By Steven & Evan Strong
The Fire Within
The fires burning throughout Australia are without precedent and utterly appalling, of that consequence, irrespective of why, no-one can question. That there is chaos, destruction, the death of millions of animals, burning of rainforests and the air we breathe is beyond toxic, is undeniable. It would seem nothing of benefit has come out of this disaster. But that is not true, for amongst the scenes many have likened to ‘hell on earth,’ there is the real opportunity to heal and repair this country. This is the blessed moment to heal a gaping wound in our country, to do something so stunning that it will right wrongs and a theft that still tears this country apart.
What is very poorly understood is that it is not just the bush that is burning out of control, there is an even larger inferno burning in hearts and spirits of many young Original men and women, and it will just keeping burning and cannot be extinguished with another bucket of water. Up our way (far North Coast NSW), just recently, there is a lot of talk about young Original groups bashing people of every colour, for no apparent reason. The violence is quite severe, and some victims have come close to dying. It is so easy to sheet all the blame on the perpetrators who are raging within, so frustrated with their life there is no storm or rain cloud that can dowse these flames. So they strike out.
They have given up on society, with no prospect of a job, any positive future or reason to hope, all they own is their unbridled anger. All the official programs and attempts to intervene are bound to fail for one simple reason, hope is lost and someone else is to blame. But amongst the despair and resignation, there is a simple fool-proof solution that cannot fail, but only if we as a nation become bold and radical. More of the same will only see more trees and souls burn.
First up, the Australian bush is a 100% human construct, that is the fundamental base upon which all management plans must be subservient to. The bush needs soft burns to regenerate, if there is no fire the trees and bush will not regenerate, if the fire is as incredibly intense as it is now, nothing will survive. It is that simple, there are two divergent ways to address this and more of the same is failing abysmally.
Core samples extracted at both Lake George (126,000 years) and the Great Barrier Reef (186,000 years), not only confirm that Original people were using fire to manage the land, but because of these human activities some forms of vegetation thrived. It is well known that eucalypts were quite scarce in number and location until the advent of fire-stick farming, and that because of human soft burning, gum trees, wattles and other trees that rely on fire, became more numerous.
Fire, not uncontrolled infernos, made the bush the way it is today. Dr. Charlie Massey, who is a leader in an Originally inspired farming practise called “regenerative farming,”(1) succinctly summed up the divide in how the land was regarded. “We just grazed the crap out of the land and destroyed it; what we are dealing with now is a degraded ecosystem.”(2) In ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ “Aboriginal methods were replaced by what Dr. Massey described as an industrial farming method that was: “knock the hell out of the country to extract what you want.”(3)
One of Many
The encouraging part of this groundswell response is that Charlie Massey is not an Original advocate, nor some crazy New Age do-gooder, but just being sensible, and he is not alone in according stewardship of this horrific set of circumstances back to original keepers of the Old Ways. What was shared with the public over a year ago was that “Indigenous cultural burning has been reintroduced in Central Victoria for the first time in almost 200 years.”(4) “Forest Fire Management Victoria and Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DDWCAC) will bring back the practise.”(5) The director of the group could only see positive outcomes both ways in that it “will not only help Indigenous people to their history, but also assist in maintaining the land for future generations.”(6)
Trent Nelson made a point that has been lost for centuries, the Original people never agreed to any of this, from dispossession through the theft of land and management routines, in every case Original rights were stolen. “For the Dja Dja Wurrung people it’s about having our right to bring back our practises that our ancestors did many years ago.”(7) For me, the use of our three times in one sentence crystallises how this practise will embolden the Original people as it will be their culture, knowledge and input that will lead this renaissance.
But make no mistake these are not isolated events, many non-Original people and authorities have known that the current fire-fighting practises can no longer cope, three years earlier the “Bega Local Aboriginal Lands Council in New South Wales began a cultural burning program as part of its management strategy for their landholdings.”(8) Equally, the support for this ancient practise is not limited to some Original advocates a few sympathetic farmers. Scott Falconer is liaising with Trent and “is the Assistant Chief Fire Officer with Forest Fire Management Victoria”(9) and sees all of this as a “huge achievement.”(10) His endorsement of Original involvement and leadership is open-ended insisting that “one of the roles of non-Original people is to enable and build capability, and then just get out of the way.”(11)
Stunning! He gets it completely, arrange, stand back and listen to the experts. This is how we put out the infernos, by letting the people who know lead. But it goes further, that fire in the belly of so many angry original youths can be satiated and dowsed. “Mr Nelson said cultural burnings help re-connect Indigenous people with their history … we want to use the fire as a technique and a tool to heal country but also healing our people.”(12) Of one thing Trent Nelson was adamant, this “can be mutually beneficial.”(13)
Indigenous Rangers Can Read Their Country
Up at the Top End “the Yugul Mangi Rangers of south-east Arnhem Land carry on an ancient oral tradition of looking after country.”(14) They burn when they should, when Nature allows it, “when the dragonflies come, so too will the cold.”(15) They also know that “in April, after the rains have stopped, burning can begin again. Tribal Elder, Ranger Winston Thompson, knows if man and nature work in cooperation and “you look after Mother Nature, and Mother Nature will look after you.”(16)
It’s all about reading the country and empathising with the needs of the earth first, this is not an exclusive black-fella arrangement, its just pure common sense. Whether this country burns, soft or hard, is our call, but it will keep burning. That is its nature and calling, and it is time for us to start listening and responding. Anyone can do it and it has nothing to do with colour.
Wirritjin is Blazing in the Bush
Wirritjin is a Ramindjeri term that means Black-fella, White-fella Dreaming, and is the only way forward. Yet another example of the efficacy of Original burning practises, and equally the only solution ahead relates to what happens when the owners of a property adopted this ancient farming technique.
“I came around the bend and could see my hut still standing, I just couldn’t believe it … It burnt right around the house … it was as if somebody had been watching it and putting it out, but there wasn’t, there was nobody here at all.”(17) The “owners say the property was saved by the traditional Indigenous technique of cultural burning conducted on their land three years ago.”(18) In what is an absolute assurance that the house was not just lucky or remained untouched due to a freak occurrence, “the only hut not protected by cultural burning, 500 metres from the main house, was destroyed in the blaze.”(19)
There are more, many many more stories like these, too many to dismiss and more than enough to immediately employ from this point on. There is talk of a national conference after the fires settle convened by politicians. That is concerning because unless chaired by an Original Elder where the main agenda is not if, but how, to best employ an Original fire-fighting routines, it will be another talk-fest and so much like what happens when global leaders meet to equivocate on global environmental concerns.
The answer is already here, has been for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no point looking forward or sideways, we need to go back to how it was and employ Original rangers all over the country ready and willing to soft burn as it had been for so long before. There was never a bush fire of this magnitude in this country until the white fellas came, so let’s go back and deal with this just like the experts did for so long. It is time to invite the Original people, not as spectators, but as our bosses, It is that simple, we stuffed up badly, it’s time to hand the baton back the owners and do what they say.
If we do it their way, the koalas, kangaroos, insects. lizards and every animal on this continent has a real chance, if not, then you better get used to it, because it will not get better, but much worse. We either grow up now and stand together behind an Original path or continue to burn down the house as it gets hotter. There is only one way out of this mess, and it is Original in setting and direction. It is all our call, and if we don’t do something now the days that follow will be appalling.
1-3: Bill Brown, 24 May 2016. “Monaro farmers use Aboriginal cool-burn fires to recover biodiversity, rejuvenate degraded farm land”, ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-24/monaro-farmers-use-aboriginal-cool-burn-fires-to-recover/7440824 (08/01/2020).
4-13: Sean Wales, 31 Jan 2019. “Cultural burning to return to Victoria after 170 years in the hope of revitalising the land”, ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-31/indigenous-cultural-burning-to-return-to-victoria/10761772 (08/01/2020).
14-16: Jo Khan, 28 November 2019. Indigenous knowledge combines with Western science to look after country, ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-11-27/indigenous-knowledge-combines-with-western-science/11738400 (08/01/2020).
17-18: Ella Archibald-Binge and Rhett Wyman, 6 January 2020. “‘It’s miraculous’: Owners say cultural burning saved their property”, Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/it-s-miraculous-owners-say-cultural-burning-saved-their-property-20200103-p53okc.html (08/01/2020)