Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
Australia is in the midst of both environmental and social crises. With the highest rate of biodiversity loss on earth, the country is facing an ever-increasing barrage of massive catastrophic wildfires that wreak untold environmental damage and its First Peoples are among the most disadvantaged and disaffected demographic.
Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher is a descendant of the Wiradjuri and a geographer interested in the long-term interactions between humans, climate, vegetation and landscapes in the southern hemisphere with a particular emphasis on how Indigenous burning has shaped the Australian landscape. He is Director of Research Capability at the Indigenous Knowledge Institute, Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne, and a panel member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts.
The Narrm Oration is the University of Melbourne's key address that profiles leading Indigenous peoples from across the world in order to enrich our ideas about possible futures for Indigenous Australia. Narrm refers to the Country of the Melbourne region. Earlier this year Michael-Shawn Fletcher delivered the 2020 Narrm Oration, titled “Our Country, Our Way: How Indigenous people and knowledge can save Australia’s environmental and social unravelling.”
Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher sat down for a Zoom chat with Steve Grimwade.
Now, you’re a physical geographer and when describing what you do, you often say you focus on time. Do you want to explain what you mean by that and how are you measuring change over time?
Yeah, sure. So, geographers essentially just try and understand the earth, the patterns and processes that lead to what we see in the earth today. In particular, I look at the physical environment and how humans interact with the physical environment. The dimension, when I say, time, is that I am interested in landscape evolution through time, in particular, say, how things like maybe climate or disturbances.
In South America, I’ve worked on how volcanic disturbances shape environments, how when people arrive into environments, they shape and manage and manipulate environments, and how, through time, as you layer the various things that happened on a dynamic earth, such as climate change, different arrival of different species, including humans, different disturbances – all of these sorts of things through time, how they conspire to give us the world we see around us.
We’re going to use the word Country, a lot, I reckon in this conversation. I’m interested in hearing what Country means to you and how do you define it?
Yeah, so, Country. I see Country as the world around us, what we live in, but also ourselves. Everything is Country, so to speak, and this is most pertinent when we think about our involvement in the world around us. I think it really comes to the fore and is a more nuanced or better way of perceiving the world around us than say, environment, or the built or natural environment in that it recognises there’s a reciprocity. Not only with humans. I mean, if you look at any kind of life science study, the arrival of a species into a system changes that system irrevocably. It doesn’t matter what the species is – and some to more degree to others.
There are these things called keystone species, if you like, that are kind of the anchors of all ecosystem dynamics and there are other sort of more passive introductions and things like that. Particularly, given that we are humans, and everything is – you know, we try not to be, but everything’s relative to ourselves. Country recognises the role that – and the obligations that people have in the world around them. It doesn’t abstract the world from ourselves, it actually embeds us within the world around us and reveals the kind of reciprocity or the obligation that we have to the world around us in caring for it and looking after it.
Not only that one-way flow, but how caring for and looking after Country actually cares for ourselves and looks after us. So, it puts us within rather than abstracts us outside of the world around us.
Might skip to the chase and say that perhaps we’re going to get to a point where we discuss how Australians haven’t really come to fully embrace Country. We’ll get to that. I’m interested in maybe talking about people that do embrace Country. What does healthy embrace of Country look like? What does it mean?
Well, that really depends. It’s a good question, Steve, it depends. I mean, Australia, for example, is really variable. We’ve got some really dry deserts, we’ve got some really high rainfall, rainforests, we’ve got the tallest flowering plants on earth and actually, the tallest tree ever recorded is a Eucalyptus regnans. So, we have this really broad degree of environments so, in terms of what in particular, Country looks like, it’s variable. But what a healthy Country, healthy people manifests as is people being out on Country, performing their roles and their obligations according to their cultural protocols.
If we think about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, we’ve been here for 68,000 plus years. So, the longevity of that action, of getting into Country, managing Country, looking after landscapes. If you think about the fundamental principles of land management, it’s to create a predictable and a safe and a bountiful world around us. That’s why we manage landscapes. This is a cornerstone of humans, really. With the ability to think abstractly and do these sorts of things, manage for an intended purpose, it’s been going on for at least 200,000 years, if not prior to the evolution of Homo sapiens.
So, the longevity of people in the Australian landscape has led to a set of landscapes, or the entire continent, really wrapping itself around this important species, us. Humans. Aboriginal culture, the expression of Aboriginal culture, looking after landscapes and doing all of those sorts of things, there becomes a dependency, essentially, and you really notice how deep this is is when you pull Aboriginal people off Country. You start to see the unravelling of the environment in response to that. There isn’t an example I know of that doesn’t show a decrease in biodiversity, an increase in catastrophic – so, fires and other disturbances, and a degradation of many of the things that people recognise as integral to having healthy landscapes.
So, I think it looks, in inverted commas, in the way that there are people actively performing their obligations of caring for the type of Country they’re in in the way that it needs to be cared for. That’ll vary, depending on which kind of system you’re in.
I think you’d also argue that healthy Country, speaking to reciprocity, is actually healthy people as well.
Oh, most definitely. We know this, and you talk to people on Country, you talk to knowledge holders, you talk to people who are practicing traditional ways of caring for Country, and you see that it’s often under the guise of things like sequestering carbon through carbon farming initiatives or doing other kind of punitive objectives that are funding or supporting the move to care for Country. With the fundamental reason that people are doing it is to care for Country and care for themselves. This is – we know this from talking to people on Country. But we also know this empirically from studies done on things like the physical health, the mental health, the engagement at school, substance abuse, all of these kind of metrics of wellbeing, if you like, improve when Aboriginal people are involved in caring for Country or what, I guess, the literature calls, natural resource management. All of these metrics improve and I think this doesn’t only apply to Aboriginal people, this is something, a lesson we can learn and we can draw out for broader Australia and in modern times.
I want to go back to your research and I believe, and you can correct me, you probably – you take soil, core samples, you probably drill down into the ground to take core samples? I think you do that with trees as well and – amongst probably many other ways of doing research. What does your research tell us?
Yeah. So, I essentially do. I drill down into soils. They might be into lakes, for example. I’ve recently drilled a – it’s no longer a lake, it filled up around 80,000 years ago. But I drilled a site that had lake sediments going back nearly a million years. That’s through some really large swings of environmental change, through to the arrival of people into the landscape. All of these sorts of things. So, by drilling down into the ground, it might be soils, lake sediments, bogs, swamps, all these sorts of things, or into a tree, going from the outside into the centre of the tree, going back in time and unpacking the information that’s stored in there.
My main things that I look at when I’m looking at the soils or the muds, are bits of plant remains, bits of charcoal. I also look at some of the geochemistry that can tell me about – so, plant remains tell me about the vegetation that was growing, charcoal tells me about the fire that was occurring, geochemistry tells me about things like the erosion and things like that. Maybe flood events, all of that sort of stuff. By piecing those, what we call, proxies – just like when you vote in proxy, or you do something in proxy, it’s the same sort of thing. These are substitutions for the thing we’re inferring. By looking at all these proxies together, you can get a reconstruction of the landscape through time and that kind of interconnectedness of various processes in a landscape and how that changes through time from sort of deep time through to the present.
When you’ve got things like the arrival of people or a volcanic eruption or the onset of an ice age or the exit from an ice age, you can understand how landscapes respond to those really large scale and sometimes small scale. People do beetle outbreaks that defoliate trees, all these sorts of things. You’re really a detective, if you like, investigating the occurrences of the past.
There was an article recently about the devastation of Juukan Gorge. It was this article about – which said that in an office, there was a piece of tape in the office, which was against a soil sample or something, a core sample or something similar. It went back and said, oh, 1788, this happened and – you know, and Napoleon was here and it kept going back. That was in the first inch to the right. Then it went all the way back to about a metre, or more, two metres to the left, where it was first settlement by Indigenous people, or where they first registered in the sample. I think core sample – I mean, I can’t imagine what looking at a million-years in a core sample’s like.
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s such an exciting feeling. There’s not a person that doesn’t come out into the field and watch us pull up this stuff who doesn’t just sort of start immediately thinking, wow, this is some really deep time stuff here. It really, it does, it contextualises all the things that you’re thinking about, you know. The other thing, I think, it really impresses upon the longevity that people have been in this Country for. I quite often have a chat to traditional owners and, by listening to song lines and oral traditions, they’re hardwired in the knowledge of Aboriginal people in this Country, knowledge of Country in this Country, are stories that map the exit out of the last ice age and the rise of sea levels by 150 metres. Fresh water sites that are way off coastline now, all these sorts of changes. I know no other tradition, written or oral, that in it, has hardwired information that goes back 20,000 years, 30,000 years. It’s really gobsmacking. So, there’s a few things there that I think you come across occasionally and you go, wow, this is the depth of time that Aboriginal people have been in this landscape. But also, as you say, drilling back a million years, it’s really quite awe-inspiring.
Hm. What’s happened to our physical environment since colonisation?
Yeah, it’s a good question. A lot of things. We know from the reports in early explorers and surveyors and things that there’s a whole bunch of different things. The first, I guess I’ll start with, is the soils are remarkably different. There are areas today that are really highly compacted soils, where it was written that horses couldn’t walk through because the soils were so friable. They’d be up to their knees or whatever equivalent to a horse’s knee is, being able to walk – they just couldn’t do it. They’d have to get off the horse and help the horse through. These were areas where there were yams, these sort of root stock vegetables the Aboriginal people were cultivating.
There are areas that were described and which my data shows that are now forested, be that rainforest in Tasmania, or eucalypt forest on the mainland, that were forest-free. They were grasslands under Aboriginal management. We know one of the things that Aboriginal people did was to maintain open landscapes with fire. To care for Country but also to increase green pick for animals, to increase grains, all these sorts of things. There are a whole suite of species that Aboriginal people used in this Country that depend on fire at some stage in their life cycle. There’s salinisation that’s happened since we’ve moved away from traditional crops.
There’s examples of tonnes of grain being found and fields of grains and all of this sort of stuff. A heavy reliance of Aboriginal people on grains, much as most people do around the world today, to make breads and things. We’ve moved away from those and we’ve put in crops and things that depend on a different kind of process to grow them, which is irrigation, and that’s caused our soils to become salinized. There’s a whole series of issues that are associated with the removal of Aboriginal management of Country and the imposition of European management paradigms.
The fish deaths in the Darling River, for example, all those sorts of things which are a combination of climate change and nutrient loading from erosion of soils into these systems. All these sort of compounding effects has given us a whole slew of really major environmental problems that we face today that can be traced back to the British invasion and the removal of Aboriginal people from managing Country.
One of the concepts you brought up in the recent Narrm Oration that almost literally blew my mind, is this idea of the concept of wilderness. If it’s possible, I wouldn’t mind having you – this is going to be odd, you’re going to read a transcript of the Oration. So, apologies for that, but if you can, I’d love you to read that small para.
“Country is more diverse when people are managing it. When people are on Country, managing Country. This is not a wilderness, this is people’s Country and it’s healthier when people are practicing their culture and managing Country. If we lock people out, which some sectors of the wilderness conservation movement seek to do, you destroy Country. You destroy the very biodiversity that is wrapped around nearly 68,000 years of management of Country. This is what happened when you lock people out. This is the ideology of wilderness which destroys Country in Australia.”
Thank you. The ideology of wilderness. Look, I’ve always looked to the conservation movement and I’m a conservationist myself, of sorts. I’m a hiker, and I love the idea of wilderness. But this idea that wilderness presupposes that humans haven’t been in Country managing land, that, in the first place, is inherently racist. It just – it occurred to me – was yesterday, thanks to your work. Do you want to talk through that a bit, about this ideology?
Yeah, sure. I mean, it is, it’s an idea borne from a particular culture at a particular time. It was developed in the [wilds], I think, of Wales or something like that, in the wilderness. Which, ironically, was given by the English – the name given by the English to the home, the forest, managed by the Welsh. So, there was a denial of human agency right at the core of this very myth, if you like. If you look at the etymology of the word, it basically means, landscape in absentia of humans. You can redefine and try and do what you want with it through time, but the meaning of word means without human activity or intervention.
Essentially, this denies the role that Aboriginal people have had in maintaining – not only maintaining, but creating the very landscapes which we call wilderness. So, for example, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is not a wilderness at all. My whole PhD focused on using western science to debunk the myth of wilderness, if you like. That landscape, prior to the arrival of people, would’ve been completely rain-forested. The arrival of people burning through the last ice age, into the present what we call interglacial or the climate, it’s sort of broadly similar today, resulted in the landscape that you see there. Which is dominated by treeless, bio-promoted vegetation, Buttongrass Moorland. It’s a cultural landscape, there is no doubt about that whatsoever.
So, the moniker that we give it as a wilderness is dehumanising. It fails, and it actively denies humanity of the people who created that landscape. I think people aren’t – I’m not accusing people of the conservation movement and wilderness of walking around and not recognising the humanity of Aboriginal people. Quite often they’re our greatest allies in [conversation]. But the very notion of kind of zero footprint of removing people from Country and it’ll be better, all of this sort of stuff, is one of the reasons, or one of the contributing factors to the unravelling – the environmental unravelling of Australia.
If you look at Martu Country in the deserts, and the latest attempt to redefine wilderness, it’s published in an esteemed journal in 2018, identified a series of the last patches of wilderness on earth right on Martu Country, right on Country that’s been managed for millennia by Martu people in the central deserts of Australia. From the parts of that Country where people were actively removed, that have been left unmanaged. If you compare the biological health, the biodiversity, and the disturbance regime – so, wildfire regimes, from that Country versus Country that Martu have continued to manage for millennia, there’s just no comparison.
The unmanaged Country is less biodiverse, is subjected to larger, more catastrophic fires, all of these sorts of things. Whereas Martu Country is healthy. It’s healthy by all the biological indicators that the conservation seeks to, or purports, as being healthy. So, it’s just a lie, essentially, that these areas are wilderness, and all it does is deny – just another narrative that denies the key role that cultural – the key cultural role and the environmental role that Aboriginal people have in this Country.
It almost wants to ignore that agency for a selfish need to believe in the sublime of you and the wonder of nature by yourselves.
Yeah. I think it’s – I see it in the later works of David Attenborough. He is just so self-hating, I would call it, but it’s hating of a particular culture. A culture that has basically screwed things for greed and all of these other reasons, and it does cause significant damage. But then it’s cultural imperialism to think that all humans do the same kind of – play the same kind of role and have the same kind of methodologies. Quite often, the sustainable approaches that people are kind of promoting are the very practices that the people they’re denying exist actually perform. It’s sustainable living.
This isn’t just in Australia, this happens in the Amazon, it happens in Southeast Asia, it happens in Africa. It happens all over the shop where Indigenous peoples are denied humanity, denied the knowledge that, in most cases, has led to the very biodiversity that these people are trying to protect. It’s really wrongheaded, it’s actually dangerous, I think. Not only to the environment but to people.
I think there’s enough reason for – well, let’s call it white people, to be self-hating, to be honest, a little bit. It’s not necessarily – you’ve got to get beyond that. But we’ve all got to change our frameworks and the way we look at things. I’m going to change the way I look at – but I still want to be by myself when I’m out walking and hiking. However, I’m not going to expect a certain thing from now on.
Oh, for sure. You know, one of the biggest kickbacks – it doesn’t happen anymore, they went ahead anyway. But in Kakadu, which – you compare Kakadu to Arnhem Land and it’s a bit of a clapped out Country, really. Arnhem Land’s pretty healthy because people have been managing it and they’re returning to Country for various reasons now, in Arnhem Land. Kakadu’s getting better. But one of the biggest pushbacks on cultural burning in Kakadu was that tourists didn’t want to see smoke. It wasn’t what they expected to see when they were travelling through that Country. Like, it was – initially, it was a real big pushback because we have to change our perceptions.
We have to move away from notions that there are discrete fire seasons in Australia, where fire will occur and it doesn’t occur any other time. No, you burn year-round. You burn the right place at the right time. Then you avoid the big woodpile that you’ve ignored for five years out the back there catching on fire and burning down a quarter of the Country, or whatever it is that the Black Summer bushfires burnt. Like it’s – and this needs to be a lasting change, not just a lip-service change, if we’re to make any difference whatsoever. A change in the way that we view the world around us.
You say that fire has been critical in shaping who we are, and you call us, fire hominids, you say we are a fire organism. What do you mean by that?
Oh, we most definitely are. The earliest evidence of hominids – I won’t say humans, because it was probably Australopithecines or one of our progenitors – using fire was about 1.7 million years ago. Now, that’s a long time. Homo sapiens have been around – that’s us, that’s modern humans, that’s Aboriginal people, European people, native peoples all over the world. Everybody around today is a Homo sapiens, anatomically exactly the same and virtually genetically identical. Obviously, with difference. But as a species, we’ve been around for 200,000 years. So, our first sort of mastery, if you like, of fire was in the form of capturing fire that had been lit naturally, from a lightning strike or whatever and using that.
Through time, we learnt how to ignite fires and through that we learnt that we could ignite the areas outside of when they might usually burn. So, we manipulated the timing of fires, where fires would occur, and this became more and more sophisticated through time and with changing the season of fires. Right up until modern day where we change the arraignment of fuels across a landscape through logging and all of these sorts of things. If you think about it, the greatest – I guess, greatest in inverted commas, but the greatest invention, if you like, of the modern age that has propelled humans the most, is the combustion engine. Which is a complete mastery of fire. It is the mastery of the combustion process to create energy and electricity and all these sorts of things.
But not only is a sequence of us, or a process of us, mastering fire, that incorporation of fire into our ritual and routine has changed us irrevocably. Before the mastery of fire, we were a diurnal creature, if you like, that was awake during the daylight hours and – you know yourself, if you go camping, you can’t light a fire, you’re not in bed late, and you haven’t got a torch. You’re not sitting up. But add a fire into the mix and you’re sitting up until who knows what time in the morning or night, chatting, and you can’t do much. You can’t wander around in the landscape to do much, so most of your stuff is talking.
That went hand in hand with the evolution of our brain and maximising the cranial capacity that we had. Abstract thought, planning, doing all of this sort of stuff, those extra social hours – and you look at studies that have been done, most of those after dark social interactions are wrapped around stories and planning and mythology and things like this. These abstract things that really push the envelope of our brain. It changed the kinds of food we eat and being able to cook food released more energy from it, which is really important if you’re walking around with this hugely energy-demanding brain.
We’ve got the greatest ratio between body size and cranial capacity out of any organism and that requires a significant energy input, and we got that by cooking food. There are all sorts of influences over our reproductive cycle, our physiology, our teeth didn’t need to be so sharp, because we had more chewable foods. There’s an argument that it got us out of arboreal habit, because we had more protection on land. All these sorts of things. There’s all of these things. So, we – our evolutionary trajectory is inextricably linked to fire.
But here we are, letting fires now get out of control. So, how is fire management now going wrong?
I think – I’m obviously a person who deals with time, so I always take a bit of a historical lens here. There are various biophysical environments on earth where fire is more important than others. As a natural, or a non-human process. There’s flammable landscapes and there’s inflammable landscapes. The dominant culture that spread across in the wave of European invasions across the earth, came from a place where fire wasn’t as common in the landscape. Fire had kind of taken on a role as keep you warm and to cook your food. Without being too expletive, oh my, the fire’s going to burn me. This sort of really dichotomy between what fire is, that dominant – that culture spread across the earth into landscapes where people had maintained a really strong association with fire and landscapes required fire to be in the state that they were in.
You look at – there’s an argument that the de-peopling of the Americas resulted in that much tree growth that it drew down enough carbon out of the atmosphere to cool the earth. This isn’t just in Australia, this is all over the place, that people – it’s really, Europe’s the odd one out here, in the way that it used fire. We’re living in that dominant paradigm right now and we have this siege mentality, if you like, against fire. We have this misbelief that we can fight fire. I mean, look at our agencies. They’re firefighters, aren’t they? They build containment lines, they’ve got brigades, they’ve got military structures to their organisation. It’s all built around the belief that you can fight and win a war against fire. Which you can’t. The biggest ally in the Australian landscape, when it comes to fire, is fire itself.
Yet, we probably fear it. So, what would you like to see change?
I think there’s a raft – there’s so much knowledge out there. There’s this myth, okay. We’re dealing with myths all the time, really. Say, for example, the genocide in Tasmania. That genocide, it never happened in Tasmania. There was an attempted genocide, but there are still knowledge holders in Tasmania. There are still knowledge holders and people sitting on vast amounts of knowledge all across Australia, Aboriginal people. Who, for various reasons, whether it be because the missions beat it out of them and beat their – tried to beat their culture out of them, are a bit reticent in just sitting out and sprouting off about it.
But if you sit down and talk with people, there’s knowledge about how to – you can build up a safe operating manual. You know what I mean, SOP, sorry, is the HS term now. A safe operating procedure of how to live in Australia and what you need to do to maintain Country. So, what you do when you burn – and my big thing is fire, and there’s – Aboriginal people also altered waterways and did all these sorts of things. Is that you are making – by burning at the right time, throughout a year, not just in certain times of the year, and throughout Country, you can protect areas you don’t want to burn.
There might be spear grass, there might be trees that have honey in them, all these sorts of things that you don’t want to burn. In other areas, you’re burning and you’re keeping it open. It’s easier to walk through, but it also reduces the fire risk and fuel loads, all of these sorts of things. It requires work. The work that I’ve done in Tasmania shows that within a decade of pulling our Aboriginal people off Country, rainforests jumped out and expanded across the landscape in the areas that I looked at. This was Country that was kept open for millennia. So, they were working that hard to hold back the wave of rainforest expansion, to keep it open.
This is happening all over Australia. So, draw on that knowledge, where you can, add that knowledge into the existing toolkit, into the prescribed burning, into the containment lines, into all the other things that you’re doing that consider the modern world is different than what it was like in 1788. The problem is, all of the things we do now, and all the things that were recommended in the Bushfire Royal Commission, or the Royal Commission into National Disaster Arrangements, just perpetuate the same. Saying, oh, more effort needs to be put into combating and battling fire. More effort needs to be put into this kind of methodology of protecting assets and all this sort of stuff.
It ignores the vast areas of Country in between those high-prized areas where you need to manage. You need to get in there and you need to manage. In some areas, maybe it’s gone too far for Aboriginal people to wrestle it back in control just with burning, and you have to use different kind of technologies. But where we see people who are cultural burning in the 2019/2020 bushfires, there was a lower impact of those bushfires in that Country. Now, we know it works. We know it works in the top end. We know it works. We know it works in most places, which is – I’d like to see it added to our toolkit and Aboriginal knowledge be respected.
Knowing how hard it is to make great policy decisions in the bureaucracy and, you know, they try. Is there a danger that one type of burning, cultural burning, may become more popular than another and, I guess my question is connected to the fact that there are many tribal groups across this Country that have different practices. So, firestick burning might be great in one place but not in another, et cetera, et cetera. Is there a danger – I mean, am I overthinking this, that there’s a danger that one becomes more popular than another?
I think – oh, no, it’s a valid point. The answer is, you get the people whose Country it is to do the management. There’s the myth that Aboriginal people are one homogenous unit, we’re not. You know, we’re vastly different. There are languages that are nothing alike. That just reflects the depth of difference in this Country, right across the continent. So, the trick is there, is to reawaken local knowledge and get local people on Country to do the work. That’s the only way forward. Because you can’t – you can pull out philosophies and ideas out of different places and translocate them, but that’s probably what’s caused us a lot of problems that we’ve got now is importing inappropriate, philosophical paradigms and management regimes.
Whereas we need to look to the Country that we’re in and talk to the traditional owners. In the circumstance where there might not be the continuance of knowledge because colonisation was so effective, then you’ve just got to roll your sleeves up and experiment. Aboriginal knowledge is science as much as it is anything else. It’s observation – you observe, you experiment, you observe the result of that experiment, and you hone your experiment all the way along. That’s what science is, it’s repeating and observing and changing and repeating and observing. So, there’s perceived barriers there of knowledge integrity, which in many cases, is not true. In the cases where it is, there’s ways around it. It just requires a bit of conviction.
Finally, let’s say we’re looking at – over a piece of Country – or let’s say I’m looking out over a piece of Country, what do you want me to consider?
I think the most pertinent, if I can put you into a type of Country, to narrow the scope. When you’re driving through the bush, for example, have a look at the bush. If you see – and I’ll use a scientific term here, and then a kind of non-scientific, more what you might get off an Aboriginal person. If you see a high connectivity between the ground and the canopy of fuels, yeah? So, if you see ladder fuels, if you like, if you imagine fires start on the ground, and the only way they get in the canopy where they cause really big problems, is by having a series of fuels that they can then connect up with. Fires don’t really burn on bark that well, up a tree, unless it’s that kind of tree.
If you see that, that’s what a lot of Aboriginal people call, is sick Country. It’s not what you might look at with your romantic eyes and your European eyes saying, oh, look at that bush, it’s untouched, it’s great, you know, dah dah dah dah dah. That’s actually sick Country. I want you to think that the biodiversity and the species that you know that are Australian, that you recognise as Australian and that you might be worried about because we’ve got the highest rate of biodiversity loss on earth at the moment – are all here, if not because, then definitely doing really, really well under 60-odd thousand years of Aboriginal management.
The Country looked very much different. One of the reasons we might be losing them is because we’ve let the Country get like this. I’m sick of driving through bush, especially in Southeast Australia, where you can’t see more than five or 10 metres because all the shrubs are so thick and dense and you can’t walk through them. (a) it’s a tinderbox, (b) it’s just sick Country. It’s not healthy. The very biodiversity that we love and appreciate in this Country is the direct product of Aboriginal management.
Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, thank you so much for the conversation.
No worries. Thanks for having me, Steve.
Thank you to Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Director of Research Capability at the Indigenous Knowledge Institute, and Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Steve Grimwade.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on November 25, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2020, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
I see Country as the world around us, what we live in, but also ourselves, says Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, descendant of the Wiradjuri, Director of Research Capability at the Indigenous Knowledge Institute and Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne.
“Country recognises the role and the obligations that people have in the world around them. It doesn’t abstract the world from ourselves, it actually embeds us within the world around us and reveals the kind of reciprocity or the obligation that we have to the world in caring for it and looking after it.
Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher explains that one of the things that Aboriginal people did was to maintain open landscapes with fire.
“To care for Country, but also to increase green pick for animals, to increase grains, and there are a whole suite of species that Aboriginal people used in this Country that depend on fire at some stage in their life cycle.”
“There are areas that were described and which my data shows that are now forested, be that rainforest in Tasmania, or eucalypt forest on the mainland, that were forest-free. They were grasslands under Aboriginal management,” he says.
He adds that the very biodiversity that we love and appreciate in this Country is the direct product of Aboriginal management.
“We need to look to the Country that we’re in and talk to the traditional owners. In the circumstance where there might not be the continuance of knowledge because colonisation was so effective, then you’ve just got to roll your sleeves up and experiment.”
Episode recorded: November 25, 2020.
Interviewer: Steve Grimwade.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images