Masters of the blaze
The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia
by Bill Gammage
Allen & Unwin, $49.99 hb, 464 pp, 9781742377483
This bold book, with its lucid prose and vivid illustrations, will be discussed for years to come. It is not original in the narrow sense of the word, but it takes an important idea to new heights because of the author’s persistence and skill. Bill Gammage, an oldish and experienced historian of rural background, looks at nearly every region of Australia, its surface landscape and vegetation. His conclusion is that the Aborigines ‘made Australia’ largely by their knowledge of ecology and their repeated and alert use of fire. He argues in detail that in 1788 even the vegetation of what became our capital cities was determined largely by persistent Aboriginal burnings. The positioning of the trees and the type of trees, the pattern of the grasses and shrubs, and whether the surrounding countryside was park-like or heavily timbered – all were influenced by the Aborigines and their practices. He almost says that Australia, botanically and visually, is a deliberate work of art: that a black Capability Brown and his descendants lived here.