. The resulting systems were in a state of dynamic balance, maintaining both extensive diversity and balanced inter-relationships between the species represented.

Extremely rapid change, of the type experienced in Australia since non-Aboriginal humans arrived, has markedly different effects. Land use practices and the introduction of new species of plant and animal have dramatically changed the face of much of Australia. Many of the introduced plants and animals, lacking any natural biological controls, have spread like the wildfires that have raged periodically since Aboriginal fire management practices were abandoned, wiping out indigenous species and leading to a dramatic reduction in diversity. In response, on occasion, we have attempted to introduce biological controls fom other places. Sometimes the "cure" has proved far worse than the problem. Nobody needs to be reminded about the problems posed by introduction of the cane toad.

 But by far the most potent impact of non-Aboriginal society derives from the sheer number of people and the vast areas of land involved. In south eastern and south western Australia particularly, but in many parts of the country as well, few areas remain in which little change has occured. For a large country with a small population our record is deplorable in areas such as land degradation, deforestation, and species extinction. Per head of population we are also one of the top five producers of greenhouse gasses. Land clearing is a major contributor to this.

 The extent of the changes in the last two hundred give great urgency to the need for protection of the areas that remain relatively unscathed. The vast size of Australia, compared to its small population has encouraged great profligacy. We are now dealing with a far smaller "pool" of land than we were when we first occupied Australia. Each new acre lost is the equivalent of perhaps a thousand at the time of first occupation. Moreover, with modern technology, it is far easier today to cause massive damage in a short period of time. Far easier than at the time when the "pioneers" were "opening up" new country. Far easier than it was even twenty or thirty years ago.

We have turned over a huge percentage of the land of this country to the purposes of economic gain, often with little thought for the consequences, and little real examination of long term economics. It is now long past the time when we should have said "enough is enough". By doing so, we will both help the remainder to survive comparatively unscathed and encourage more effective, and more economically productive, use of the vast areas which have already been changed forever.

 As for the first people, from a population of at least 300,000 at the time of first occupation (and many contemporary estimates put the figure at around 1 million), the Aboriginal population fell to below 70,000 in the 1920's and 1930's. Massacres occurred as recently as 1928 , well within memory of many living people , both black and white (and by which time, the Federal government was sitting in Canberra, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was well under way and Australians believed that they had left their colonial past far behind).

Whenever I find myself sitting at a pleasant waterhole, on the edge of an estuary or beside a stream in some remote place I immensely enjoy the sounds that the silence allows, the singing birds, the leaves in the wind, sometimes the fish jumping or animals in the undergrowth. But I also feel a sadness for sounds that can no longer be heard in many parts of this land, the children playing, and the song, laughter and conversation from the men's and women's camps.

The bush is redolent with reminders of their lives. Middens along the coastal fringes, canoe trees near the major rivers, the plants and animals that fed and provided shelter and the other essentials of life for countless generations of people. Whenever you take a drink from a cool mountain stream, or an oyster or mussel from the rocks in a coastal estuary, think of the people who came before and of what has been taken from them.

Think too, of their living descendants and relations in many parts of Australia, who, despite changes in the last 20 years, still face an uphill battle to protect sacred sites, their land and their rights, often in circumstances far less pleasant than those which we enjoy in "our" national parks and "state" forests.

Even more importantly, teach your children a real respect for Aboriginal people, a knowledge of the injustices which they have suffered and an understanding of their way of life and of the land in which they live and lived. To do so, it is necessary to understand something of the way in which Aboriginal people think of the land.

 Most non-Aboriginal people think of places of spiritual significance as places which stand out, clearly identifiable from the landscape. For most of us, these places are human creations - churches, temples, and the like. Aboriginal people built no such structures. Instead the whole of the land, and of the natural world which occupies it, is invested with significance. All of its features, all of its resources, all of its creatures, are imbued with something of the spirit of the creative beings of the dreamtime (just as, in the Christian religion for example, the wine of communion is believed to be the blood of Christ, but on a far broader scale).

When an Aboriginal person sees a mulga tree or a kangaroo, they don't just see a physical object. They see (or think) an associated dreaming, a connection with a huge body of accumulated secular and spiritual knowledge, a pattern of ancestral and contemporary importance, recorded in part in the "dreamings" - the song cycles and myths which record the activities of the heroic ancestors of the dreamtime.

Within this landscape of spiritual , social and economic significance, there are a vast number of "places" of particularly great spiritual value, commonly called "sacred sites". I say "places" in inverted commas, because a sacred site may range in size from a single boulder to a mountain range, from a tree to a forest, from a minute waterhole to a major river or a salt lake like Lake Eyre or Lake Torrens. These sites locate specific activities of the heroic creative beings as told in the song cycles, but they are more than simply markers in the landscape. They are the ancestors themselves, and their creations. Interference with them invokes the threat of both human and divine intervention.

The number of "sacred sites" in Australia is vast. I have recorded upwards of three hundred on a single Northern Territory cattle station, and even then I suspect we were only recording the most significant.

Linking these sites are the paths along which the heroic beings travel. Any watercourse, plain, or sand-dune is the product of such activity. Along this route, every significant tree, every rocky outcrop may be a named site imbued with the power of the travelling beings.

But sacred sites, important as they are, cannot be simply extracted from the context in which they exist. There is no simple boundary line between the sacred and the profane, between the holy and the human domain.

Within the broad landscape, created, punctuated, and named by the heroic ancestors, everything; the plants, the animals, the people, the very earth itself are a product of their activity. A man or a woman, an animal, a stone, a sacred object may all be called 'brother" or "sister", because they are the product of a particular ancestor. In Aboriginal eyes they become, in a sense, the ancestor itself.

 The difference of viewpoint between Aborigines and others lies at the heart of many of the disputes which occur whenever western development has spread into Aboriginal lands. For westerners, our "sacred places" are compartmentalised; separated from the rest of life, humanly created wherever it may be convenient. For the Aborigines they are intimately tied to the land and to nature. They are not moveable, convenient places which can be retired to when the spiritual side of nature requires refreshment - sacred equivalents of the corner store! They are the land itself. Wherever you look in Australia you are looking at land which Aboriginal eyes, either living or dead, have looked on as the embodiment of the most profound spiritual processes.

 For most of the time since the arrival of white people, the Aboriginal perspective on land has simply been ignored. We have built, felled, planted, bulldozed, brought cattle, or mined, wherever we wanted to, totally ignoring Aboriginal interests, perceptions, and beliefs. In recent times, the last ten or twenty years, we have become a little more understanding. Or perhaps we have simply realised, subconsciously and belatedly, that when we trample on the rights, interests and beliefs of other people we demean and debase our own "civilisation", and, in the process invite the same sort treatment from others.

Today, we have laws which provide some protection for "sacred sites", laws which provide a grudging and miserly recognition of prior Aboriginal interests in land, and a population which knows perhaps a little more about , and has a little more respect for, Aboriginal culture.

It seems to me however that we have not yet grasped the enormity of the gulf which separates Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perceptions. We mark out "sacred sites" for protection as if they were similar to our own "corner stores" of religion, arguing that surely a fence here or a sign there will be sufficient to "protect" them. There was even a proposal to locate sacred stones on a concrete plinth in the middle of a proposed recreation lake near Alice Springs as a form of "protection". In so doing we ignore the meaning of the sites, the nature of their relationships with the world, their spiritual importance and, in our materialistic fashion, protect only the "object".

 We are surprised, even sceptical, when each new development proposal runs into problems with potential damage to sites of importance. We should not be, given the significance of all of this land, and all of its features to its original inhabitants. Instead we should be concerned that, albeit often unknowingly, we have destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of others in the course our occupation, and that over much of Australia, we have gone close to destroying the people who invested them with profound meaning and a depth of spiritual importance that we are only beginning to comprehend.

 And finally of course, we continue to ask for a little more. Surely, we say, a tourist development here, a bridge or a mine there is only encroaching just a little further on the Aboriginal sacred domain. Surely the jobs, the profits, the exports, the possibilities for recreation, make their sacrifice worthwhile on this particular occasion. But, of course, it is always their sacrifice and our profit (or at least the profit of the more powerful members of our community) which we are speaking of.

The damage of the past, we can rarely undo (though, given the will, we could provide more genuine compensation for past acts ). We can however use our best endeavours to prevent further abuses. We can also, perhaps, make some small amends by respecting the natural world which lies at the heart of their ideology, and teach our children to do likewise.

By doing so we will also benefit our own culture. Aboriginal traditions emphasise holistic understanding of the natural world; a recognition of the inter-relatedness of people, place and nature. The reductionism, the attempt to understand by breaking everything down into its parts, which has fuelled our material advances, has also led us away from an understanding of these inter-relationships, to a point where some of us are unable to see the magnificance of a forest because of the dollar value of the timber as woodchips. We focus on the small, the components that can be isolated without much in the way of either thought or feeling, at the expense of the complex, the indescribable, the beautiful.

Ultimately, no doubt, our forest consuming dollars will, for a while, buy us some fascinating plastic or electronic trinkets, most of which we will throw away after being briefly entertained. No doubt it will buy some of us far more important stuff such as food and shelter, but as a community we could easily provide this for those concerned by other means.

Ultimately too, unless we take a leaf from the Aboriginal book and incorporate an understanding of the importance of inter-relationships in nature into our ideological core, we shall lose our forests altogether - at the same time losing something of our ability to buy trinkets and, more importantly, an opportunity to transcend our past pettiness and greed.

Rod Hagen
©Rod Hagen 1995

Back to Rod Hagen's Home Page

email the author