210121 tarkine

Cosmos Q&A: Caring for Country

Happy NAIDOC Week! This article was first published on 22 January, 2021.

Australia is faced with multiple environmental crises. Catastrophic bushfires are becoming more frequent and intense, we have the fastest rate of biodiversity loss on Earth, and the Great Barrier Reef is being critically threatened by marine heatwaves – to name a few.

To understand how we reached this point, Cosmos spoke with Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri man currently working on Wurundjeri Country as a physical geographer at the University of Melbourne.

Michael studies the patterns and processes that shape the world around us, in particular looking at how people create, alter, maintain and manage landscapes through time. We asked him about the problems stemming from modern Australia’s inability to connect to our unique landscape – and therefore how critical Indigenous people and knowledge are to the future of our country.

Could you give a brief description of the focus of your research, and why it’s important to understand how humans shape and relate to landscapes?

My research focuses on time. I investigate how landscapes evolve and change through time in response to various factors, such as climate change, disturbances such as fire or volcanoes, and the arrival of new species into landscapes. My work in Australia has principally focussed on how the arrival and continual occupation of the Australian continent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has shaped our landscapes through to the present day.

To do this, I use what is called the sub-fossil record – the remains of organisms and other environmental debris (such as charcoal) that are trapped in the layers of sediments in wetlands (lakes, bogs and swamps). Wetlands collect all kinds of information on their surface and trap that information in a waterlogged environment that is deprived of oxygen, meaning that decomposition is greatly slowed, and organic remains can be preserved for tens to millions of years. By extracting a column of sediment from these wetlands, we push back through time – unveiling a continuous record of environmental change that provides critical information about the sequence of events and processes that have produced modern landscapes.

I also use modern landscapes to provide hints about the past. Tree rings provide information about when certain trees became established. I look for oddities in landscapes, such as giant broad branching trees that only form in open landscapes now growing amongst dense forests of tall straight trees, and reaching high to compete for light.

My work has revealed that many of the landscapes we know and recognise in Australia today as “bush”, “natural” and/or “wilderness” are radically different than they were under Aboriginal management. It also reveals that some of the environmental problems we now face in Australia – catastrophic wildfires, soil salinisation and high extinction rates, for example – are recent problems. They’re problems that stem from the removal of millennia-old Aboriginal management from our landscapes. They are the direct result of our mismanagement of Australian environments. One example is our obsession with fire suppression and prevention, rather than using fire to maintain healthy Country. Another is the planting of crops that are unsuited to the harsh soil and climate in Australia, requiring harmful fertilisers and irrigation, while ignoring the fact that Aboriginal people grew grain and root crops that could represent sustainable alternatives.

Coupled with traditional knowledge, an understanding of the past can reveal what grows best, what type of fire is needed and what lived in the healthy Country that the British invaded and stole from Aboriginal people.

What does it mean to manage Country and what are the benefits of these land management techniques?

“Country” is a concept that includes everything in a landscape and, importantly, us. We are part of Country. Therefore, managing Country is to manage ourselves. This is a stark contrast to the schism between “nature” and “culture” that underpins the typical European attitude toward the world: one in which humans are separate, above, in control of “nature”.

The Aboriginal worldview underscores the reciprocity between humans and our world. For us to be healthy, all of Country needs to be healthy – healthy Country, healthy People. It is inconceivable in this worldview that we simply use our world to extract what we want without a care for the consequences. It obliges us to continually care for Country. Understand Country. Live and breathe Country. Be attached to Country.

The idea that you can manage vast swathes of landscapes remotely, as occurs in many of our parks and reserves today, is an anathema to healthy Country. So is the notion of “wilderness” – areas in which humans have no influence. “Wilderness” is a myth – a construct of Enlightenment-era philosophies that form the nature-culture divide in European-derived societies. There is no “wilderness” in Australia. And the notion that we need to remove people from our landscapes to protect them is destroying this continent. Causing catastrophic wildfires. Removing critical habitat contained within areas managed with the small-scale mosaic burning performed by Aboriginal people to keep Country healthy – cultural burning. The “wilderness” myth is destroying our continent. This continent needs management by people.

Do we have records of Australian ecosystems reaching back beyond 60,000 years? Is it possible to look at how the health and biodiversity of the environment changed as humans became an integral part of the Australian landscape?

There are few long records of environmental change in Australia that span the period before and after the initial arrival of this continent by Aboriginal people (>68,000 years ago) and the subsequent colonisation of the whole continent. Of those positioned to reveal the impact of the initial colonisation of the continent, it’s clear that Aboriginal people had a profound influence over Australian landscapes. In wet places, rainforests that dominated during periods of warm global climate (called interglacial periods – we are living in one now) are now dominated by fire-promoted vegetation. Aboriginal people arrived during a long period of cold global climate (a glacial period, or ice age). Glacials were cool and dry in Australia, resulting in large areas of treeless vegetation and a retreat of rainforests into tiny pockets where they could sustain their moisture requirements.

Aboriginal people managed and maintained these systems through the glacial and into the current interglacial, using fire to maintain open Country and restricting the expansion of rainforest into areas made suitable by the warmer and wetter climate. This all occurred over a period in excess of 68,000 years. This profound influence of the landscapes shaped the flora and fauna of the continent. In this way, the continent invaded by the British, who extolled the lushness and potential of the landscapes they saw, was a human construct. It was made and maintained by Aboriginal people.

You’ve proposed that the environmental problems facing Australia can be traced back to the devastation of colonisation. Could you expand on this? 

The removal of Aboriginal people from Country and the severe limitation placed on those that remain on Country have robbed Australia of the essential management it requires. For example, the removal of cultural burning has allowed forests to replace grasslands and open forests. This has increased fuel loads and created the conditions for the catastrophic fires we now face under increasingly hot and dry conditions. The removal of landscape mosaics produced by small-scale patch burning has homogenised our landscapes and robbed species areas of critical habitat for the various stages of their lifecycles. Over-irrigation to support unsuited crops has caused salts to rise in our soils, desertifying landscapes. Hooved animals have utterly destroyed soil profiles. The list goes on. Modern management of Australia is an abject failure and it stems from the explicitly racist attitudes of the continent that denied and continue to deny the key role of Aboriginal people in keeping this country healthy.

The way Australia experiences fire has changed over the past 200 years and it is now changing again as we see increasing climate extremes. Is it still beneficial to draw on traditional fire-management techniques? 

Most definitely. We need fire. We need more fire and people with the knowledge and relationship with Country to apply the fire – Aboriginal people. We cannot continue our futile and destructive attempts to suppress and prevent fire. It only makes things worse.

Could you talk about your work in the Tarkine in northwest Tasmania?

We used tree rings and wetland sediments to unpack the history of rainforests on part of what is now called the “Tarkine Wilderness”. This area – the Surrey Hills – was described in detail in 1827 by British surveyors as a 10,000-hectare expanse of grasslands and open forest dominated by giant, broad-branching gum trees. Now, in parts not overturned to silviculture (forestry), the area is dominated by rainforest – the type of rainforest that inspired the misnaming of southwest Tasmania as a “wilderness area”. It turns out that we could find no rainforest older than the mid-1800s. Instead, the sub-fossil record was full of grass and gum tree remains and lots of charcoal. These disappeared and rainforest moved in following the forced removal of Aboriginal people from Country. So this “wilderness” is only 200 years old and it has invaded Country actively maintained by Aboriginal people against the ever-present tide of rainforest invasion. Not only does this make us rethink the utility of the word and concept of “wilderness”, but it reveals the monumental amount of constant work that Aboriginal people undertook to keep it forest-free and bountiful!

Do you think Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are critical to the future of our ecosystems? How do we get more Australians caring for our country?

Indigenous knowledge is vital to the health of our continent. We are losing species faster than any other place on Earth because we have ignored this knowledge. It is time we sat down and listened to our First Peoples and actually hear what they have to say. It is time to trust Aboriginal people – give them the keys to the car and let them steer us out of this mess. It won’t be the same as before the British invasion, but it will increase our capacity to keep Country healthy. We need to learn from Aboriginal people about what our place is in Country – abandon the nature-culture divide and start respecting Country. All of us. Each and every day.

The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education resource based on this article. You can access it here.