Out of the Ashes: Fire as a Tool of Cultivation and Care

Bushfire. It’s a word that sparks fear into the hearts and minds of many Australians. A mammoth force of nature that creeps, feeds, licks and leaps its way across the landscape, untameable and free; no fence, wall or boundary able to contain its burning ferocity. But in a time as recent as two centuries ago, fire was seen not as a vehicle of fear and destruction, but instead as a respected tool of nourishment, care and love. Acquired through hundreds of thousands of years of learning, the tradition of fire-stick farming was practiced by Indigenous Australians to cultivate and manage Country. Though some of this ancient knowledge has been lost in the years since European arrival, a resurgence of Indigenous peoples, historians, ecologists, farmers and landscape architects (among others) are intent on recapturing and acknowledging the cultural origins of sophisticated land care that took place in this country over thousands of generations.

From the earliest reports of European explorers arriving in Australia, there is a consistent observation that the landscape was found to be well maintained, tidy and park-like. In the Greatest Estate on Earth, author Bill Gammage details the findings of many of these explorers, including that of botanical draughtsman, Sydney Parkinson, who arrived on the HMS Endeavour with Lieutenant James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1770. “The country looked very pleasant and fertile; and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park,” he wrote. The Europeans also recorded the steady presence of small, controlled fires in the landscape. The French explorer, Francois Peron, wrote that while sailing up the South-East coast of Tasmania, “wherever we turned our eyes, we beheld the forest on fire.”

Though the settlers did not understand the significance of these small-scale ignitions at the time, the method they were witnessing was what anthropologist Rhys Jones would later refer to as ‘fire-stick farming’, a traditional Aboriginal practice of lighting mosaic patches of cool-fire burns in considered areas of vegetation at appropriate times of the season.

“This was no haphazard mosaic making,” writes Gammage of the complex process of the burns, “but a planned, precise, fine-grained local caring.” The burns served many purposes, including nourishing the landscape and the many ecosystems that comprised it; creating fertile areas for the growth of new plants, food for both wildlife and humans; controlling the grazing areas of animals for hunting; and freeing the build-up of fuel in the understoreys that may result in out of control, violent wildfires.

In his 1969 paper, Rhys Jones considered the ecological effect of Aboriginals on the Australian environment pre-Settlement as monumental. “We imagine that the country seen by the first colonists before they ring barked their first tree was natural. But was it?” His answer lay in the rapid change of the landscape after the Aborigines and their fire-sticks were removed – the carefully cultivated and bio-diverse environments regressed into a state of wilderness, with thick undergrowth and a build-up up of branches and debris creating fuel for the hot fires that would become a hallmark of our post-colonial ecological identity.

Cultivated by Fire garden by Taylor Cullity Lethlean. Image by Lena Giovanezzi⁣

The acknowledgement of our country’s deep connection with fire and its power within our historical narrative is at the heart of Cultivated by Fire, a garden installation by Australian landscape architecture practice, Taylor Cullity Lethlean, and exhibited as part of the 2017 International Gartenausstellung (International Garden Exhbition) in Berlin. Selected as one of nine international designers to create a permanent contemporary garden that showcased the landscape of their home country, TCL constructed a complex garden setting that explores the ancient and sophisticated elements of fire-stick farming.

“Representing Australia at an international garden exhibit in Europe, we saw it as a great opportunity to highlight and celebrate Australia’s rich and ancient cultural practices, practices that pre-date European colonisation tens of thousands of years,” says TCL founding director, Kate Cullity. “As landscape architects in Australia, we feel it so important to learn from indigenous knowledge and indigenous land management practices.”

Bordered by a tall hedge, the garden within the small rectangular plot is an exploration of the regeneration and rebirth that takes place after a managed cool fire burn. A biomorphic path system leads the viewer through the garden at their will, the red crushed brick beneath their feet evocative of the red sands of Central Australia. Towering charred trunks, some more than 10 meters high, are carpeted by drifts of native grass trees, Eucalyptus gunni and flowering shrubs that grow with a vigor and youthful eagerness suggesting they have re-sprouted from the ashes of a recent fire event. Among the plantings are black plinths emitting gas fueled flames within the space, illustrative of the powerful force at the heart of a cool fire burn. “Having this element of real fire was critical to telling the story, especially to audiences that may have no prior knowledge of the Australian landscape and its relationship with fire,” says Kate.

We wanted to challenge the commonly-held notion that fire is always a destructive force, and recast it as something capable of producing beauty as well an expression of care.”

“Care is integral to the idea of a garden. Yet we don’t associate fire with care,” she continues. “This contrast is incredibly powerful when you walk through the garden and appreciate the beauty of the planting upon a bed of charred mulch and backdrop of charred trunks. We want people to see beauty in the whole life-cycles of plants, of life and death, and to question their ideas of care and maintenance.”

The flora that grows within Cultivated by Fire are unique to the Australian landscape and have adapted alongside the Indigenous peoples and their burning methods over thousands of generations. As they experience the garden space, Kate hopes audiences ponder the cultural narrative of indigenous groups within their own cultures, and how their relationship with nature may have influenced the landscapes and garden settings that they know today. “It’s not just in Australia that landscape designers can learn from first nations people, it’s across the world.”

Cultivated by Fire garden by Taylor Cullity Lethlean. Image by Lena Giovanezzi⁣

Australian author, scientist and regenerative farmer from the Monaro plateau, Charles Massy, echoes the notions of indigenous land care explored in Cultivated by Fire, citing the ancient Aboriginal custodianship of the land as “one of the greatest ever sustainable partnerships between humankind and the ecosystems they occupied.” He also considers the methods of fire-stick farming, when implemented correctly, have a role to play in the regeneration of deteriorating contemporary Australian landscapes.

When used judiciously and strategically, fire can be a creative tool in regenerative landscape management,” he writes in his book, The Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth.

Charles likens the current ecological state of Australia to that of the progressive desertification of the once fertile river valleys and grasslands of the Middle East – the area where agriculture evolved over 10,000 years ago – that is today a place of “desert, constant drought and social conflict.” He says, “Through misapplied European techniques to this country, most of our landscapes are in different stages of desertifying. Everyone is in denial about it, but we’ve lost our ground cover, we’ve lost our soil carbon, there’s significant erosion and we’ve destroyed our small water cycle.”

One path to regenerating our deteriorating landscapes is the controlled use of cool fire burns. Charles, who once held a role as a senior bushfire captain, held feelings of fear and reproach towards fire like many Australians. That is, until he met a local Indigenous Elder and senior law man, Rod Mason, and began learning of the power of fire to regenerate through cool-fire burns. “Around 70% of Australian vegetation is adapted to fire in one way or another. There are dozens of chemicals in smoke as well as the heat and flame that stimulates seed propagation in Australian vegetation. But success relies on how and when we do it.”

If you can burn at cool temperatures at the right time of the year, you can create a fire that unlocks the build-up of nutrients in dead organic matter without destroying the soil microbiology and groundcover.”

“Indigenous fire-stick farming skills are not lost, as they reside with highly skilled Indigenous people in many regions,” writes Charles. “If we as landscape managers wish to further understand the unique landscape and ecological functions… [of Australia] then we need to learn from, and work with, our Indigenous people.” In 2016, Charles and Rod Mason conducted their first ‘cool patch-burning’ workshop, teaching farmers some of the knowledge of cool-fire burning and how the method could be introduced into their own landscapes. The workshops have increased in popularity, a clear indication that a desire to learn more about this cultural practice is growing.

“We have a good yarn first, so the participants get to meet and understand Rod and his perspective on land.” Charles says of the workshops. “For many, it’s the first time they’ve met an Indigenous Elder, one who is trained in ecology as well as being a senior law man. Rod knows his science but he’s putting a traditional view on it and explaining why. He’ll talk about how the Indigenous people saw the landscape as a big garden with different herbaries, pharmacies, orchards and grasslands – a diverse group of mosaic resources that had to be managed for those specific purposes. Rod will also talk about the way Country was managed before the arrival of Europeans and their agricultural practices. Then we’ll head out and do a small mosaic burn with Rod showing people how to gently creep the fire along the ground.” The importance of mosaic, or patch burns, is to “shake up the diversity” in the environment says Charles, as, “Nature abhors a lack of variance.”

When I ask Charles what the people from the workshop take with them, he remarks on the long process of understanding that Non-Indigenous people have to undertake to fully appreciate the cultural significance of these burns. “I think the workshops are opening the participants minds to the depths of two thousand generations of knowledge of how to manage this Country. But learning from Indigenous people isn’t like going to a university lecture – you’ve got to earn their understanding. There’s so much of their knowledge that comes out in little bits and pieces which is interrelated to so many other parts of the land.”

Mosaic burning in the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). Image by Michelle McKemey
Banbai rangers Lesley Patterson and Mervyn Torrens taking part in a cultural burn at the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). Image by Michelle McKemey

An Indigenous woman who holds much knowledge of fire-stick farming is Lesley Patterson, an Elder of the Banbai Nation, an area of Northern NSW that includes the present-day townships of Guyra, Glencoe, Mt Mitchell, Ben Lomond and Kookabookra. “I grew up here in this Country,” says Lesley. “I walked, ran, hunted, swam and worked as a kid and have a lot of memories here.”

The Banbai are the traditional owners of the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), the first IPA to be declared in NSW, and the bushland where Lesley is a ranger.

Our ancestors have been using fire to manage this Country for thousands of years,” she says. “My mother used to burn when I was a kid at Llangothlin. She taught my siblings and I how to burn respectfully on Country.”

In the past few years, the Banbai have been undertaking cool-fire burns to protect areas of the bushland with the assistance of Indigenous fire practitioner, Victor Steffensen. “We had a slow mosaic burn which took place at our artsite, Kukra, at Wattleridge. The Rural Fire Service attended the burn and thought it was going to get away on us due to all the leaf litter and logs lying about, but with the traditional methods of careful slow burning they were amazed by how slowly the fire went.”

Founder and director of Melaleuca Enterprises Environmental Consultancy Services, Michelle McKemey also attended the burn at Kukra, Wattleridge. “They started by lighting a fire the traditional way, using a drill made from Xanthorrhoea. They then slowly moved through the bush, lighting grass as they went. The fire was cool, slow and gentle. We observed beetles crawling away to escape.”

Michelle, who is a PhD candidate at the University of New England, is working with Aboriginal communities to investigate the ecological and cultural changes that occur when cultural burning is reintroduced to long unburnt country. Her research also looks at two species important to the Banbai Aboriginal community, the Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) which is the totem of the Banbai mob and the Black Grevillea (Grevillea scortechinii) which is a threatened plant only found in the Banbai region and which experienced a “mass recruitment event” after the cultural burn she says. “The baby plants were like a carpet underfoot.”

Michelle has also been working with the Banbai community to create Winba = Fire, the Banbai Fire and Seasons Calendar, an illustrated infographic that determines appropriate times for burning in the area by the flowering times of certain flora or the appearance of different animals within the region. “We are using Aboriginal and scientific knowledge to develop biocultural indicators which we defined as predictable, obvious, seasonal events that may or may not be culturally significant,” says Michelle. “These biocultural indicators were then aligned with seasons and fire conditions to provide an indicator of which time of year is appropriate to burn.” The fire calendar was distributed throughout the local community and is available nationally through the Bureau of Meteorology’s Indigenous Weather Knowledge website.

The scientific findings of the research undertaken by Michelle and the Banbai community is pioneering the future study of fire-stick ecology in Australia. “In northern Australia, many studies have shown that cultural burning benefits biodiversity, landscapes, climate change and community wellbeing,” says Michelle. “In south-eastern Australia, few studies have been done which look at the changes associated with cultural burning. We are hoping our research will contribute to the scientific knowledge of this practice in south-eastern Australia.”

It’s interesting to me that each of the people I have spoken to about fire see it as a powerful tool of nourishment, or in the words of Kate Cullity, “something capable of producing beauty as well as an expression of care,” rather than a force of destruction and fear. This care exists not only in settings of land management and ecology, but in spiritual connections to land, like those of Lesley, her mother and her siblings exploring Country together through fire. It exists in our own garden settings too, where our perspectives on natural elements can be informed by new knowledge and viewed through different eyes, such as the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth prompted by fire. As we progress further into the era of the Anthropocene, it seems imperative to the future of our continent and the species that inhabit it, that we acknowledge the care of the First Australians for the landscape they inhabited over tens of thousands of years, and look to ways we can respectfully learn and implement indigenous land care practices in our own settings – whether these be agricultural landscapes, gardens or metaphysical spaces.

Michelle McKemey wishes to acknowledge the supporters of her ongoing research: The Rural Fire Service, The Rural Fire Service Association, The University of New England, Firesticks Project and the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services (through funding from the Australian Government National Landcare Program) and supervisors Professor Nick Reid, Dr Emilie Ens, Dr John Hunter, Dr Mal Ridges and Mr Oliver Costello. You can learn more about this research through Michelle’s website.

Cultivated by Fire garden by Taylor Cullity Lethlean. Image by Lena Giovanezzi⁣