The tragic loss of life in the Victorian bushfires, which many attribute to ‘natural’ causes, demands that our attention is turned to the challenge of dealing with the great myth of nature.
European concepts of ‘nature’ serve all manner of cultural purposes, not the least of which is as a justification for expropriating the lands of other Peoples.
It is in Australia where the myth of nature fits seamlessly with the doctrine of terra nullius.
By contrast, the challenge is to fashion a new understanding using means which go beyond the ‘nature-culture’ opposition. That it, to find ways which acknowledge culture and cultural practices as part of ecosystems, not something separate which can be removed when inconvenient.
Looking at the role of fire in an Australian cosmos provides one means of teasing out some of the issues as to why the concept of ‘nature’ falls short of what is required for us to relate well with our surroundings.
Teasing this out will take some time, and several postings.
A good place to begin is with the observations of Darwin on his trip from Sydney to Bathurst and back:
16 January 1836
I slept at night at a very comfortable Inn at Emu ferry, which is thirty-five miles from Sydney |684| & near the ascent of the Blue Mountains. — This line of road is the most frequented & has longest been inhabited of any in the Colony. — The whole land is enclosed with high railings, for the farmers have not been able to rear hedges. — There are many substantial houses & good cottages scattered about; but although considerable pieces of the land are under cultivation, the greater part yet remains as when first discovered. — Making allowances for the cleared parts, the country here resembles all that I saw during the ten succeeding days. — The extreme uniformity in the character of the Vegetation, is the most remarkable feature in the landscape of the greater part of New S. Wales. — Everywhere we have an open woodland, the ground being partially covered with a most thin pasture. The trees nearly all belong to one family;1 & have the surface of their leaves placed in a vertical instead of as in Europe a nearly horizontal position; This fact & their scantiness makes the woods light & shadowless; although under the scorching sun of the summer this is a loss of comfort, it is of importance to the farmer, as it allows grass to grow where it otherwise could not. — The greater number of the trees, with the exception of some of the Blue |685| Gums, do not attain a large size; but they grow tall & tolerably straight & stand well apart. It is singular that the bark of some kinds annually falls, or hangs dead in long shreds, which swing about with the wind; & hence the woods appear desolate & untidy. — Nowhere is there an appearance of verdure or fertility, but rather that of arid sterility:
The woodland is generally so open that a person on horseback can gallop through it; it is traversed by a few flat bottomed valleys, which are green & free from trees; in such spots the scenery was like that of a Park & pretty. — In the whole country I scarcely saw a place without the marks of fire; whether these had been more or less recent, whether the stumps were more or less black, was the greatest change which varied the monotony so wearisome to the traveller’s eye.
21st Jan – approaching Bathurst
This day we had an instance of the sirocco-like wind of Australia; which comes from the parched deserts of the interior. While riding, I was not fully aware, as always happens, how exceedingly high the temperature was. — Clouds of dust were travelling in every part, & the wind felt like that which has passed over a fire. — I afterwards heard the thermometer out of doors stood at 119° & in a room in a closed house 96°.—
23rd The next day we passed through large tracts of country in flames; volumes of smoke sweeping across the road.
And see: Australian authorities ‘arsonists’: Germaine Greer. SMH February 13, 2009