I finished my introduction to Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth (Train Reading - introducing Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth, 11 September) with these words: "It's a fascinating book." I have now read it twice, and that remains my conclusion.
Just a reminder that the book examines the Aboriginal impact on the Australian landscape. The central thesis is that over the millennia the Aborigines modified the landscape to suit their needs. The book examines how they did it, as well as what happened when they stopped. The book has been somewhat controversial because it poses a fundamental challenge to some streams in the environmental movement by suggesting that their attempts to preserve the Australian environment are actually changing the environment, creating a new environment. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a different issue. Gammage's work simply challenges the premises built into many environmental campaigns.
One mark of a good book is the extent to which it causes the reader to stop and think. For that book and this reader, The Biggest Estate passes the test with flying colours. I found myself stopping to gaze out the train window and just think, testing what he wrote against my own knowledge. I also found myself digging around to find my ancient honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales. There I addressed some of the issues that Gammage would raise all those years later.
My honours class was the first at any Australian university to study Australian prehistory.
Isabel McBryde came to the University of New England in 1960 as a lecturer in classics and prehistory. Our knowledge of the human history of the Australian continent prior to 1788 was then very limited. Isabel believed that we needed detailed regional studies to provide the building blocks necessary for the development of a national picture. This view fitted with the the then ethos of UNE as a university with a regional focus, while also being part of an international community of teaching and scholarship.
One of Isabel's problems was the absence of any ethnohistorical studies of the North. As Isabel put it, New England's proto-history was tragically short because of the speed of collapse of traditional Aboriginal life. The writing that did exist describing traditional Aboriginal life was very fragmented. Despite this, Isabel believed that we could gain enormously from the material that was there, and therefore recruited students to help her. I was one such student.
I have run this photo before, but it shows me (right) with History Department tutor Mick Moore on a survey mission. It's a very New England scene and one that brings back to me the sheer excitement in what we did.
My thesis with its attempt to apply structures drawn from economics to traditional Aboriginal life was not especially well received. I looked at capital formation, at economic specialisation, at the distribution of population, at Aboriginal farming, at trade and exchange, at the Aboriginal impact on the environment. Re-reading, I take some pride in it's clarity. I think that I did pick issues that would become important later. And yet!
Memory is an imperfect beast. Thinking about my perceptions of the evolution of my own thought, I realised that I had not quite said the things that I thought I said. I knew the source material, and as people wrote later I interpreted their views against that material, not against the things that I had written. In doing so, I assumed that I had said things when in fact I had not. The environment is a case in point.
Part of the thesis centred on what was then called man-land interaction. I recognised the importance of the environment, but explicitly rejected the determinist idea that Aboriginal society was based just on the local environment and that, consequently, culture and society must vary as the environment changed. I recognised, too, that the Aborigines changed their environment, but I really didn't recognise the scale of the change when activities are thought of in terms of millennia.
Later I will look at some of the conclusions or assumptions in the thesis, for it's actually an interesting case study of thought frozen in a past time when so many current fields of Aboriginal study did not exist. For the moment, though, it was the environmental aspects that fascinated me.
As I gazed out the train window looking at the familiar scenes, my mind went back to 1788. Knowing the country as I do, knowing a little of the evidence and of the change processes that have taken place since 1788, how did I apply Bill's arguments to the area that I am writing about? The big paradigm shift lay in the rejection of the idea that the regional environment as I knew it was necessarily representative of past environments.
I knew that Aboriginal land management was far more active than was normally allowed. But how does one assess that and its impact when measured in thousands of years?