Robert Woods dancing as they mourn the loss of their art centre
In the early part of October on a windy hot day a grass fire burnt down the store room and gallery of the Papulankutja Art Centre. The fire destroyed all stock waiting to be sold to give the artists earnings and to pay for the running of the art centre. This included paintings, artefacts, bush soap and important works from artists who have since passed away. The loss of stock has been estimated at over $200,000
Papulankutja (also known as Blackstone) is about 80km west of the tristate (SA, WA, NT) border in the Ngaanyatjarra lands. Give yourself about 9-10 hours to drive into the closest major centre, Alice Springs.
They need help to rebuild and to assist with this they have started a crowd funding campaign to raise just over $37000 to assist with obtaining a new portable unit. There are some beautiful gifts for donating from $25 to $5000.
You can also buy in their Christmas sale with the artists giving 10% of all sales from new paintings since the fire to help rebuild their art centre.
Indigenous Australians systematically burnt grasslands to reduce fuel and stop fires raging out of control. Flickr/pietroizzo
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.
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.
“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.
A common management system can be recognised in enough dispersed places to say that the system was universal – that Australia was,
as the title says, a single estate, and that in this sense Aborigines made Australia.
Ted Strehlow, Debbie Rose, Peter Sutton and others offered insights on Aboriginal belief and practice, especially in the centre and north where traditional management survives best.
I learnt too from seeing in the bush how plant responses to fire or no fire declared their history, and from how people like Alfred Howitt, Bill Jackson, Beth Gott, Peter Latz and Daphne Nash related this to Aboriginal management.
Building on these resources
Bushes and trees, as well as grass, were necessarily associated and distributed. Grass eaters seek shelter as well as feed, and feed-shelter associations (“templates”) must be carefully placed so as not to disrupt each other, as this would make target animals unpredictable and the system pointless.
Given how long eucalypts live, templates might take centuries to set up. Each needed several distinct fire regimes, continuously managed and integrated with neighbours, to maintain the necessary conditions for fire-stick farming.
This system could hardly have land boundaries. There could not be a place where it was practised, and next to it a place where it wasn’t. Australia was inevitably a single estate, albeit with many managers.
Two factors blended to entrench this, one ecological, the other religious. Ecologically, once you lay out country variably to suit all other species, you are committed to complex and long-term land management. Aboriginal religious philosophy explained and enforced this, chiefly via totems. All things were responsible for others of its totem and their habitats.
For example, emu people must care for emus and emu habitats, and emus must care for them. There was too a lesser but still strong responsibility to other totems and habitats, ensuring that all things were always under care.
Totems underwrote the ecological arrangement of Australia, creating an entire continent managed under the same Law for similar biodiverse purposes, no matter what the vegetation.
Despite vastly different plant communities, from spinifex to rainforest, from Tasmania to the Kimberleys, there were the same plant patterns – the same relationship between food or medicine plants and shelter plants.
Blinkered to the obvious
Why has it taken so long to see the obvious?
Put simply, farming peoples see differently. Like our draught horses, we wear the blinkers agriculture imposes. Australia is not like the northern Europe from which most early settlers came. Burn Australia’s perennials and they come back green; burn Europe’s annuals and they die.
Again, you can predictably lure and locate Australia’s animals because there were almost no predators, whereas Europe’s many predators scattered prey, so the notion of using fire to locate resources was foreign there.
But above all we don’t see because farmers don’t think like hunter-gatherers. For us “wilderness” lies just beyond our boundaries; for them wilderness does not exist. Fences on the ground make fences in the mind.
Until Europeans came, Australia had no wilderness, and no terra nullius.
Today, amid the wreck of what Aborigines made, there remain relics of their management. They depended not on chance, but on policy. They shaped Australia to ensure continuity, balance, abundance and predictability. All are now in doubt.
In the face of such doubt, so basic and so sweeping, can we really say we are managing our country? Can we really say we are Australian?
For those lucky enough to receive NITV (National Indigenous TV) it will be on Saturday evening 20th Feb 8pm AEST.
In March 2001, the isolated community of Kiwirrkurra, located 1200 km to the east of Port Headland and 750 km west of Alice Springs, was inundated with floodwaters. The floodwaters caused essential services to fail, putting people’s health and safety at risk.
All 170 residents were evacuated, first to the neighbouring community of Kintore, then on to the Alice Springs Norforce Army base. Later the community were transferred to Morapoi in the Goldfields of Western Australia, before returning to their lands and community eighteen months later.
The resultant cultural and community disruption was profound, and there are important lessons for emergency managers and coordinating agencies in working with Indigenous communities to be learned from their experiences.
Welcome to a new, hopefully weekly post. I’ll show you the remains after our bush mechanics have finished with a vehicle or perhaps wrecked whitefella vehicles on holidays. I even have some pics of an old Jag on a disused hunting track.
Let’s start with a bang.
A squillion dollar piece of exploration equipment burns down on a major road and it would make the news. Not out here. Earlier this year on one of only a few East West crossings connecting Western Australia with the rest of the country this little beauty burnt to the ground.
It proved one thing. Three fire extinguishers on the truck just don’t make a difference. I also like the touch of the little safety triangles.
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