Review Blog

Mar 12 2012

The biggest estate on earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage

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Allen and Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742377483.
(Age 15+) Highly recommended. 'To the people of 1788, whose landcare is unmatched, and who showed what it is to be Australian.' 'The people of 1788' are the Aborigines and the dedication is by Professor Bill Gammage. His thesis is that the Australian landscape as it was first viewed by Europeans was made by humans not by nature.
The biggest estate on earth
begins our journey of discovery by looking at the landscape through the eyes of the European newcomers. Why did they comment so often on the 'parks' and 'lawns' that met their gaze? Why did their paintings show vistas of grassland where now there are forests or thick scrub? Why did they report that indigenous people deliberately set fire to the countryside?
According to the author, the newcomers did not recognise that the land in which they had arrived was as closely managed as the one they had left. The continent was a mosaic of inherited lands whose traditional owners conserved precious water supplies, and used controlled burning to prevent bushfires and create favourable conditions for the plants and animals they wanted to harvest. A belated appreciation of the value and complexity of sustainable Aboriginal land management practices is now emerging. This remarkable book may facilitate that process.
The writing style is precise and accessible and the organisation of material assists both ease of understanding and the development of the argument. However, the author knows that some people will disagree with his conclusions. He has responded by revealing his argument slowly through a wealth of documentary and pictorial evidence, drawn from meticulous observation and scholarship. Detailed descriptions are based on an evident love of Australian plants, influenced perhaps by his botanist father.
Reading The biggest estate on earth requires patience but the rewards are great. They include an insight into a vast store of knowledge, now diminished but not entirely lost, and an understanding of how this knowledge has been incorporated into religious beliefs, culture and daily life.
Elizabeth Bor

Editor's note: The book was the winner, 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category).
Pat Pledger

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