Recreating the Country blog
In this blog Gib describes a Traditional Owner cool burn and looks at its cultural importance through the eyes of indigenous leaders.
Gib argues that Australians could learn how to conduct cultural burns in a 'Fire Masters' course, taught and managed by indigenous experts. This would ensure that the method remains pure and achieves desired outcomes such as reduced fire risk in summer and restored biodiversity.
Photos by Gib Wettenhall unless otherwise cited
Cultural burning as an agent of renewal
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 who had learnt how to use fire growing up in the Western Desert.
From a young age, his community had placed a box of matches in his hands and he grew 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.”
The principles of indigenous fire management
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,
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.
Two years 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 white smoke rose and enveloped us.
Understanding local winds is important
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 fashionably known in the Landcare movement, are underpinned by a socio/religious aspect.
Fire and culture
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.
"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".
Understanding the 'three laws' of Wind, Fire and Rain
“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 underly 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 scientific ‘experts.’ 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 cool burning of 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.
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?
A 'Fire Masters' course for managers of rural landscapes
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 has proven so successful in skilling up farm foresters world-wide. It would incorporate the best of both worlds – Indigenous traditional knowledge on mosaic pattern 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. They must lead any cultural burning component and be fully engaged in devising course content.
"We must not, however, as so often happens, take over and speak for Aboriginal people when adapting their traditional expert knowledge of deploying fire. They must lead any cultural burning component and be fully engaged in devising course content".
Monitoring the impact
Two issues stand out for serious consideration before making any attempt to roll out cultural burning more widely across the landscape. First, little monitoring has taken place of the impact on native vegetation and wildlife from either cultural burns or CFA/Forest Fire Management cool burns.
Anecdotal reports are an unreliable substitute. As a first step, more monitoring of both forms of ‘hazard’ reduction ought to occur as a precursor to implementing any wider landholder training in cultural or cool burning.
We need more Traditional Owner teachers with the knowledge
A related issue is the lack of knowledgeable cultural burners and who trains more of them and how.
Richard McTernan, the co-ordinator with Wooragee Landcare, has worked extensively with Traditional Owners in the south, like Uncle Rod Mason, who hold cultural knowledge of fire. A ceremonial fire man, Uncle Rod now lives in south coast NSW and is considered by his senior men as the knowledge holder in the south-east corner of the country.
Richard has focused for much of his life on increasing the use of Indigenous ecological knowledge and assisting the local Aboriginal community in traditional land management. He has taken part in organising some 10 cultural burns.
“Burning country is not learnt over night and I believe local knowledge of the environment is essential,” he contends.
He goes on to highlight two tricky, entwined questions: who has the right to speak for country and who has proper traditional fire knowledge for that country?
The first impinges on often invisible Indigenous protocols and enters the dangerous territory of cultural appropriation. The second relates to ensuring that cultural fire training is both rigorous and relevant to a particular place. Empowering people to burn without proper training may only lead to further devastation of land and wildlife. We will need to tread round these two thorny questions carefully.
"Burning country is not learnt overnight and I believe local knowledge of the environment is essential" Richard McTernan
Connecting Aboriginal people back to their cultural identity
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 Indigenous man, Dean Heta, spoke passionately about how so many 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.
Guest blogger for February, Gib Wettenhall.
Gib Wettenhall has for 25 years written, edited and published books and articles, which acknowledge that the 65,000 year-old Indigenous heritage we have inherited makes Australian landscapes as much cultural as natural.
He is the author of The People of Budj Bim, written in collaboration with the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, which in 2011 was Overall Winner of the Victorian Community History Awards. Also, author of The People of Gariwerd, the Grampians’ Aboriginal history, recently reprinted a 3rd time in association with Brambuk. He is currently writing and producing the 3rd in a series of booklets with the Yirralka Rangers, titled Keeping Country, on the bi-cultural approach adopted by this Indigenous land management group in north-east Arnhem Land.
As the principal of em PRESS Publishing, his books include Stephen Murphy’s Recreating the Country and Tanya Loo’s nature journal set in the Wombat Forest, Daylesford Nature Diary, which reintroduces a six season Indigenous calendar for the foothill forests. In 2006, he wove the Indigenous heritage of the Gariwerd/Grampians ranges into a series of essays published in a high quality landscape format book with photographs by Alison Pouliot, Gariwerd: Reflecting on the Grampians. He researched and wrote the interpretive signage for the Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre and is writing the content for interpretive signage for the Budj Bim landscape, which gained World Heritage listing in 2019.
Gib can be contacted on email@example.com His publications and past essays can be viewed on www.empresspublishing.com.au
It’s the 2020 summer fire season - Australia shouldn't be burning like this
You might be expecting this blog to be about climate change, it could be, but it's not.
Its about how we need to work with nature and manage our native bush differently to get ready for the annual fire season.
We need to change the way we prepare for the summer because its clear that our current strategies are tragically failing us.
Partly the solution lies in fire safe design of rural houses and gardens, but the ultimate solution will be found through adopting Traditional Owner cool burning methods of managing the bush.
Here is a link to an 11 minute video of a Traditional Owner burn near Tathra, NSW. You can watch the indigenous team conduct a burn as they explain the philosophy and science behind what they're doing. Its definitely worth watching to the end.
My radio transmits the troubled voices of the people who are living through the fires. They are shocked but still remarkably resilient and upbeat. Lives lost, houses lost, treasured animals and possessions lost, the bush is blackened and lifeless, yet they’re going to carry on.
This annual bushfire tragedy and how we respond is part of our national identity. We’re a tough and irrepressible people and we’re proud of that
The fire season started very early this year and by New Year’s Day there have been major bushfires in every state. Starting in Queensland and New South Wales in late October and slowly spreading south. By the start of 2020 Victoria and Tasmania were in the fires deadly grip. In November there were also catastrophic fires near Perth, WA and in the Adelaide hills. They continue to burn.
Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are blanketed with smoke. The ABC news reported on New Year’s Day that Canberra had the worst air quality of any city in the world. That’s worse than New Delhi, India or Lahore, Pakistan.
We saw it coming but we were powerless
What is particularly alarming is that we seem to be powerless to avoid this annual national fire disaster, even though months before it started, a bad fire season had been predicted. What does this say about our ability to plan ahead?
By planning ahead I don’t mean having the fire trucks serviced and thousands of brave firefighter’s skilled-up. I don’t mean advising country people how to get their properties ready for the hot summer.
These are all important aspects of preparing for a fire season but they are still only short term plans, piecemeal and reactionary. It’s like training an army and preparing citizens just in case there is a war to fight. But we know it’s better to avoid war at all costs and not suffer the human tragedy.
It seems that as a nation we are prepared to accept that every year somewhere ‘shit will happen’ - forests will burn, homes will burn and lives will be lost?
That’s tragically not good enough! This piecemeal approach is clearly failing us. We can do better.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Albert Einstein.
It’s not startling news that summer bushfires have been a feature of Australia since settlement. A devastating bushfire burnt nearly half of Victoria on ‘Black Thursday’ 6th February 1851. The loss of property and life was tragic and crippling then.
Since 1851 we have become much more sophisticated in how we fight fires but the end result is still the same, loss of forests, loss of homes and loss of life.
Why do we continue to make the same mistakes year after year, decade after decade and be surprised (horrified) when it’s always the same terrible outcome?
We have failed to make country people safe in their homes and safe in their communities.
Making country communities safe needs;
Fire-safe rating building codes.
We know how to design and build fire-safe homes. Fire proof structures have been well tested under extreme fire conditions by the CSIRO.
See this article on CSIRO testing and proposed new building standards
More and more country people are installing fire safe bunkers to survive an extreme fire event. These are commercially available. I have a friend at Meredith who has had two bunkers installed. She is an avid reader, so the second bunker is for her collection of books. Read this recent blog (Feb 2020) on bunkers from the CSIRO with some useful links if you are thinking of installing one on your property
Fire proofing modifications will add to building costs but they should be seen as essential to country living. Just as house design now has minimum permissible energy efficiency star ratings, buildings in the country should have minimal permissible fire ratings. All existing homes should have fire proofing retrofitted to make them safe.
To avoid a mass exodus from country areas we have to make homes fire-safe
These new costs should not have to be carried by people living in the country. They should be funded through government grants and interest free loans.
It is the government’s responsibility to prevent a disaster stimulated exodus from country areas. People who have a choice will see county living as too risky for themselves and their families, unless they know they will be safe if the unthinkable happens.
We need to encourage people to live in rural areas to take the pressure of our swelling cities. The extent and severity of bushfires can only become worse as global temperatures continue to rise, so its important that the choice of living in the country is a safe and viable one.
See this article on innovative designs for bushfire safe housing.
Building on past successes - social support systems
Community Fireguard in Victoria saves lives, as does the Community Fire Units in NSW and the Community Fire Safe program in SA. These programs are voluntary but the people who participate are far better prepared.
A Fire Authority trained guest speaker helps set up the framework and explains how it works. Members have property inspections and advice on how to improve fire safety. They set up phone support networks and have regular social meetings. They help each other prepare for a fire event both physically and emotionally.
Country communities are known for their willingness to help neighbours in times of need. Wouldn’t formalising social support systems like these fit our country ethos? These social support programs should be broadened to include every family living in the country. It should be seen as an essential (dare I say compulsory) part of life in the bush.
This link will take you to Victoria's Community Fireguard program
Radical change to landscape and garden design around country homes
Landscaping around homes can reduce fire risk. This means planting gardens and fire barriers with deciduous trees and watered gardens to create cool air in hot weather and enhance fire safety.
Australian native trees are designed to burn. The myrtle family (E.g. eucalypts, melaleucas, bottlebrush and tea-tree) all have flammable oils in their leaves. Most native species have evolved with fire and need fire for their reproduction. Having flammable native plants close to homes is dangerous.
Native windbreaks can lessen fire risk by significantly reducing wind speeds but they have to be sited at sensible distance from homes and be well maintained.
See this blog on 'Farm plantations can reduce bushfire risk'
Native gardens are a delight near a home but they can add to the fire risk if they become overgrown and woody.
See this blog on 'Managing native gardens for fire safety in southern rural Australia'
In contrast non-native deciduous trees and vines have a cooling effect on air and are difficult to burn. Deciduous trees will also trap and cool embers. Why aren’t deciduous trees used to protect homes? They could be strategically planted in the north and west fire danger sectors.
See this blog on - Deciduous trees can provide crucial bushfire protection in rural Australia
Radical change to fuel reduction burning.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the first settler diaries that devastating fires were rare when they arrived.
‘No newcomer reported the big killer fires typifying Sydney’s margins today’.
(Gammage B. 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia. P242)
The Australian bush that they found looked different to the bush that we know today. The plants were the same but the landscape was more open. It was like a ‘nobleman’s park’ because it was managed in a different way by Australia’s Traditional Owners.
Traditional Owner (TO) burning is cool and sensitive to the vegetation and the wildlife that live there. It’s described by indigenous people as ‘healing the landscape’ because it nurtures life in all its diversity. It may seem simple, but it was a sophisticated and powerful tool that they used to keep the bush open and safer.
With TO fuel reduction burns Air quality isn’t affected because cool burning gives off white smoke (mostly steam) and keeps most of the carbon on the ground. Hot fires produce black smoke which is full of carbon and unsafe to breath.
Click here to read about a house and sheds that were saved by Traditional Owner burning in the Hunter Valley on January 6th 2020
A Traditional Owner burn at Cape York where burning has been practiced for over 60,000 years. Photo Dale Smithyman
Read more on the Traditional Owner burning method here
This blog describes a Traditional Owner cool burn
Ancient Australian culture - the traditional skill of cool burning
After the fires we will be ready to talk about change?
There is a lot of denial, anger and compassion being expressed by Australians about this current bushfire tragedy and we know it’s not over yet. When the nation has worked through its grief it will be appropriate to do some ‘rational analyses’ of the extreme disaster we have witnessed.
We have to move beyond the national attitude that the fire season has to be endured. It’s time to see the practical benefits of Traditional Owner vegetation management practices and begin to adopt them. Home and property designs should be upgraded to provide a safe refuge. We have to start preparing for a warming climate with its predicted weather extremes.
While we will always need trained volunteers to fight fires, we should also be transitioning to a large trained workforce, lead by indigenous men and women, to conduct TO cool burns. This TO method of burning would be part of a new philosophy of working with nature rather than 'fighting' against her.
Nature can be a devastating enemy as we know. Wouldn’t we prefer nature to become our powerful ally?
Stephen Murphy is qualified in Geology and Environmental Management and has been a nurseryman and a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.