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					Gardens without fences? Landscape in Aboriginal Australia.

Bill Gammage
Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University.

What exactly is a desert? Geographers say it is land averaging less than 200mm of
rain a year. Many Australians equate it with central Australia, each setting the other’s
limits even though some of the Centre averages better than 250mm a year. The
Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘1. Uninhabited, desolate; uncultivated, barren.
2. Waterless & treeless region.’ These meanings jar those who know the Centre. Little
of it is desert in those senses. Dune systems circle 4000 kilometres through it 1, and
some move in the way film-makers seek out, but most are stable, with richly diverse
flora. ‘A veritable botanic garden’, one expert calls the Great Victoria Desert 2. Trees,
bushes, grasses, in the right season miles of flowers, make our deserts beautiful. The
dictionary meanings become statements of mind, not ground. They reflect the time in
European thinking when land-use ranked them and classified others, when lords held
domains or estates, peasants worked tenements or plots, and peoples were farmers
or herders or hunter-gatherers or gardeners.
     In Australia Europeans met people who seemed not to use land at all. So light
seemed the touch of the Aborigines that early voyagers speculated on whether
Australia was occupied, and for 200 years the fiction of terra nullius – empty land – lay
under Australian law. Arriving settlers found none of their landscape words adequate
for what they saw. They confused what they meant by ‘forest’ or ‘brush’ or ‘plain’, and
they resolved the confusion by broadening the meaning of a word brought from South
Africa: ‘bush’. In Britain a ‘bush’ was singular, usually gardened; in South Africa it was
generic; in Australia it became generic and symbolic. The Australian National
Dictionary has 13 dense double-column pages, its biggest grouping, of specifically
Australian meanings for ‘bush’ and such derivatives as ‘bushman’, ‘bushranger’ and
‘bushcraft’, many of which have entered English world-wide.
     In the bush, travellers used another word to describe particular landscapes:
‘park’. ‘Park’, the Concise Oxford says, is ‘1. Large enclosed piece of ground, usu.
with woodland and pasture... large tract of land kept in natural state for public benefit.’
Early Europeans used ‘park’ more than any other word to describe beautiful and
seemingly natural places. Parks dotted the bush. This is striking, for two reasons.
First, ‘park’ was not a word Europeans elsewhere then associated with nature. Until
‘National Park’ was later coined in the United States, a park was man-made. Second,
few now see parks in Australia’s natural landscape. Instead non-Aborigines use
another US word with exactly the opposite meaning: ‘wilderness’. ‘Wilderness’, the
dictionary says, is ‘Desert, uncultivated & uninhabited tract... part of garden left wild.’
In 1836 an Englishman used that meaning of the site of Adelaide, calling it ‘a desert; a
wilderness’ 3, but Australians today are not biblical: we no longer think like that. Today
‘wilderness’ is seemingly untouched forest, as in south-west Tasmania. Where the
dictionary defines desert as treeless and wilderness as desert, Australians see arid
lands flush with plants, and wilderness in their densest forests.
     Aboriginal Australians would think this still too Eurocentric. For them three words
from my dictionary might describe Australia’s landscape today: ‘garden left wild.’ Their
ancestors worked hard to make the park-like landscape early Europeans found. In
1788 Australia was everywhere made and managed. It has changed dramatically
since, fallen into disorder, part transformed but part rarely touched, left wild.
     The Aborigines made and managed Australia by shaping and distributing its
vegetation. Plants and therefore animals were where Aborigines put them or let them
be. Some areas were managed more intensively than others, but there was no
wilderness. Aboriginal Law required every inch of ground to be cared for. It taught that
the world began in the mind of God, who made the land, gave it light, and made
creator ancestors. Each creator ancestor began a species, travelled the land making
landmarks and legends associated with its species, then rested in the land, where he
or she remains today. People and animals alike saw the existence of all life and all the
land’s features as proof of a creator’s action and presence. They were under the most
sacred obligation to preserve that. They could not make the land ‘better’ or ‘worse’, for
that was not theirs to judge. They must leave the creators’ gifts as they found them.
     But it did not follow, as many non-Aborigines assume, that they must leave the
land untouched. That would let an ordered landscape decay – let the garden go wild -
threatening species habitat and survival, for example of species which need open
country in areas prone to become bush. Instead Aborigines inherited a regime of
attentive and integrated management. Land care was a fundamental duty of life,
linking the beginning of creation to the infinite future. It followed that all land must be
maintained. Even the harshest country was cared for not simply for its productivity, but
because it was alive with ancestors and descendants. Senses of purpose and place
reinforced each other.
     Over long periods, usually centuries, people laid down a template of plant
communities - rainforest, open forest, scrub, heath, grass and so on. They could leave
as it was what climax (natural) vegetation they needed, but they made the other
communities, and distributed them not randomly, but linked to each other, or
associated. A common association was a grass plain near water and ringed by open
forest; another was swamp, grass, and scrub or heath. Associations provided habitats
or edges between habitats for each plant and animal species, and balanced their
myriad conflicting needs. Aboriginal landscapes were consciously made to let all
creation survive.
     People used the templates to make resources abundant, convenient and
predictable. For example, they fired plains before rain to bring on green pick. Grazing
marsupials travel to fresh grass; red kangaroos especially chase rain for many miles
to find it. Having spaced a template of plains, people fired them in turn to move the
marsupials in a predictable sequence. The forest rings both sheltered the animals and
made them easier to hunt. W hen they grew spear-shy on one plain, another was
nearby, fresh with green pick. On Cape York the grass–forest edges people made for
kangaroos were three or four miles apart, the distance kangaroos there travel when
frightened4. Good feed made kangaroos abundant, and feeding them in sequence
made them convenient and predictable. Other plants and animals required different
fire regimes or no fire at all. Burning therefore followed numberless intricate local
patterns. We call this mosaic or patch burning, but these words miss the variety and
the purposeful association of plant communities which made Aboriginal practice so
     The essential for making and managing land was ceremony, which people and
animals alike performed. The chief ally was fire, even in the desert 5. A desert fire is
not a contradiction in Australia, though deliberate desert fires were fewer in the south
than the centre and north 6. Fire was an important totem, like all creation dangerous
when out of control, but usually a valued friend. People placed and moved plant and
thus animal communities by judicious burning or not burning. This demanded hard
work, care, and restraint, but the Law threatened obliteration if it were not done, and
people could do it because they had minutely detailed local knowledge. Each family
cared for its own country, so that no land was left uncared for.
     Thus Aborigines did not depend for food on the whims of nature, as cultivators
like Robert Malthus imagined. They controlled their food supply. They did not merely
hope to chance on food, but chose what food to seek, and went knowing where to get
it. In bad droughts, when there was no grass to burn or less point in burning because
there was no rain, and particular foods were under stress, people responded not by
intensifying the search for those foods as Europeans might, but by banning their
consumption to ensure their future. They fell back on less preferred foods. In tough
times desert people increased rather than reduced the range of foods they ate 7. But
nowhere did people expect to starve. They had made their resources predictable.
     The extent of that achievement is seen in the deserts. Aborigines lived in them
permanently. Australia’s most characteristic desert plant is spinifex (Triodia spp). For
Aborigines it is more an association than a plant: different words are used for the
stages of its growth. Many small animals eat young spinifex and shelter in old, s o
spinifex was burnt in patches to make the edges they needed. Because Europeans
stopped such burning, many such species are now extinct or endangered 8. Another
desert association was mulga and grass near water, which European explorers often
came upon. In the far north-east of South Australia in February 1845, late summer,
Charles Sturt saw
          a beautiful park-like plain covered with grass, having groups of ornamental
          trees scattered over it... I never saw a more beautiful spot. It was, however,
          limited in extent, being not more than eight miles in circumference...
          encircled by a line of gum-trees...9
This is bleak country today, as is a creek runout west of Alice Springs, which Ernest
Giles, a tough and observant traveller, described in September 1872:
          The little plain looked bright and green... The grass and herbage here were
          excellent. There were numerous kangaroos and emus... [and] many
          evidences of native camping places about here; and no doubt the natives
          look upon this little circle as their happy hunting grounds. Our little plain is...
          fringed with scrub nearly all round... thick, indeed very dense, scrub, which
          continued to the foot of the hills; in it the grass was long, dry, and tangled
          with dead and dry burnt sticks and timber, making it exceedingly difficult to
          walk through. Reaching the foot of the hills, I found the natives had recently
          burnt all the vegetation from their sides, leaving the stones, of which it was
          composed, perfectly bare... [Returning to] the racecourse plain, we then
          entered some mulga scrub... [it] had been recently burnt near the edge of
          the plain; but the further we got into it, the worse it became 10.
In April 1889 WH Tietkins called this same spot ‘park-like and very attractive to the
eye’11, and in April 1873 Peter Warburton thought similar country nearby ‘beautiful,
with park-like scenery and splendid grass’ 12.
     Unlike my dictionary these men knew they were in desert, but not that its parks
were made. On Giles’ plain the least flammable vegetation was burnt; the most
flammable was not. People had fired the plain gently, carefully not burning a
surrounding ring of scrub and dry grass, but burning clear the rocky hill edges beyond.
That took skill. Giles described many such associations, widely dispersed, including in
1875 at Boundary Dam on the Western Australian border far to the south, in what he
called ‘probably the worst desert upon the face of the earth’ 13. But he had more time to
write than I have to talk, so I offer just one more example:
          On each bank of the creek was a strip of green and open ground, so richly
          grassed and so beautifully bedecked with flowers that it seemed like
          suddenly escaping from purgatory into paradise when emerging from the
          recesses of the scrubs on to the banks of this beautiful, I might wish to call
          it, stream... Natives had been here very recently, and the scrubs were
          burning, not far off to the northwards, in the neighbourhood of the creek
Parks were places of use and beauty. Desert travellers picked them out. But notice
that no matter in what month they wrote – February, April, August, September – they
saw no people. This is because desert people managed their country so well that they
could reserve their parks for large gatherings or bad droughts. Sturt wrote near Dieri
country, where the missionary JG Reuther later reported that people deliberately
reserved their most productive areas for bad droughts 15. So did the Arrernte and
Pitjantjatjara in whose country Giles, Tietkins and Warburton were 16. In October 1896,
in really tough desert he thought ‘absolutely useless to man or beast’ 17, David
Carnegie noted of Helena Spring that it was the best water for hundreds of miles,
much used by birds and animals, but
          Curiously enough, but few native camps were to be seen, nor is this the first
          time that I have noticed that the best waters are least used... These desert
          people... have some provident habits, for first the small native wells are
           used, and only when these are exhausted are the more permanent waters
           resorted to18.
This was a most significant achievement. Aborigines everywhere managed their
country so that they could set aside their most productive areas for special purposes:
that is why they could hold ceremonies so often. But for desert people to keep the
same Law, in cultivator terms to make productive not the oasis but the desert, not the
garden but the wilderness, was remarkable.
     How mentally disabling European notions of desert now become. Roget’s
Thesaurus (172) associates it with ‘Unproductiveness... aridity, dryness, desolation,
wastelands, lunar landscape, wild, wilderness, howling waste, dustbowl, treeless,
bleak, gaunt, bare, barren, infertile, sour, sterile, withered, shrivelled, blasted,
unprolific, unfruitful’ and so on. For Aborigines who obey the Law, no land can be
hostile. It is both a priceless gift and a sacred duty. A desert is a Garden of Eden, in
both these senses.
     Because people managed plants and animals so well, examples of cultivation are
sporadic, probably aberrant. Even where a cultivator’s word might be apt, most non-
Aborigines are squeamish about using it. To ‘farm’, my dictionary says, is to ‘Cultivate,
till’. In south-west Victoria people built intricate systems of stone canals and weirs,
each covering several kilometres, to farm eels, and on nearby plains they grew yams.
If the season was right they burnt to expose the yams, dug over the ground so
thoroughly that Europeans compared it with ploughed fields, and re-planted yam tops
for future harvests 19. Yams were similarly cultivated in the mid-north of both South
Australia20 and West Australia 21. There and elsewhere yams were stored.
     In tuber country people rarely ate seeds. Even desert people delighted in winter
harvests of yams 22, and ate grass or tree seeds only when they had to 23. But, perhaps
like Europe’s and Asia’s ancestors, they often had to, and in that 200-250mm rainfall
belt circling the deserts they farmed native millet, Panicum spp. In western New South
Wales they protected millet from fire, harvested it, stacked and winnowed the grain,
and ground it ‘into a kind of paste or bread’. ‘Dry heaps of this grass,’ Thomas Mitchell
           that had been pulled expressly for the purpose of gathering the seed, lay
           along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the [Narran] river,
           in which we rode through this grass only... it was what supplied the bread of
           the natives... 24.
Other travellers saw millet, portulaca and other seeds being protected, harvested,
winnowed and stored 25. In the Northern Territory in 1870 Christopher Giles:
           discovered a native granary. This was a rude platform built in a tree, about 7
           or 8 feet from the ground, on this were placed in a heap a number of bags
           made of close netting. Dismounting, I climbed the tree to examine the bags,
           and was astonished to find that they contained different kinds of grain,
           stored up for the winter, or rather the dry season 26.
In the same region in 1871, AC Ashwin found two granaries, one with ‘about a ton of
seed stored there in 17 large dishes’. It was like rice, and tasted so good that Ashwin
remarked, ‘pity we did not take more’ 27.
     For cultivators farming is more than cultivating. It is essential for survival; it is a
way of life. No Aboriginal person farmed in that sense. For months each year the
Victorian eel and yam farmers lived by their crops in stone villages of up to 700
people. West Australian yam farmers too built villages, and early Europeans thought
them de-skilled by dependence on yams. ‘They seemed very little addicted to hunting’,
one official wrote, ‘and very few of them are even expert at tracking a Kangaroo. This
may result from the great variety of edible roots, particularly the A-jack-o or warang
which grows here in great abundance.’ 28 Harvesting and storing grain may also have
anchored people. But it does not follow that they were on the way to needing to farm.
They may equally have been moving away from it. Around the crops they kept up the
same carefully distributed plant associations as did the rest of Australia. Perhaps they
saw the danger: crops meant cleared land, which destroyed plant associations and
made plains too large and too populated for much else. Mono-cropping diminished
biodiversity, and edged people towards sedentism, making it harder to care for country
as the Law required.
     A ‘garden’, my dictionary states, is ‘1. Piece of ground devoted to growing
flowers, fruit, or vegetables; ornamental grounds for public resort; specially fertile
region.’ Scores of pieces of ground across Australia were devoted to growing plants 29,
and probably there were more before Europeans obliterated them unnoticed. They
were in both ‘specially fertile regions’ and especially infertile regions. People on fertile
Cape York, influenced but not persuaded by gardeners in Torres Strait, transplanted
and protected tubers and fig and coconut seedlings 30, yet still shaped their country into
plant associations. Desert people burnt to fertilise yams and bulbs (Cyperus bulbosus)
with ash31, and cultivated small areas of particular plants, notably bush tomato
(Solanum chippendalei) which has an edible fruit, and two species of pituri (Duboisia
hopwoodii or Nicotiana spp), tobacco. They protected these plants from fire, watered
them if necessary, harvested, stored and traded them, and replenished the crop by
leaving fruit or seed plants 32. They thought this desirable obviously, but not necessary.
Daphne Nash argues that they cultivated for social and cultural reasons, notably for
ceremony and keeping in touch with country and kin 33. Their gardening was sporadic
and within the Law, not undermining plant associations or offending rules on fire, local
control, or species diversity.
     How might we describe Aboriginal Australia? Not with cultivator words for terrain,
such as bush, wilderness or desert. Australia was a made land, made under the same
Law. In that sense it was the world’s largest, but the world’s largest what? Estate?
Park? Farm? Garden? None is apt. All distinguish cultivators from hunter-gatherers,
and all privilege cultivator land-use: managed above seemingly unmanaged, cultivated
above uncultivated. These distinctions matter because Europeans believe them, but
they are not peculiarly European. Peter Dwyer has compared three Papua New
Guinea Highlands groups, one gardening, one gardening and hunting, and one
hunter-gathering. The more a group cultivated, Dwyer found, the more it drew mental
and physical boundaries around its cultivation. The hunters had no sense of
wilderness: all their world was their domain, and the bush was welcoming. The hunter-
gardeners were cautious of the bush but used it. The gardeners thought of their
gardens as property, and the bush beyond as hiding hostile spirits, as wilderness 34.
     ‘Wilderness’ and ‘desert’ have particular meanings for cultivators. They are
places without estates or farms or gardens. Whereas cultivation is defined by what it
is, they are defined by what they are not: ‘uncultivated’, ‘treeless’ and so on. Yet they
help define cultivated places, by patrolling their boundaries. Gardens for example are
imagined by what is without as well as within, as in Babylon, Eden, Gethsemane,
Botanic and backyard. Boundaries are cultivation’s unspoken essential. If non-
Aborigines tended crops or pituri as Aborigines did, they would feel obliged to put up a
fence, and then, depending on the scale, they would call it farming or gardening. How
then can cultivator words describe a whole continent managed as one? A continent,
perhaps uniquely, without a single fence, a single marker which cultivators might
recognise as bounding property, ownership, limits? Without fences, Aboriginal land
management became invisible to invading cultivators.
      Cultivator land-use words reflect ways to replicate nature, or order it, or ‘improve’
it. Each requires nature to be controlled, and that controlling makes boundaries not
merely physical and mental, but habitual. I suggested earlier that how the dictionary
defines ‘desert’ engenders notions of landscape utterly foreign to Aboriginal people.
We speak of ‘desert gardens’; if they used our words they would speak of ‘garden
deserts’. Our words trap them. Thinking of land as a garden or farm can turn a
creator’s gift into desert, a park into wilderness, a decent, God-fearing plant into a
weed. It can make some people feel civilized by thinking others barbarian. Our words
also trap us. They leave us unable even to see, let alone say, how an entire continent
was managed for thousands of years.

  M Shephard, The Simpson Desert, Adelaide 1992, 14.
  M Shephard, The Great Victoria Desert, Sydney 1995, 29.
  John Stephens in S Clarke, ‘The Creation of the Torrens: A History of Adelaide’s River to
1881’, Adelaide History MA, 2004, 32.
  Interview with Mac Core, Mount Fullstop Station, Cape York, 6 October 2002.
 For examples RA Gould, ‘Uses and effects of fire among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia’,
Mankind 8, 1971, 14-24; ND Burrows et al, ‘Nyaruninpa: Pintupi burning in the Australian Western
Desert’, Native Solutions Symposium, Hobart 2000.
  Shephard 1995, 73.
  D Nash, ‘Aboriginal gardening: Plant resource management in three Central Australian communities’,
ANU Anthropology MA, 1993, 9.
  AA Burbidge et al, ‘Vanishing desert mammals’, Landscape 2, 1987, 7-12; ‘Aboriginal knowledge of
the mammals of the central deserts of Australia’, Australian Wildlife Research 15, 1988, 9-39; Burrows
et al, 2.
  C Sturt, Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia [1849], Adelaide 1965, vol 1, 286-7, 18
February 1845.
   E Giles, Australia Twice Traversed [1889], Perth 1995, 21-3, September 1872. (Deering Creek, just
north of Mt Solitary in the West McDonnell Ranges.)
   WH Tietkins, Journal of the Central Australian Exploring Expedition, SAPP 111/1890, 6, 21 April
   PE Warburton, Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia [1875], Adelaide 1968, 148, 29 April
1873. (Dashwood Creek, north of Glen Helen in the West Macdonnells.)
   Giles, 264-5, 271-3.
   Giles, 86-7, August 1873. (Ayers Range.) See also 114, 227.
   JG Reuther journal in E Williams, ‘The archaeology of lake systems in the middle Cooper Basin...’,
Records of the SA Museum 30, 1998, 78.
   P Latz, Bushfires and Bushtucker, Alice Springs 1995, 25.
   D Carnegie, Spinifex and Sand [1898], Melbourne 1973, 432.
   Carnegie, 274, 5-10 October 1896. (160kms northwest of Lake Mackay).
   19. GA Robinson 1841 journal in NSW Governor’s Despatches 1842, 927-30, Mitchell Library A1230;
I Clark (ed), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Melbourne 1998, vol 2, 162-3, 196-7, 308; H
Lourandos, Continent of Hunter-Gatherers, Cambridge 1997; H Lourandos in DJ Mulvaney & JP White
(ed), Australians to 1788, Sydney 1987, 298-307.
   EJ Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to
King George's Sound [1845], Adelaide 1964, 42, 27 June 1840. (Georgetown area near Crystal Brook).
   G Grey, Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery [1841], Adelaide 1964, vol 2, 12-28; journal 4 April
1839 in HS Chapman, The New Settlement of Australind, London 1841, 44.
   PM Veth & FJ Walsh, ‘The concept of ‘staple’ plant foods in the Western Desert region of Western
Australia’, Aust Aboriginal Stud 1988/2, 22.
   Nash, 65.
   TL Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into... Tropical Australia, London 1848, 90, 9 March 1846; see
also 98, 20 March 1846.
   H Allen, ‘Where the Crow Flies Backwards: Man and Land in the Darling Basin’, ANU Anthropology
PhD, 1972, 77-83, 92-3, 96-7; Sturt, vol 1, 226, 285, 294, December 1844 – March 1845; RG Kimber,
‘Beginnings of farming? Some man-plant-animal relationships in central Australia’, Mankind 10, 1976,
   C Giles, ‘The Adelaide and Port Darwin Telegraph Line’, J SA Electrical Soc vol 2 no 6, October
1888, 7.
   AC Ashwin, ‘From South Australia to Port Darwin with sheep and horses in 1870-71’, JRGSA SA 32,
1930-31, 64, 66.
   R Gerritsen, Nhanda Villages of the Victoria District WA, Canberra 2002, 3-4.
   For examples I Keen, Aboriginal Economy and Society, Oxford 2004; Nash, 128-34.
   DR Harris, ‘Subsistence strategies across Torres Strait’ in J Allen et al (ed), Sunda and Sahul,
London 1977, 452; RA Hynes & AK Chase, ‘Plants, sites and domiculture: Aboriginal influence upon
plant communities in Cape York Peninsula’, Archaeology in Oceania 17, 1982, 38-50.
   Nash, 95.
   Nash, 22-4, 125-7.
   Nash, ix.
    P Dwyer, ‘The invention of Nature’ in R Ellen & K Fukui (ed), Redefining Nature, Oxford
1996, 157-86

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