Upper Lachlan Landcare Presents: An evening with Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage Centre with Paul Hodgkinson Agronomist/Native Grassland specialist (left) and Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer (right)
Bill Gammage Centre with Paul Hodgkinson Agronomist/Native Grassland specialist (left) and Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer (right)

Upper Lachlan Landcare Inc hosted an evening with award winning author and historian Bill Gammage at the Breadalbane Hall last week. Over 80 people attended the event to hear the highly sought after author give a lecture based on his latest book The Biggest Estate on Earth; How Aborigines Made Australia which has claimed a bevy of prizes over the past year including the Prime Ministers Prize for history and the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature to name just two.

Guest included Upper Lachlan Landcare Committee members, Landcare members from all over the catchment and beyond, bird specialist Tony Saunders, Agronomist/Native Grassland specialist Paul Hodgkinson, and members from the Indigenous Community including Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer who gave a moving “Welcome to Country” before Gammages presentation. Mr Mortimer said that he felt privileged to be involved with Landcare and praised the Landcare community for all of the good work looking after country.

The Biggest Estate on Earth; How Aborigines Made Australia  which took 12 years of research reveals that Aboriginal Australians used complex land management systems to transform the continent into vast parklands reminiscent of an English country estate.

Author Mr Bill Gammage says that he first became aware that there was a much greater level of influence by Aboriginal people on the landscape, than people realised whilst studying a local area, Narrandera in New South Wales. “The more I pursued it the more I could see that the management that Aborigines used was very precise, very detailed and very comprehensive.” Says Gammage.” I have to say that really the simplest and most effective piece of evidence to me was to contrast what country was like then with what it is like now. A common question I had was ‘If trees are growing in this spot now, why weren’t they growing in 1788? Why was it grass then and trees now?’ And that question was very fruitful for me.”

Gammage states that” Aboriginal people worked hard to make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable. By distributing plants and associating them in mosaics, then using these to lure and locate animals, Aborigines made Australia as it was in 1788, when Europeans arrived”. It was a tapestry of patterns,” says Gammage. “You had trees next to grass and grass broken up by clumps of trees, forest broken up by clearings and so on. It was a mosaic of different kinds of plant communities and that was true whether it was rainforest or spinifex.”

Gammage explained that “When Europeans first came to Australia; they assumed that what they saw was natural. They often described the landscapes as ‘parks’. Like the gentlemen’s parks in England where you have grass and forest and so on. “But it never occurred to them that the parks in Australia could have been made; it didn’t occur to them that ‘wandering savages’ could have done such a thing. So their common assumption was that they were seeing a natural landscape.” Says Gammage.

Fire was the most important tool for shaping the landscape, says Gammage. Where it suited they worked with the country, accepting or consolidating its character, but if it didn’t suit they changed the country, sometimes dramatically, with fire or no fire.

“We think of fire as an enemy, as something to be fearful of and treat it carefully. For Aboriginal people it was a totem and it was an ally and they learnt to work with it. They could predict where it would go, how long it would burn for and how hot.” And just as importantly “No fire” because a conscious decision not to burn also regulates plants and animals. They judged equally what to burn and what not, when, how often, and how hot. They cleared undergrowth, and they put grass on good soil, clearings in dense and open forest, and tree or scrub clumps in grassland” argues Gammage.

Ngambri Aboriginal Elder, Shane Mortimer praised Bill Gammage and stated  “Gammage’s presentation demonstrated intimate personal knowledge of the topic and dispels any myth around lifestyle of Aboriginal People” Mr Mortimer says.” By drawing on visual imagery by colonial Artists and writers, Gammage emphasised efficiency of a People’s ability prior to 1788 to manage every square centimetre of our land like it was “a gentleman’s estate” with ease, ecological balance and time for family, community and the Arts, unlike post 1788 J.O.B. (just over broke) repression European style.”

“The World’s Biggest Estate” “brings clarity to the sophistication of Aboriginal life and reason for ritual. It has brought a balance that engenders understanding of Aboriginal ways and the need to reflect, but not project our past into our future and live like rats on a wheel.” Says Mortimer.

Upper Lachlan Landcare chair, Nerida Croker said that the overwhelming response from the landcarers attending the presentation was very positive to the ideas expressed by Mr Gammage and there has been a lot of interest in bringing Mr Gammage back for a walk in the landscape in the new year.

The event was funded through Lachlandcare Inc. as part of the Regional Landcare Facilitators program.

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Kevin Watchirs Bronwyn Wicks
Kevin Watchirs Bronwyn Wicks
Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer with Dalton Biodynamic Lamb producer Vince Heffernan
Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer with Dalton Biodynamic Lamb producer Vince Heffernan
National Serrated Tussock, Chilean Needlegrass and Fireweed Coordinator, Bronwen Wicks, and Currawang grazier and artist ,Margie Fitzpatrick
National Serrated Tussock, Chilean Needlegrass and Fireweed Coordinator, Bronwen Wicks, and Currawang grazier and artist ,Margie Fitzpatrick
John and Jan Weatherstone "Lyndfield Park"
John and Jan Weatherstone “Lyndfield Park”
Katz Ries and Sinclair Bell "Wandara" Breadalbane
Katz Ries and Sinclair Bell “Wandara” Breadalbane

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Full House for Landcare Dinner
Full House for Landcare Dinner
Weclome to Country Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer
Weclome to Country Ngambri Aboriginal Elder Shane Mortimer

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