From June 2019 to February 2020, thousands of bushfires ripped through Australia—one of the worst in history—destroying 21% (or 5.8 million hectares) of forested area and killing an estimated billion animals and insects. But, as scientists look to the ground for post-fire prevention research, they continue to ignore the traditional fire practices of its Aboriginal communities.
In February, writer Amanda Jane Reynolds and photographer Tim Georgeson traveled through New South Wales with the Yuin Nation to explore cultural fire practices of Aboriginal peoples and to bear witness to the landscapes impacted by the catastrophic bushfires.
We’re traveling through the traditional Country of the Yuin Nation on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) Australia to explore fire practices of Aboriginal peoples and to bear witness to elders, community members, and landscapes impacted during the recent bushfires. Walbanja elder Aunty Vivian Mason has invited us to her family camp at Mummaga Lake. Aunty Vivian is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, ore, and culture woman—a keeper of fire knowledge and practice.
Arriving mid-morning, we offer our respects to her family. Walawaani welcome, she says. “Aboriginal people knew these fires were coming a long time ago,” Aunty Vivian continues. “People choose not to listen. There were plenty of signs given to us and we knew that something was going to happen. A lot of people weren’t prepared for it, but [us] blackfellas knew. Fire is one of our elements. We respect the earth, the air, the water, and fire. Without fire, we wouldn’t survive. It’s part of us, as is the air, water, and earth. They balance one another.”
Many people have heard about the unprecedented Australian bushfire season and responded with empathy or offered direct assistance. International newspapers headlined features, television and radio broadcasted terrifying news stories, space stations recorded satellite images of smoke pouring into the atmosphere, and New Zealanders watched ash fall from the sky onto their glaciers. While our bushfire season remains open and the gathering of testimony and data to understand the impact is ongoing, recovery, planning and rebuilding is underway. For me, the critical question is Will Australia—will the world—listen to and respect Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge and contribution? Or framed more directly Do humans have a future in Australia—on this planet?
In the aftermath of tragedy, there was increased urgency to these questions and the global discussion platform amplified. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy reported that between June 2019 and mid-February 2020, over 46 million acres of land burned in thousands of fires across Australia. Thirty-six people lost their lives including residents, volunteer firefighters, and visiting firefighters from the United States.
Early research estimates that more than a billion animals lost their lives (and many more insects and invertebrates), too, with many of our beloved native animal, plant, and totem species pushed further toward extinction. Close to 3,000 Australian homes and several thousand buildings, including businesses and outbuildings, were destroyed, with key infrastructure such as power, telecommunications, water, and sewage systems severely damaged in several regions.
Aunty Vivian and her granddaughter Ashweeni walk us through recently fired bush to a fallen giant where filtered sunlight dances amongst small ferns and grasses on the forest floor. “We grew up with fires. We used to burn our camps before we set it up and the kids had to get in and help, too. There’s a certain way we done it,” Aunt Vivian recalls. “Often the Oldies would comment ‘Wow, the bush is a mess. It needs a good burn.’ But, with all the laws and regulations these days, you can’t just put the fire where it needs to go. When you do a traditional burn, it’s like a buffer. If you do it every year, patch by patch, there won’t be so many catastrophic fires. But people are afraid. There’s no need to be afraid of it. You treat it right, use it properly—it’ll do its job.”
She’s referring to the sometimes oppressive and destructive laws and regulations foreshadowed 250 years ago as the Old People watched a giant and ominous Messenger Bird, similar in shape to a pelican—the Endeavour ship captained by James Cook—sail through Yuin waters up the coast of New South Wales. On Saturday, April 21, 1770, not far from where we are yarning today, Cook noted in his journal: “Saw the smoke of fires on several places upon the land; a sure sign of its being inhabited.” The following day, he noted people on the beach and smoke rising from fires. Despite his observations, and with all the arrogance and misplaced entitlement of a colonizer, he renamed Gulaga, sacred Mother mountain of all Yuin peoples, Mt. Dromedary.
“Our birds, they behave in a strange way. Then we know something’s going to happen. We get messages,” Aunty Vivian says. “You know, if people took notice around the environment of the birds, the plants, the behavior of our animals, they’ll tell you more than telecommunications can. They come to us and they talk; it might seem funny, but they do. You watch the weather patterns and the clouds… signs are everywhere.”
She goes on: “We noticed quite a few years back. We’re not into all this science about climate change because we don’t need that. We knew something was wrong. The fish was late traveling. Things weren’t blooming, growing; fish weren’t biting, the seafood was dwindling at a rapid rate. And it was all to do with the water quality; the weather and nature not working with the rest of its community.”
Australia’s three-tiered local, state, and national system of governance—each proliferating laws and regulations foreshadowed by Captain Cook and symbolically planted by Governor Arthur Phillip’s flag in 1788—directly contributes to the declining health of Aboriginal peoples, cultures, and countries. This includes the prevalence and increasing intensity of modern catastrophic bushfires. For us, in order to share understandings of climate and culture and reflect on the bushfires striking so ferociously in this anniversary year of the Endeavour’s journey, is to discuss the ongoing impacts and threats of colonization to our peoples, our Countries, the broader community, and planet.
Too often what’s considered legal or best practice in Australia is based on imported systems of governance supporting industries and land management practices that are threatening the survival of all of our futures: people, animals, and plants. Many Elders are frustrated with the laws and regulations preventing regular traditional burning of indigenous land and have long warned disaster was inevitable. The risk of hefty fines or imprisonment for practicing culture, caring for the land through fire, managing indigenous counties in accordance with specialist ecological knowledge and rights and responsibilities handed down for over 2,000 generations, is a painful reality.
One just has to look at the current incarceration rates for any of Australia’s states or territories to observe how a great sickness spread through our land when a foreign regime with floating prisons called convict ships were brought here just over 200 years ago. According to New South Wales Law Society president Elizabeth Espinosa, indigenous people make up only 2.9% of the population in NSW but 24.2% of the NSW adult prison population: “Of great concern is the disproportionately high number of indigenous women in our state’s prisons and the fact that 80% of indigenous women prisoners are mothers… More so when we know that the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers is a key driver in the removal of Indigenous children from their homes.”
On December 1, 2019, Djiringanj Yuin song-and Lore-man Warren Foster Senior called Yuin people together at the foot of Gulaga as part of the corroboree (or Nation dance). Since the beginning of time, healthy Community and healthy Country have gone hand in hand; a guiding principle is respect for Mother Earth and Father Sky and for the rights of all peoples and clans, all animals, and plants to flourish where they belong. While volatile and extreme bushfires had already been burning out of control for months in other regions, the intensity of the South Coast fires was yet to unfold as hundreds gathered at the base of Gulaga and other sites along the coast and throughout Australia. Two hours drive north of Gulaga, Yuin women Gayle Nolan and Leanne Brook organized a local corroboree gathering.
As Gayle said: “We need to heal, strengthen, and protect our home and Country.” Leanne and her husband Gavin were already in full protection mode for their property as the Currowan fire moved in and around the outskirts of town. The women connected our heartbeats with Mother Earth through possum skin cloaks and drums and danced while several men sang to the didgeridoo. An Old Man Pelican circled overhead alerting us to the direction of billowing smoke on the horizon, acknowledging the ceremony—yet warning to be prepared.
At 5:59pm that day, my first emergency text message from the NSW Rural Fire Service came through: “People in the Termeil & Flat Rock – safest option is to leave now if path clear to Ulladulla.” Within days, the Currowan Fire raged through hundreds of thousands of hectares while volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel defended and protected communities and properties with every skill, tool, and resource they could muster. The Kings and Princes highways both closed intermittently over the next two months and it often felt like the ocean was our only escape. Winds were angry, fires ravenous, and excessive smoke pollution filled everyone’s lungs. While different families, communities, towns, and regions were critically impacted in different ways at various times during the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis, New Year’s Eve brought tragedy for many.
Residents and tourists from the South, North, and West all fled the fire to seek refuge at the foot of our mountain (Balgun, Didthul) as electricity and communications all went down. While millions of people around the world watched fire explode in pretty patterns over Sydney Harbour, we watched wildfires take down Conjola Peninsula and its surroundings. No cheers and resolutions at midnight—only sickness and dread in the pit of my stomach worrying how many of my neighbors would survive; how many tourists, how many animals, and plants incinerated. Further south, and not far from the infamous ‘first land sighted’ during the Endeavour’s voyage (Point Hicks), thousands huddled on Mallacoota beach behind a ring of CFA fire trucks as the morning sky turned charcoal and a CFA official warned people over the megaphone: “Get into the water if fire trucks activate the sirens.”
Days later, over a thousand people were evacuated on navy ships from the Mallacoota region as Victorian Police and the Australian Defense Force launched a mammoth emergency rescue. Local speed boats, jet skis, and canoes had come to the rescue at Conjola during the firestorm and in the aftermath when so many went stranded without supplies.
Such sorry and scary times for all of us indeed. But we gifted and received compassion, strength and community spirit; generosity of strangers from around the globe; and marveled as everyday people transformed into heroes. During an interview in mid-January after the bushfire intensity had cooled and we were all processing the pain, suffering and destruction, Djiringanj Elder Warren Foster Senior stated: “These are the worst bushfires in our history. It’s never gone up like this. Our people never knew fires like this. The Ancestors would be wild about what’s happened to the Country, to our totem animals…There are hundreds of sites—male ceremony places, sites on our sacred mountain—that burned; not only Yuin land but all over, thousands of places destroyed by these fires. These places have been there for thousands of years, but once it’s gone you never get it back.”
A Guuganjin (kookaburra) lands on the branch beside me, she’d been keeping an eye on us all morning during our visit with the Mason family at Lake Mummaga. Time to journey further south where Yuin man Ado Webster had organized his countrymen to share aspects of a smoking and fire ceremony. Djiringanj Elder for the Gulaga dancers Warren Foster Senior welcomed everyone. Warren spoke of how the corroboree at the base of Gulaga had helped protect sacred Mother Mountain during the bushfire crisis—a potent reminder that the smoking ceremony and cultural dance we were invited to share and record was devoted to healing and strengthening people, Country, and all living creatures sacred to the area.
As Warren Foster explained: “We need our Country to be healthy so we can be healthy. We need the animals. If that is all lost, our spirits die when they die. This might be a wake-up call for them now to listen to us Indigenous people on how we do our cultural burning. It’s time to ask us how to look after the Country.”
One of the effects of this season’s unprecedented and catastrophic bushfire season is the increased national and international interest in cultural fire practices. For several years, Ado’s father Uncle ‘Nook’ Noel Webster has been working in collaboration with the Firesticks Alliance, an Aboriginal-led organization devoted to ‘cultural burning: healthy communities, healthy landscapes’ and has been assessing sites and areas in the wake of the fires. At a site north of here on the Shoalhaven River, he demonstrated and discussed how cultural fire burning in an area had created a shield during the bushfire attack.
“The difference between cultural fire practice and western fire management regime is a disconnection of people,” Webster explained. “So today, people are disconnected from landscape and from Country. In old practice years ago, people connected, lived, and walked within a cultural space…so when we have disconnection and remove people from the landscape, we begin to see imbalance. And through that imbalance comes bad fire. We need to try to reset the health of the landscape.”
He went on: “All this landscape we see here now—while it may look natural, it’s not natural. This is sick and unhealthy. We applied fire practice here 18 months ago to try to heal and bring it back to life. Right where I’m standing, we had bad fire come right through and it stopped where our good fire went out. So, when it met this fire, there’s almost a line along the dirt.” Uncle Nook, along with many Elders and community members, is once again warning of the dangers of complacency and misdirected blame of the environment, of not listening to specialist Indigenous knowledge holders—of isolating ourselves from all our connections and responsibilities.
“Everyone sees fire now as fear. They don’t see good fire and the story of good fire,” Webster tells us. “What we need is to see the good story of fire. We need people to come out of their lounge rooms, start walking with Country, and interact with good fire that creates safety from bad fire. Our cultural burning practice stimulates life, connection, and health. It brings us together as one, connecting people back onto the landscape. Like the Old Way, when our Ancestors walked this Country, they walked it not in isolation or separation but as one, in harmony with the land… We’re trying to bring that connection back to the landscape. And having people, not just Aboriginal people, but all people from across the whole world reconnect with the landscape, share knowledge with the landscape, and undertake a stewardship with it, too.”
Maintaining balance of Country and Community is a principle that’s been handed down for thousands of generations and requires respect, honesty, hard work, and commitment. It’s a lifelong and intergenerational journey. A key difference between indigenous and Western ways of managing Country is the timescale: Instead of ‘governing’ through annual plans and 10-year policy statements, we think and work on 10-generation and 100-generation plans—not just for the benefit of humans but so all species belonging to a particular Country can flourish.
Clive Freeman, Amethyst Downing-McLeod, Hika Te Kowhai, Karia Bond, and Peter Markovic sprang into action after the New Year’s firestorm hit the south coast and formed a grassroots organization called Indigenous Crisis Response and Recovery; Yuin volunteers and family coming together to offer specialized support and assistance to Aboriginal families along the South Coast, particularly those displaced by the bushfires, losing homes, businesses, and belongings. The gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians across life expectancy, health, education, income, and social justice are heartbreaking and outlined in the recent Closing the Gap report. If at the best of times, Australia—the ‘lucky Country’—has such gross inequalities in outcomes for our peoples, what will happen in the hardest of times?
We’re nearing the end of our journey…or perhaps just beginning a new one. I invite Amethyst and photographer Tim Georgeson to Conjola where thousands of trees once stood strong together nurturing communities of animals. But all we see is black trees in every direction—testimony to the heat of the New Year’s Eve fire. Budbili but-but – ngawiya walama mudjil-muru… I visit these ancestral giants each week with my possum skin cloak to connect our heartbeats in soothing rhythm, hoping Mother Earth can hear and gain strength from those who love her deeply. Amethyst’s visit lifts my spirit and the dragonfly Aunties follow us and remind us we’re resilient.
Tim asks Amethyst how the burnt earth feels under her bare feet. Several days later, she responds with a poem:
Walking barefooted amongst what used to be a thriving bushland
My feet coldly sunk into the ashes
Walking amongst what remained
The source of life was scarce
The vibration of the land is unfamiliar
As I walked through the cremated remains
Every step, I sunk deeper and deeper into the pain that is now
I’m trying to let it go so that I can let it flow
Just like the tears that flow from my eyes
Step up or step aside
Build each other up
If not hold one another accountable
To do better and be better
If this crisis fractures us
Then divided we fall
I only want to stand united and tall
I’m an individual
I belong to the Yuin Nation
I’m part of the next generation
Responding to the recovery and re-generation
My ancestors walk with me every day and every night,
to help protect, preserve and fight for our right!
I continue to rise, I continue to stand and voices will be heard!