Nov 16, 2016

Aboriginal Original Garden of Eden?

The difference between want and need
is self control.


Many Aborigines do not want pictures taken of their faces but are ok with hands and feet
Designs in the sand can express dreamtime

What is the Garden of Eden?  Eden is the Hebrew word for delight or pleasure or the Aramaic word for fruitful.  Can Eden be any state or place of complete peace and happiness?  Is it a physical location or a state of blessed existence? 
Many words conjure up Eden: paradise, promised land, heaven on earth, utopia, land of milk and honey, dreamland, seventh heaven, wonderland, bliss, nirvana, manna, land of plenty, Shangri-La, etc…

Understandably, no one wants to be expelled from Eden…

Can it be both a place and a state of mind?

As we marveled at the unique beauty of Australia, we came across a book that explains how Australia became the largest continental garden without fence, thanks to 50,000 years of careful tending by the Aborigines.  Following is what we learned from the book The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, a very interesting and compelling scholarly work propounding a novel explanation for this magnificent landscape.  I was also inspired from the book review by Adrian Hyland.
You know how famous and beautiful English Gardens are right? 

English Garden (

Can you believe that the first British explorers who came in contact with Australia in 1788 were in awe of the landscape of that country? Calling it ‘park’ or ‘estate-like’ in which large trees were carefully situated within pampered grassland, providing sustenance and shelter to a vast array of grazing animals?

What the newly landed explorers saw was NOT wilderness, but a landscape that reflected a sophisticated, successful, and sensible ‘farming’ regime integrated across the whole Australian landmass.
The ‘touch’ of the Aboriginals was so light that the first explorers speculated no one had lived there in 200 years!  A fiction of ‘terra nullius’, empty land, spread erroneously.

The landscape was so well integrated and maintained that the settlers found no adequate words to describe what they saw.
Black – represents the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Yellow circle – represents the Sun, the giver of life and protector.
Red – represents the red earth, the red ochre used in ceremonies
and Aboriginal peoples' spiritual relation to the land.

The Law of the Aboriginals:

That Law requires that every inch of ground be cared for, even the harshest country was cared for not simply for its productivity but because it was alive with ancestors and descendants.  It was made to let ALL creation survive.
Aboriginals made and managed the continent by shaping and distributing its vegetation.  Plants and animals therefore were where they put them or let them be.
Tim Acker, Lungarta (blue lizard) Dreaming
The Dreaming:

The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it – not better or worse, but the same.  Land care is the main purpose of life.  All must care for the land and its creatures, all must be regenerated by care and ceremony, no soul must be extinguished, no totem put at risk, no habitat reduced.  That mandate made land care purposeful, universal and predictable.
Over wide areas people knew the land’s geographic, ecological and spiritual fabric.  They knew that the Dreaming was universal, that how they managed country mattered to creation, that they were contributors to a greater whole.  Yet of all creatures they were most likely to unbalance creation, by increasing their population, so they limited their numbers.  Long-term equitable resource use depended on this, otherwise sooner or later it would disintegrate and in inevitable bad times people would confront catastrophe. 
Many laws and customs restricted family size, among them mobility, old marrying young, totem prohibitions and restrictions especially for women, abortion, dislike of twins, in extreme cases infanticide, and other ‘powerful regulatory mechanisms’.  There were NO population-driven conquests, and almost no territorial expansion.  Everywhere population levels seem tuned not to ‘normal’ times but to harsh and erratic uncertainty, and not merely to bad times but to the worst times, such as giant floods or 100 year droughts, shorthand for the severest droughts of a drought-ridden continent.
Sand and petals (or feathers) painting
They believed that there was no division between Time and Eternity. Art was voluminous and intricate: imagine a dot painting on sand several meters square, composed of different colored feathers, most of them tiny, stuck down with blood.  Songs were long, corroborees (event where aborigines interact with Dreamtime through music, dance, costumes, and art) might last months, initiations years.  A rich and time-eating spiritual life builds on abundance, not poverty.  It was made by skilled, detailed and provident management of country.

Slavery was unknown!  People prized knowledge as Europeans prized wealth.  Country was not property.  If anything, families belong to the ground.

Place of Abundance:

People were so affluent and provident that they could declare fauna sanctuaries.  Such places calibrated abundance.
There is a distinct concept of maintaining a specific supply, and of culling from it, in a known area.  Such slaughter was reducing excess, not reducing excessively.  It was balance not waste.

Stored foods were probably used for ceremonial purposes and do not appear to have played a critical role in tiding people over severe droughts.
Fire doesn't hurt the trees, only regenerates the grasses
Fire as Tool and Ally:

Fire was not an indiscriminate tool of fuel reduction or grass promotion but carefully employed to ensure certain plants and animals flourished, to facilitate access and rotation, and to ensure resources were abundant, convenient, and predictable.  Fire is drought with legs but where drought is rarely a friend, fire often is. 
Fire can be an ally.  Controlled fire and its ceremony was the pre-conquest main management tool.  Digging sticks were second, dams and canals third. Fire was an important totem.  Uncontrolled fire was a most serious offence.  The rules for fire and fire use are many and varied, and are dependent upon an intimate knowledge of the physical and spiritual nature of each portion of the land.  Fuel was a resource.  It was managed, not eliminated.
Learning curve of fire management:
The more fuel is reduced, the more easily fire is controlled, and up to a point the more useful it is.

Even hot fires leave unburnt patches, but the cooler the fire the bigger the patches.
Burnt and unburnt patches benefit animals by balancing burnt (feed) and unburnt (shelter) country.
Patches form mosaics, which can be adjusted in size by varying fire intensity.
Intensity can be regulated by fire frequency and timing.
Frequency and timing are local.  They depend on local flora and local moderators like rain, wind, temperature and aspect.
The better people understand these variables, the more they can burn with purpose.  They can move from limiting fuel to shaping country.
This lets them selectively locate fire tolerant and fire sensitive plants, situate and shape mosaics and resources conveniently and predictably, and arrange them in sequence so one supplies what another does not.
Australia becomes a single estate, varied in means but not ends.
Maintaining the estate is enforced by universal Law.
Fire was a life study.  Seasons vary, rain is erratic, plants have life cycles, fire has long and short term effects, people differ on what to favor.  How each species responded to fire had to be set against deciding which to locate where.  In Australia’s center, old-growth fire sensitive plants are rare and live in poor country.  In good country fuel builds up and fire kills them. Here was a dilemma (fire kills sensitive species but no fire lets fuel build up) and a solution (locate such species on poor land where less fuel means fewer fires).  Many such dilemmas demanded detailed local knowledge, yet in 1788 people shepherded fire around their country, caging, invigorating, locating, smoothing the immense complexity of Australia’s plants and animals into such harmony that few newcomers saw any hint of a momentous achievement.

When the wind was right, people burnt inside the forest, gently to reduce surface litter, more intensely to make clearings and track.  A good fire was slow enough to let animals escape and people keep up.  Correct fire was a ‘horticultural’ tool.  Nothing was accidental or incidental: people acted deliberately to improve quality and yield.
Judicious use of fire was the single most important aspect of the desert economy.  Not only can burning increase the total quantity of plant foods, but it can also reduce the effort required to harvest their products.  Persuading fire to do what you want it to do takes finesse and persistence.
Fire killed insects.  It destroyed the various broods of insects that nestle about the roots of the grasses.  How restricted insects were in 1788 is conveyed by their massive increase since.  Timely fire may also explain the seeming absence in 1788 of the biblical-scale bird, insect and mice plagues farmers periodically suffer today.
Timely smoke increased seed germination from about 8 percent to 63 percent in certain cases (millet for one).
A bad fire was better than no fire, for no fire let fuel build up, making a bad fire worse.  Good things came from fire.  It made the land comfortable, comforting, bountiful and beautiful. 
Five features marked 1788 fire.  It was planned; it was precise; it could be repeated hence predicted; it was organized locally, and it was universal – like song lines, it united Australia.
Centuries of controlled fire burn back rainforest without ever touching certain fire sensitive trees
Various types of fires were used for various outcomes: frequent and cool for hunting and keeping certain types of trees alive and animals alive.  Harvesting more than hunting as they knew exactly where the animals would be based on their known behaviors vs. fire, etc.
Various fire managements; yearly, every 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 years, etc.  Each one demanded detailed local knowledge of fuel loads, winds and future resources needs, and skillful, timely burning. 
Elder explains: ‘You burn a little patch, for wallabies and kangaroos to live on, instead of you hunting them, they’ll come to you.  In panic, they keep to the open where they move faster, so rainforest shepherds them into water or uphill, depending on the wind chosen.  While men hunted, women could get food in screened places without startling animals.’

NSW State Library.  Importance of parallel lines in Aboriginal culture
Fire for Tracking, Traveling or Communication:

Trade webs meshed thousands of kilometers, among the world’s most extensive systems of human communication recorded in hunter-gatherer societies. 

People also burnt to make walking easier.  This ranged from clearing grass ahead to making viewpoints, roads or tracks through forest, scrub, mangroves or reeds.

Fire could signal.  A line of smokes showed their direction and their destination, purpose and identity.  Smoke was like a party phone: everyone knew what the neighbors were doing.

Walkabout Dreamtime story
Not Farmers but Hunter-Gatherer-Cultivator:

Aborigines ate almost everything, many more foods than Europeans ate, perhaps a greater variety than any society on earth in 1788.  Food was so abundant that they could obtain, in two or three hours, a sufficient supply of food for the day.  They were not people worried about where their next meal might come from.
They went to the extent of using specific templates to make resources abundant, convenient, and predictable.  They had complete control over their food supply.  It was much easier and predictable than farming with much less work.
Particular animal and plant communities needed and got very precise fire timings and intensity.  For example, badly timed fire promotes unpalatable perennials.  Different plant communities embracing different fire responses thrived in 1788.  Multiply this by Australia’s 25,000 species and a management regime of breathtaking complexity emerges. 
Pastoralists in the early 19th century often tried to mimic, with little success, this management technique that they called ‘fire-stick farming’. 
People farmed in 1788, but were not farmers.  These are not the same: one is an activity, the other a lifestyle.
No attempt was made to grow crops or breed animals, ritual and magic being employed to maintain food-supplies.
They were mobile.  No livestock or beast of burden anchored them.  They did not stay in their houses or by their crops.  Sedentism has been used to disqualify Aborigines as farmers.
Aboriginal women worked less than farmers’ wives yet got food more certainly.  Settlers never saw aboriginal women come in empty-handed, even in 1935 when there was a serious drought.
Aborigines worked many fewer hours a day to secure food and shelter than farmers anywhere.  Being a farmer implies full-time work.  No one did that in 1788!
In 1788 similarly, people never depended on farming.  Mobility was much more important.  It let people tend plants and animals in regions impossible for farmers today, and manage Australia more sustainably than their dispossessors.  It was the critical difference between them and farmers.
In 1788 plants and animals had souls, making ritual more effective than cultivation in managing them.  People negotiated as well as tended, offering preferred conditions to persuade, not command. 
With less labor and no guarding, they managed resources as reliably as did fencing.
Templates for Various Desires:

Templates for hunting, harvesting, camping, sanctuary and perhaps even ceremony?  Templates for plants might divert and disperse animals, templates for animals must be away from crops; there was no point in having a crop eaten, or in luring animals to places people regularly disturbed.  A patch alone rarely supports any animal.  Some use it, some its edges, some move from patch to patch, and some stay between.  Patches too many or too few let game scatter, too small made it flighty, too big put feed too far from shelter or spear.   

What was not burnt mattered as much as what was.  These problems were met by connecting unlike templates, and by leaving some templates dormant while others were active, so that none detracted from another’s working.  Mobility made this possible: people walked not only to care for country, but to leave it alone.  Speckling land and sea in this way secured diversity, predictability and convenience.   

Example: Usually only young kangaroo males travel far, but reds can see and smell rain up to 20 kilometers away, and will move up to 30 kilometers to green pick.  Both fear recent killing ground, so places to lure them must be changed frequently, and the 'roos left to forget the spears.
Template system spread and programmed was more drought and flood evading, more certain, than a farm.
The simplest way to move a template was to drive successive grass fires down-wind into forest, and let forest recapture grass on the trailing edge.  This cycled each plant community, yet kept plains a useful hunting size, and over centuries steadily moved grass-forest templates across country.  In northwest Tasmania in the 1950’s Bill Mollison noted 1788 plains moved progressively north to south by firing rainforest.  At south edges grass gave way abruptly to mature rainforest; in the north eucalypts were advancing onto grassland.  There was no soil change.  Every few years hot summer northerlies sweep down from the mainland, bringing shriveling heat.  Tasmanians waited for it, moved clear of the young eucalypts north, and drove grass fires south in the rainforest.  Slowly, sometimes no doubt by mere meters, they pushed the rainforest south, regulating the eucalypts north to match.
On the other hand, water could be used to anchor a template.  It was a valuable component, varying and extending resources, most obviously in dry country. People also built stake, bark and mud dams to stop lagoons and vine-forests drying out, attracting birds and nourishing plants ‘so that we can get plenty of food easily.’ The dams and grass were for animals, the wells for people.
They also saw the value of swamps in 1788.  Dozens surrounded the lower Swan (near today’s Perth), some big, some small, with tubers, roots, crayfish, mussels, birds, eggs, tortoises, snakes and goannas.  Fish and eel traps threaded the water, and templates improved the land.  On better alluvial soils huts stood by yam grounds, and eucalypts or acacias split Kangaroo and similar grasses into plains. 
Banana, yam, taro, and several fruits and nuts cultivated in Malaysia and New Guinea are ‘wild’ in Australia.  People had ‘freed’ them.
Aboriginal Australian people, through a long prehistory, used fire as a tool to create, conserve and exploit fine-grained habitat mosaics; thus, increasing bio-diversity and developing a raised carrying capacity, allowing increased human numbers; leading to further diversified and intensified usage, in a positive feedback spiral and/or to mechanisms of demographic restraint. No chance of Nature, no careless hand, no random fire, could make so rich a paradise. People changed the country precisely and locally.  Their sharp-edged fires put an immense diversity of plants and animals within easy reach of every family.
Canberra 2008 - Recognition of Australian Aboriginals (
The Demise of the Aboriginal Garden of Eden:

Sadly, without fences, aboriginal land management was invisible to the invading cultivators.  They were not aware that they were ‘inheriting’ the most beautiful garden in the world.
Also, sadly, with the loss of knowledge of the way of the Aboriginals, much today has been lost, plants, animals, flowers, colors, sounds, etc.  Erosion, hardening of soil leading to needing more water to keep plants thriving, dirty water, all effects of the settlers’ ways of farming.   Since 1788 at least 23 mammal species have become extinct for lack of proper fire technique, most of them starving to death.

Land is becoming saltier.  It used to be kept down by the correct type of burning promoting saltbush and perennial grasses mitigating salinity and ability to hold soil together.
Without fences, ‘burnt ground’ concentrated kangaroos and cattle in the same places for the same reasons.  No wonder settlers took such country so quickly; grass templates were farms without fences.  The very spots most valuable to the aborigines for their productiveness, the creeks, water courses, and rivers, were the first to be occupied.
Settlers complained that the soil was ‘exceedingly’ friable and rich, making it difficult for their horses to pull.  Soft, spongy, absorbent soil let water soak in rather than run off, so less rain sustained more plants.  Now cattle made the surface soils so hard that seeds have difficulty germinating, constricting water sources and the foods they nourished.
Grass used to be widely available even during the toughest season, now it is sparse.
People today think of what animals need.  In 1788 people thought of what animals prefer.  This is a crucial difference.  What animals prefer always attracts them.  Controlled fire could govern where animals would and would not go because Australia, alone of continents, had few big predators.  Crocodile, dingo, goanna, snake, eagle, quoll and Tasmanian tiger and devil exhaust the list, and some of these scavenge more than hunt.
Non-aborigines are too many, too centralized, too stratified, too comfortable too conservative, too successful, or too ignorant.  They champion sustainability, which evokes merely surviving, whereas 1788 people assumed abundance.
Australia is a world leader in animal and plant extinctions, reflecting how ancient and vital 1788’s unnatural fires were.
A lot of what you see today is manmade drought… Then, central Australia was regarded as fat cattle country.
Hard work and planning were constant, but so vital that after 1788 the few survivors left risked their lives to keep doing it.
Aboriginal sand painting

In The End...:
In some past time, probably distant, the focus of the Aborigines tipped from land use to land care.  They sanctioned key principles: think long term; leave the world as it is; think globally, act locally; ally with fire; control population.  They were active, not passive, striving for balance and continuity to make all life abundant, convenient, and predictable.
‘We have a continent to learn.  If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country.  If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.’
Today aborigines sometimes have more say in fire management, and whenever a city burns more people accept control fires, though these remain too few.
Can we ever achieve balance?
Many scientists contest the ideas proposed in this book but it is difficult to ignore nearly 300 pages of first person’s accounts: settlers, surveyors, botanists, painters, farmers, all expressing in words or paintings what they witnessed in 1788.
They cannot see the aboriginal conviction that people risk their souls if they do not manage every inch of ground they are responsible for.  How far this conviction impinges on any land at any time is subjective and variable, but decisive.  Science rarely admits culture; culture is subjective, which science has made a subjective decision to deny.
I believe Australia’s aborigines lived in an Eden of mind and place that settlers managed to destroy in fewer than 3 years by not understanding it, seeing it, nor believing in it.  So much knowledge lost, such a shame.
We are saddened by the loss of this indigenous culture.  Australia seems to be one of the few (if not the only) place on earth inhabited by human beings who actually became an integral part of a continuing ecosystem.  This culture not only survived, but thrived through eons of global climate changes.  The people seemed to have evolved together without significant strife and war with one another.  The things we moderns could learn from these people!  Maybe there is enough left to resurrect a model we can learn from… 

No comments:

Post a Comment

We are always happy to hear from you but at times it may take a while to get a reply - all depends if we have access to the internet.