Bill Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate: How Aborigines Made Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2012) radically changed how I see and understand the Australian natural landscape as well as my understanding of Australian history.
Gammage shares of a number of early European landscape paintings of the Australian bush and matches it with written descriptions of the day as well. As Gammage observes, these early artists provide very clear evidence that Aborigines had sophisticated and intentional farming practices. Aborigines cultivated and sculpted the landscape in order to preserve, encourage and enable more efficient harvesting and hunting. In some places they worked gently with the landscape, fauna, and flora, but in other places, stronger steps were taken to reshape the land to fit their needs.
Gammage argues that for indigenous land management practices, “Mere sustainability was not enough. Abundance was normal. This was a tremendous advantage. It made plants easier to concentrate, to burn, to let fallow, to make park-like, to share. It made life comfortable … people generally had plenty to eat, few hours of work a day, and much time for religion and recreation.”
The Biggest Estate on Earth has challenged me, who has spent a lifetime outdoors, to see and appreciate the Australian landscape in news ways. It has highlighted to me that I need to be aware of the assumptions that shape how I perceive the world and those around me.