Landscaping Large

My beloved and I spent the weekend toiling in our small section. We were obliged to take out sections of the hedge that had died in the drought, and dig new holes and replace the plants with karo – hopefully a tougher option. At least we will have the lovely dark red flowers to enjoy, and the birds their nectar.

When I lagged with the hard work, I was reminded that gardening is an activity of aesthetic consequence – which it undoubtedly is, though with a horizon beyond just today.

We reckon our new hedge will take three years to be what it’s supposed to be; and the neighbour, bless him, is cool with that.

This got me to thinking about notions of the ideal in landscaping and gardening, and how much work a bigger estate would be. And I recalled how these notions of the ideal can overlap – but in the most unexpected way.

The vast landscape of Australia, when it was first encountered by Europeans, was described in complimentary terms in their own worldview. Sydney Parkinson, who was the artist for Joseph Banks, the aristocratic naturalist aboard James Cook’s HMS Endeavour in 1770 wrote, “The country looked very pleasant and fertile; and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park.”

With the increasing settlement of Australia by Europeans, this observation was reinforced, repeated many times, and recorded by early colonial-era landscape painters. But here’s the thing: landscapes like this, when left to their own devices (in national parks for instance) revert to a mass of dense scrub, with a high level of dry leaves and twigs forming a carpet on the ground. This build-up has come to be regarded as dangerous, in the sense of fuel just waiting for a bushfire. It turns out, the park-like landscape of Australia in 1788 (the year the first 11 convict ships arrived at Sydney), was the result of landscaping on a continent-wide scale. The landscape was man-made by firestick farming; in which Aboriginal people selectively burned their home territories to create optimal conditions for game and edible plants to flourish. Where one nation’s territory merged into another’s, similar patterns of land management were adopted, creating an Australia-wide landscape designed for best use by people.

And this had gone on for millennia. The native peoples had modified the environment to make resources at their disposal sustainable, abundant, convenient and predictable. All this in a land where seasons are often frustratingly inconsistent, and drought quite common.

The grand irony was that the colonial painters and the Aboriginals had the same notion of an ideal landscape, though from entirely different perspectives. The sad thing is that the Aboriginals were forcibly evicted from pretty much all of the park-like landscapes that they had created.

And that the colonials thought the Aboriginals were not advanced enough to understand land management – or at least their version of it. Which didn’t always work: witness the large areas of productive land currently being lost to salination (salt coming to the surface of cultivated land)*, or the vast sheep stations of South Australia that survived in unusually wet years in the 1850s, but collapsed when normal patterns returned.

This story is traversed in the fascinating 2011 book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginals Made Australia by Bill Gammage. The part I like about the story is how Gammage supports – and proves – his thesis by comparing landscape paintings by European artists of the early to mid-1800s, with photographs of the sites today, showing how thick bush has re-encroached, and in many cases obliterated the ‘gentlemen’s park.’

Only in the last generation has western science caught up. Controlled burning is being used more and more (though still not universally) in managing state and national parks in Australia. But there still is debate about the frequency of managed fires. When they get it wrong, the build-up of forest floor fuel is what drives the uncontrollable bushfires that inevitably will happen.

It’s now recognised that controlled fire regimes are an essential part of ecosystem management there. And that many Australian species – plants and animals, have come to depend on this fire-influenced system. For example, my daughter Zoe’s PhD research on the habitat requirements of the seriously-endangered eastern bristlebird in the Border Ranges between NSW and Queensland, found that the birds’ future can only be assured by including controlled ‘cool’ burning (that is, fires on damp earth) in the management of their home range. That’s because these birds have evolved to need a certain type of grass cover, in open patches on the fringe of forests.

So, here’s landscaping on a grand scale that has to do with more than aesthetics alone. It’s about the survival of all species too. It’s about a vision where every living thing matters. And our response to our environment having to take this worldview on board. I reckon that holds for all of us in the post-Covid world we will soon be entering.

*By 1999 an estimated 2.5 million hectares of land had become salinised since the introduction of European farming methods. Currently, around 5.7 million hectares of land is considered to have a high potential for salinisation with that number expected to rise to 17 million hectares by 2050. .