Deconstructing the Royal National Park – Quote from Dr Tim Flannery

2002 Australia Day Address – Dr Tim Flannery


Equally important to achieving environmental sustainability as a priority for our nation is recognising the role that Aboriginal people played in shaping this land, for it is only by doing so, that we will be able to address critical aspects of our troubled past. When James Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia in 1770, he remarked that the land looked like a gentleman’s park. And indeed it was, for those eucalypt groves set in grassy plains were the result of 45,000 years of careful management by Aboriginal people. They, just like the Europeans, irrevocably changed the land when they first arrived – but thereafter they crafted it with fire and hunting, creating something new. It was that ‘something new’ that we now recognise as the distinctive Australian landscape. Thus, in a very real sense, this land is human-made – a handicraft of the Aboriginal people.

This concept has profound implications. It means that there is no Australian wilderness, and no national park that can exist in its pre-1788 form without the ongoing input of people. All of the continent must be managed or it will change in ways that we will not like. This is one reason why the depopulation of the outback is so distressing – without people, vast areas of the continent will go unmanaged. If we accept this view, it implies that there is an important management role for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in all reserved lands.

We are clearly indebted to Aboriginal people for our land in more ways than one, and their skills and knowledge are vital to the continuance of the Australia we know and love. Having said this, romanticising Aboriginal cultures is not helpful. Reconciliation must be undertaken on Aboriginal terms – not with some fictional or idealised people or nation, but with Aboriginal communities in their full diversity throughout this land. We need to listen carefully to what they have to say, and assist them in achieving their desires.

Full text


Deconstucting RNP – 5 – ‘parks’ vis-a-vis ‘country’

It may be useful to try to tease out something the notion of a park. There is a lot to be said about ‘parks’ and it will not all be said in what follows. Rather, some themes can be introduced.

The country enclosed by the Royal National Park is a very different kind of park to town and city parks, such as Hyde Park or Centennial Park in Sydney.  They are clearly highly artificial arrangements which have been planned and are maintained by professional horticulturists.

What sort of landscape do we presently see when we enter the Royal National Park (and, more importantly, what do we not see)?

One of the great lacks in the Anglo-Australian understanding of country is the inability to comprehend that country is not merely ‘natural’ but shaped by all manner of practices by First Peoples.

The modern myth of ‘nature’ conceives of country as something which reproduces itself in good order in the absence of human practices.

The great destructive fires which have swept through the Royal National Park in recent times are not an accident. They result from the failing of Anglo-Australian authorities to, first, understand country and, second, to have the resources to properly manage it.

But the main failing of Anglo-Australian authorities is they consistently opt for the pretence that they can properly manage this country when there is a large body of empirical evidence which points to the opposite conclusion. Lacking the resources to manage country, everyone within the dominant system of state patronage has to pretend that everything is in order.

When we replace the modern myth of nature with a view of country as cosmos, we can conceive of a well-tempered cosmos (as fashioned by First Peoples practices) and – by contrast – a highly chaotic cosmos where life runs out of control (when those people and practices are removed).

From the outset of British contact with the East Coast of Australia there were descriptions of how the country resembled a gentleman’s park, with spaces between the trees which would allow a horseman not merely to trot but to gallop.

Parkinson noted, as the Endeavour was off the Illawarra coast in April 1770:

‘The country looked very pleasant and fertile, and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park.’ (quoted in Salmond The Trial if the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas 2003:152)

Others made the same comparison.

These British descriptions in the late 1700s and early 1800s can be seen in relation to social and political developments in Great Britain.

With the rise of a new elite in a Constitutional Monarchy (1688) and the decline of the previous elite, there was an important shift in the kinds of land-based estates significant people had in the United Kingdom (and the purposes they had them).

While the previous Royal families had their hunting forests, the new law-makers – English Gentleman – had grounds of a very particular type.  In comparison with a continental taste for highly artificial (e.g. geometric designs) grounds, the new fashion in England was for a ‘natural’ look.

The names of William Kent and Lancelot (Capability) Brown are associated with the advent and popularity of the new fashion. Capability Brown lived 1715-1783.

“Brown’s designs were adapted to the society he served, which was totally unlike the authoritarian regime of the 17th-century monarchies. English gentlemen did not maintain courts; they lived privately on their country estates and liked to see their domains from their windows and to ride about them.” (Enc Brit entry on Capability Brown 1976 Micropaedia II:309)

This difference between the ruling classes will re-emerge when we look at what Simon Schama has to say in “Landscape and Memory” (1995) about the hunting forests introduced into Britain by the Normans. Watch that word ‘forest’ – it has a history quite different from recent use.

The Gentlemen’s parks were not merely areas of natural countryside. The previous neolithic farming practices had an enormous impact on the landscapes of Britain.  The background itself was already transformed.

The parks were designed with aesthetic considerations in mind – to create a particular effect. They generate “messages”, both for the owner and for significant others.

Perhaps it could be said that these park-estates served to make statements about the social position (and refined tastes) of their owners. English literature of this age regarding gentlemen and their park estates is still highly popular – and still systematically excludes from sight the means by which these English gentlemen derived their fortunes and the patina of respectability.

The wealth necessary to construct and maintain grand houses and country grounds may be, in many cases, the result of acts of genocide and ethnocide against First Peoples in other countries.  The origins of the fortunes made by highly esteemed Europeans is mystified, erased from consideration, by displays of high fashion.

The local ‘order’ of these English parks is counterbalanced by increased disorder in parts of life on the other side of the planet.

When First Peoples practices are prevented from playing their role in shaping country, it still reproduces – but it rapidly begins to run wild. Fire is the easiest way to understand this, but it is only the first step in a process of understanding which leads into many other aspects of life’s reproduction.

Stephen Pyne has covered much of the fire aspect in his 1991 book “Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia.” He notes:

“Shortly after settlement British observers cited a thickening of scrub in lands that they had initially likened to English parks… Bald hills in Queensland revegetated with forests, and formerly open forests choked with understory.” (Pyne 1991:133).

Pyne mentions the views of a man who explored much of early Australia:

“… T.L. Mitchell could write that “the omission of the annual periodic burnings by natives, of the grass and young saplings, has already produced in the open forest land nearest to Sydney, thick forests of young trees, where, formerly, a man might gallop a horse without impediment, and see whole miles before him.” (ibid)

Mitchell, an explorer and government surveyor, established his own ‘estate’ at Stanwell Park (not named by him).

This pattern of rapid change to country, once First Peoples and their practices are ‘removed’, can be traced across much of Australia.

With the removal of First Peoples and their practices from country, we are presented with a fetish of well-managed Australian ecosystems covered by a catch-all term ‘nature’.

The short point to be made here is that the comparison between Gentlemen’s park and First Peoples well-managed living countries is a good one. They are both crafted landscapes. Works of art in their own right.

When we look at the land contained with the Royal National Park we are not looking at a well-managed ecosystem – what strikes us as ‘nature’ and ‘habitat’ is – by orthodox indigenous Australian standards – a disordered mess.

We would do well to adopt a viewpoint which allows us to see Australian country as a great work of art. I am not merely referring to the role of fire stick farming here. First Peoples ‘cosmic maintenance’  practices relate to the whole ecosystem.

A grand work of art – First Peoples well-tempered cosmos – is worthy of recognition as part of life’s true and ongoing heritage.

Restoring that high degree of achievement, in acts of cultural partnership with First Peoples, should give us something to aim for with all the “Royal Reserves” which include the Royal National Park.

Deconstructing RNP – 4 – National

Bruce Baskerville’s  1994 paper “Talking about National Parks” calls on the 1987 book of Paul Carter “The Road to Botany Bay: an essay in spatial history.”

Baskerville wrote:

“Carter has commented on the use of ideas about strategy and military manoeuvring as a metaphor of exploration. A strategy, in the sense of imposing the preferred time, place and conditions for encountering the Other, was used by the park-maker to translate a space into a conceivable object that the mind could possess long before the park visitors began to arrive.

Both the particularising element ‘national’ and the class-name ‘park’ are figurative and non-factual. The name National Park brought into being an object of invented spatial and temporal co-ordinates within which history could occur.”

This process establishes a field of discourse within which ‘significant’ people can communicate without having to deal with questions about who or what has been excluded.

Baskerville notes, vis-à-vis the “language of commons in NSW”, that:

“The situation with national parks is similar, although the absence of commoners meant that the invention of a language took place between the park-maker and a small group of gentleman trustees. Whereas the class-name ‘common’ required the presence of commoners for language-making, the class name ‘park’ reflected a different intention, an intention that has perhaps been hidden by its strategic coupling with the particular ‘National’. “

Some of the gentlemen involved in the formation of the then National Park included NSW politicians who occupied positions close to the core of the cluster of norms which made up the colonial ‘state’ apparatus.  The exclusion of First Peoples from any meaningful role in NSW life was well established by that time (only a 100 years after initial colonisation in 1788).

In addition to the policies of past Governors there were the newly established practices of many colonial gentlemen, who built their lifestyles, reputations and fortunes on lands of dispossessed First Peoples. The resulting ‘unconscious-in-culture’ was in keeping with the notion of terra nullius.  The land was deemed to be ‘empty’.

It is striking how the concerns of such educated people are for the protection of ‘native’ flora and fauna, and not for the ‘native’ people.

Dr Geoff Mosley’s forthcoming historical account of the Royal National park and the Australian conservation movement carefully details the role of a very small number of significant players in seeking to transform the initial conception of the then National Park from recreation to conservation.

There has been a steady removal of non-indigenous people’s camping and holiday recreational activities from the Royal National Park during the second half of the 20th century. There are now two places for camping, where once there were many.

The pictorial record shows how places like Garie were once extremely popular holiday camping venues, with a sort of canvas town appearance. Now there are gates locked at night. People and parks? Hmmm.

In place of trustees we have a professional bureaucracy (members of a state department with its own internal culture as well as charged with administering state policy). They  operate with a privileged notion of ‘nature’ which denies the role of their own culture in relation to country.


People may ask exactly which ‘nation’ it was, in 1879, that NSW authorities had in mind when they reserved land for sale for the purposes of a National Park?

Baskerville’s paper throws some light on the meaning of the word “national” at a time when NSW was a colony of Great Britain. He recounts how the word ‘national’ was used in the 1830s and 1840s in connection with a National system for schools as a general category in comparison with distinctions made on the basis of religious affiliation:

“The word ‘National’, in this context, was an attempt to subvert the apparent permanency of sectarian differences by defining people according to their place of residence rather than religious belief.”

“The meaning of the word ‘national’ has undergone a subtle change between the 1850s and the 1870s. It now contained some idea of an equality of opportunity, regardless of denomination or residence, in attaining a basic education, an education shaped by a ‘national’, rather than a sectarian, curriculum that would promote the ‘national’ development of the colonial community.”

Baskerville says, of the invention of a national park: “The particular name ‘national’ was associated with characterisation of a place as publicly accessible, owned by the state, and free of sectarian divisions.”

Looking ahead, what happens to National plus Park when “Royal” is added to the name of this construct which sits over the living country of Australia’s First Peoples?  A Royal National Park which lacks even a dual-naming title just as the whole of its practical and intellectual history during the 20th century has lacked any spirit of bi-culturalism.

Deconstructing RNP – 3

A note on ‘geography’ – which is only touched on lightly here.

In looking at things from a perspective which takes peoples+countries as the norm, we can discern several aspects to the split in Western awareness which separates people from country.

In addition to the processes which drove European peoples off their living countries (e.g. to produce a landless working class ‘at home’) one of the features which is striking is the Western expansion known as the Age of Exploration ( which drove a wedge between people and country ‘abroad’)

An Age of expropriation  may be more apt – expropriation of other peoples well managed living country in order to solve European problems.

While explorers sought to map other parts of the world they did so with a notion of geography which did not include the ‘maps’ which indigenous peoples already have of those countries.

For European adventurers the landscape was ‘real’ but First Peoples representations of it were of no account. In the Age of Reason the only forms of reason which counted were culturally one-sided.

While passing mention may have been made, in some cases, to an indigenous name for a place, the over-all indigenous ‘map’ was not considered relevant.

To do this would have required establishing proper and respectful exchange relationships with indigenous peoples, and (generally speaking) this was not part of the European expansion into First Peoples countries. This would have slowed the rate of expansion.

Europeans wanted to establish their own kind of relationship with the ‘new’ lands – not with the people who were already occupying those countries.

Alfred Crosby uses the term “Neo-Europes” (‘Ecological Imperialism – The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. 204 CUP). More on this later.

More frequently, in mapping routes for further colonisation, European names were given to features of the landscape despite the fact that the landscape had already been signified for countless generations. Where First Peoples are included (in some way) it is as viewed from the outside by European eyes. Country is not seen through the eyes of First Peoples.

A careful study of European occupation of the New World in the America’s is required to tease out the interplay between the explorers and those who came after them to dispossess indigenous peoples – and also those who, moving into country where the local peoples had been marginalised, could construct representations of country which owed nothing to indigenous worldviews.

Darwin’s travels in South America can be seen in relation to the earlier studies of Humboldt – and Humboldt’s work must be seen in relation to the process of dispossession which took place in the preceding centuries.

While Darwin’s work on the Beagle was addressed to nature (and his account conveys the excitement of the world as seen by new means), the Voyage of the Beagle, under Captain FitzRoy, was basically a state-funded naval enterprise in mapping charts to give an advantage to British merchants.

This too can be seen in relation to earlier voyages. Cook’s mapping of the East Coast of Australia is a prime example of ‘arm’s lenght’ mapping. He can maintain complete separation form the people living on this coast, and – having seen it through a telescope – lay claim to the land  in the name of King on the other side of the planet.

Mapping ‘new lands’ according to Western ideas of adequacy allowed for ‘geography’ to be regarded as complete even though it did not include people and cultures of the areas it ‘described’.

Those ‘modern’ notions of adequacy must be rejected by those of us who seek to remove ethnocide from our forms of representation.

An exercise which lies ahead is to look at the whole field of discourse in which ‘naturalism’ makes sense and also passes itself off as not being a ‘cultural code’ (that is, it presents as having a privileged ability to depict reality).

Another exercise which lies ahead it to look at naming in relation to national parks (in general) and the Royal National Park (in particular).

It is useful to read some pages of Bruce Baskerville’s 1994 paper “Talking about National Parks – intentions, making places and history in NSW and WA.” which can be found online at

Decon RNP draft – 2nd bit

One key for the composition of this present piece of writing is to attempt to do so from an orthodox indigenous Australian perspective which takes peoples+countries as the normal position, and looks at other positions as abnormal.

The NSW  Office of enviroment and Heritage website has a NPWS Statement of Reconciliation which includes the following:

” As a guiding principle, we acknowledge that the Aboriginal peoples of NSW do not recognise the distinction between the natural and the cultural in relation to heritage.”

Not just heritage, but to all matters of policy and practice.

We are witnessing the decline of the hold which European life has had over life for some centuries now. The centre of balance is shifting – and this is a good time to generate some alternative life-designs in contrast to those head spinning designs fashioned by Western modern master narratives.

Of course, I am not an indigenous Australia with living country. My Being is unearthed. So anything I have to say on these matters can only be the result of the workings of my imagination.

As a conceptual craftsperson I see this as a good challenge to address – to attempt to restore some balance to the forms of representation that we craft and to attempt to open up some spaces for the voices of First Peoples themselves.

This is all part of life’s journey and we are a long way from that destination at this time.  I do not have ‘all the answers’ – but aspire to be part of a healing process – one which restores links between Being and Country.

Country, I believe, governs itself when life’s messages flow properly. Ultimately, country will chose people despite attempts of some to forcefully impose their narrowly defined will upon such matters. We can learn to better relate to life, we can never control it.

By ‘throwing a new light’ on some familiar views this should, to some degree at least, bring some otherwise hidden features into better relief.

Part of my thinking over several years has been to regard Western understanding (and elsewhere)  as having undergone a ‘split’ which separates people from country and country from people.

This split in understanding has ‘neolithic’ foundations, and has been a process which has unfolded in part of life over many centuries. It is the conceptual counterpart of a socio-political process in which people have been separated from country.

One example of the way the split works is that we have branches of knowledge which, on the one hand, deals with ecology but not with social systems and, on the other, branches of knowledge which deal with social systems but not ecology. The two areas are regarded as standing alone.

A more familiar example is the nature culture opposition of the 20th century. In that case nature can be conceived of as being separate from culture and culture can be conceived of as being separate from nature.

More recent thinking (even in physics) accepts that culture is part of nature and nature cannot be conceived of without some form of conceptual apparatus – some form of culture. There is no privileged position from which we may directly access reality. A whole host of social factors operate in the way our experience is constituted. This applies to everyone, without exception.

So we need to fashion  a new language so we can think and talk about these matters without conceding ground every time we try to communicate.

In my own work I regard the recombination of nature+culture as producing  “cosmos”.

We, as part of Being, inhabit cosmos. And we can approach our ‘cross-cultural’  challenge as one of dealing with different cosmologies rather than with the tools of naturalists and the natural sciences.

Where they limit may their ‘well-formed’  view of the realities of country to the ‘physical’ features, we have to insist that the ‘metaphysical’ features (including life’s existential dimensions) are also included for any form of representation to be judged adequate.

Decon RNP – draft of intro

Deconstructing the Royal National Park – some points for consideration.

Some words by way of introduction.

We deconstruct the Royal National Park in order to come closer to appreciating that some area as ‘country’.

That is, we seek to remove the collective spell which has been cast over our minds by the workings of past popular and official Western/European scripts.

As some writers about such matters note, ‘national parks’ are not static conceptual entities and are part of an ongoing and dynamic process. Where once the dominant rationale for such reserves may have been on recreation, it was subsequently replaced by concerns for conservation (as conceived by Western/European minds).

The dominance of conservation has now reached its own use-by date, and some people begin to turn our minds to these reserves as places for reconciliation with Australia’s First Peoples.

In the first instance, and in a spirit of cultural partnership, by restoring recognition of their stake in these lands. This recognition is long overdue. We must include a range of indigenous requirements ranging from recognition of indigenous sovereignty to rights to improve their financial position vis-a-vis non-indigenous Australians.

In the second instance, by seeking to encourage a process which will restore indigenous land and life management practices back into ecosystems to produce well-managed country – a well-tempered cosmos.

In the process, it is hoped that non-indigenous peoples will also be able to gain an understanding of country indigenous to Australia, and move beyond European preconceptions of ‘nature’.

Such a shift, from regarding national parks as places of nature conservation to indigenous living country, is part of a healing movement which factors in social considerations.

Healing the Royal National Park requires that we first dissolve the spell over our minds which, at present, systematically empowers and enables a state bureaucratic definition of life as it systematically excludes, marginalises, silences and suppresses what other voices have to say about country.

And some of these voices have been representing country long before English arrived here in 1788. These country-voices have never gone away.

We non-indigenous peoples  need to fashion new ears to better hear those vocies.  This promises to be a transformative experience.


Theme for 2012 – deconstructing the Royal National Park

The Royal National Park is located between Sydney and Wollongong in New South Wales.

It is administered by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Serevice which is now in the Office of Environment and Heritage.

At the moment, a new Plan of Management is in preparation for the Royal National Park and assocated reserves.

Additionally, there is a private campaign to get World Heritage Listing for the Royal National Park and reserves. This campaign has now produced a draft report, by Dr Geoff Mosley,  which will be used as part of their campaign.

While waiting for the draft Plan of Management materials (due in 2012) there is some value in making use of some aspects of  the Mosley report to tease out a few issues – from a difference perspective.

Basically, one aim of what comes next will be to not only move from a ‘modern’ to a ‘post-modern’ interpretation, but to also attempt to adopt a perspective which is based on an orthodox “Australian” First Peoples view which sees peoples and countries as being an inseparable whole.

I shall write a short text which i will make available on deconstructing the Royal National Park, and link it to this blog to share with interested others.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn 16 Jan 2012

For more info on the Royal National Park see

For info on the campaign for World Heritage of the Royal and Reserves see