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.