Australia's Greentime History

By Best, Daryl | History Today, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Australia's Greentime History


Best, Daryl, History Today


* In the United Kingdom, there is a growing awareness of the environment in History. This is a field about which much has been written in the United States. In Australia, the ways in which the environment has affected society, over time, are central to what constitutes Australian history and identity. This topic continues to be a rich field for historiographical study, the findings of which are interpreted by different political parties in Australia to validate their raison d'etre. The theme surfaces in the study of Aboriginal societies, the impact of European peoples since 1770 (when Captain Cook and the botanist Sir Joseph Banks first sighted Botany Bay in New South Wales) and more recently Australia's constitutional history.

To describe Australia's environment is to describe a land of rich contrasts. There are the capital cities of the six states and two territories which, art from the nation's capital, Canberra, cling to the coasts. There are also the regional centres, each with their local flavours and sparse populations serving their respective hinterlands. Tasmania, the island state south of the mainland, southern Victoria and south eastern New South Wales each have terrain which would be familiar to Britons. There are the rugged mountains, the cascading rivers and lush rolling plains. Northern Australia is tropical, a mecca for overseas tourists. It has the playgrounds of the Gold Coast, the tropical rainforests of Queensland and the wetlands of the Northern Territory. Southern Australia is cool, temperate, almost Mediterranean in climate. The land is green in winter but gives way to a sunburnt landscape in summer. The Eucalyptus trees are grey-green; the grass is brown and withered. All are subject to the scourge of bushfire. inland is inhospitable desert. The predominant colour is grey-brown giving way to red, yet when the rains do come the scenery can be awash with the colour of native flowers and screeching birdlife. These are the landscapes that have shaped Australia's history and its identity.

Aboriginal peoples have been custodians of the land for over 40,000 years. Recently, archaeological discoveries have pushed this date back to more than 100,000 years. To the Aboriginal peoples, the land is their mother, the fount of their very existence. Their Dreamtime stories explain the origin of the earth and its flora and fauna. Some social scientists claim that by understanding the unique relationship of the Aboriginal peoples to the land, the problems of land degradation that have continued in the 200 years of European settlement and survival in the harsh interiors of the continent may be overcome. The issue is a controversial one, however. Others argue that Aboriginal fire stick farming has denuded much of Australia's woodland and turned it into rolling savannah countryside Aboriginal hunting techniques have resulted in the extinction of the Giant Red Kangaroo and the Diprotodon, the large ancestor of the wombat.

Australia's first European settlers, whether convicts or their guards, were unwilling migrants. They were soon followed by ever-increasing numbers of free settlers as the nineteenth century progressed. All were unaccustomed to Australia's seasons and the unique nature of the land. It is an enduring cultural myth that Europeans found the Bush environment alien, hostile and-oppressive. In the main, settlers clung to the coast (and still do today). They ventured inland in search of profit and came stoically to terms with loss. Marcus Clarke in 1874 recorded:

In Australia alone there is to be found the Grotesque, the

Weird, the strange scribblings of Nature learning to write. Some

see beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without

perfume, our birds who (sic) cannot fly and our beasts who

have not learned to walk on all fours.

Some of those who dared to go forth felt that the Bush had to be tamed. it was plundered of its timber and despoiled of its mineral resources. …

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