To Burn or Not To Burn: Listening to a Forest
This is a personal essay that explores questions we have about forest ecology and fire in the giant tingle forest of southwestern Australia.
This is a 400-year old red tingle tree. It germinated sometime in the 1600s.
This is the forest of the Ancient Ones. A pocket of forest in the southwest corner of the driest continent on earth, stands some of the tallest trees in the world.
In one area - now known as the Valley of the Giants - karri, marri, red tingle and yellow tingle trees mix in together, atop a red loam that forms in narrow valleys that wind between isolated granite domes and surround lakes, rivers and inlets, to the Southern Ocean. Beneath, a complex of ferns, banksia zamia, balga, and tea tree, crating habitat for cockatoos, colourful parrots, magpies, wrens, and criss-crossed by kangaroos, emus, wallaby, possums, and a myriad of other small marsupials many of which I don’t even know existed until I was about 30 years old.
Currently, there is a debate about how best to manage these forests - whether we should carry out regular prescribed ('controlled') burns to manage fuel loads and protect local towns and properties, or whether to leave the forest essentially 'un-managed', where it is said the forest naturally thins itself out - or maybe something else entirely. I thought it would be useful to explore these questions with a man that verbally details all the branches of his family tree extending back some 400 years (maybe more), and so is already thinking about things in the lifetime (or time scale), of these trees.
Uncle Wayne “Wonitji” is a Custodian of this forest, as a Pibulmun-Wadandi man. He can tell you his family tree that extends back to when this tree pictured above was a tiny seedling.
Wonitji and his son Waalitj: Pibulmin-Wadandi.
I can’t. I need to refer to my multi-page, bloody complex family tree diagram to go through it all, tracing my convict ancestors and back to parts of Ireland, Scotland, Poland, and maybe ten other countries. And even then, with all the reference materials and diagrams in front of me, I confuse great uncles and third cousins, until it is a random jumble in my head.
Uncle Wayne has his family tree all detailed in his head. The primacy of kinship – family – connection – land – ecosystems. This is a part of the great genius of Pibulmun-Wadandi People, and all other cultural groups in Australia, I imagine. Uncle Wayne knows his family tree, from a long way back. He understands them as ancestors, as I do. But he also understands them as still present, as I maybe should do. They are still with him. In the forest. He knows his family tree like an ecosystem. Interconnected and interdependent.
For exploring complex issues like biodiversity management, or heritage preservation at the landscape level, he tells me to explore all scales - time and spatial scales. Long-term history, like archaeology, recent histories, the present - and the place, the complex, the landscape. Only once we have considered all these layers, can we work to practical actions, solutions. But to get there, this level of spatio-temporal understanding, we need to work together. To work out how to manage a forest under threat from a host of factors, with trees that have a life cycle of 400 years or so, we need to study and monitor, collect data, collaborate, at many different scales.
Somehow, Uncle Wayne is able to consider different spatial and temporal scales all at once. It takes me ages. As an archaeologist, I look at the world in 5,000 year blocks of time. We did an dig together at Kwedginup (Dunsborough) and I was pretty thrilled to uncover a chert scraper about 110cms below the ground, that was later associated with a layer radiocarbon dated to 10,500 years before present. Uncle Wayne was not that fussed - he knows his people have been here, using this area for tens of thousands of years. He was just as excited to see a layer of artefacts we uncovered in the uppermost deposit, 10-20cms below the ground surface, dated to the last 300 years - as the people he knows by name from his family tree were here at that time. So he already has a time-scale of knowledge.
Excavations at the 10,000 year old occupation site at Kwedginup (place of white bones)
And he knew much about this place from his own experience:
"We literally lived on the beach, amongst the booner wannang [peppermint trees], drawing gabbie [water] from a homemade well that Dad and us older kids dug out and lined by placing old rubber tyres around the edges to keep the sand from caving it in. We fished wattern [the sea] for naralung [herring], koorji-guttuk [bay snapper], ngaree [salmon], we dove for koreil [crabs] and bi-beda [squid], and always we were jinung [looking out for], warnung or moonda [sharks]. We thought we were just playing while our parents were at work and our Grandmother or oldest sister would keep watch but really we were learning our traditions and everything we caught we ate, because otherwise we would have gone hungry.
The Grannies would keep our karla [fire] going and then on the way back to our kalleep we would be shown how to collect the bewell [paperbark], tangil [reeds] and how to prepare our dartcha [food], without upsetting the jangas [spirits]. We were taught the times of year that the kulter [mullet] were spawning in the beelya [river], we would make a fence of dura [ti tree] across the mouth of the beela and wattern [the sea] and we would jump into the gabbie [water] further upstream, all the time hitting the water with sticks or mara [hands] until the fish were tangled up and we could grab them out. Sometimes Mum and Gran would crush up special leaves and all the fish would float to the surface and then we could just scoop them up onto the bank and thread them onto our gidgies or tie them together with yandil, and we would carry them home ready to have a good feed. I guess that’s where we learnt to take only what we could eat and the Grannies were very strict on taking fish, marron or crabs etc. With nurrak [eggs], we were told that if we took the boodjari [pregnant] fish, there would be no more next time we wanted a feed. It was the same when hunting for gnuaren or koomal [possums] or yonger [kangaroo], we only took what was around and if we had to go hungry there was always tomorrow and in reality, with all the manna gum, kwonner [bush fruit], borne and jubitch around to eat, I can’t remember being hungry unless we’d been too lazy to go get it ourselves."
Our job, in heritage, archaeology, is to develop a significance statement of a site or place. A lot of the time, we fall back on the scientific value - the place is 10,000 years old. It has artefacts that we can study about how people used this landscape, or what activities took place. A lot of the time, we overlook the cultural value, the TEK of the place, the social significance. Getting all this information together takes time, but it adds greater value to any significance statement, and so can help protect the place. And it can also provide a richer understanding of the place, for our ongoing studies, monitoring work, that can provide information into management plans or actions.
Sometimes, we overlook Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a dataset that can provide information on long-term history as well as current dynamics of a place. The reason we are slow at integrating TEK in our work is a complex one. But history has some responsibility here.
Since Europeans arrived into this landscape, there has been an uneasy relationship with the Pibulmun.
Early American sealers and whalers did some unspeakable acts when they encountered people camped along this part of the Southern Ocean coast. French and English explorers took observations, no doubt of a wary People not wanting to welcome with open arms without some caution given the early atrocities. European explorers describe in their journals observations of people camped in the forest, using the inlets, and rivers, fish traps, and weaponry, fires for managing the land, creating habitat for plants and animals, shelters designed from local materials, a humble, sustainable lifeway.
They did not take the time to understand the complexity of this civilization - to truly understand the detailed ecological knowledge of the People. Where Western scientist are only now coming out of a three hundred or more long process of classification efforts of plants and animals, toward an understanding of southwest ecology, Pibulmun People have embedded a society based on six seasons, geared to movement and use of the land through a sacred ecology, culturally zoning landscape, understanding how species interact with other lifeforms, and climate, and season, embedding this knowledge into stories and song, creating a sacred platform of true scientific understanding of their environment as the key principle of their culture.
Zac Webb is living and sharing his trans-generational knowledge.
This lifeway, is manifest today in the knowledge of ecology held by Uncle Wayne and his family, and through the trans-generational knowledge passed down by his ancestors – to him – from well before these giant tingles had germinated as seedlings in the 1600s. It is hard to compete with trans-generational cultural knowledge of a local region. You might study aspects of this place yourself, for a few field seasons. You might write a dissertation. You might qualify with a PhD and develop the management plan that become the guiding document for how this land needs to be managed and protected. You will no doubt develop a strong, passionate connection for the forest, the waterways, the plants, the animals, the moss, the dew, sounds, smells of this place. But there is still a need, a protocol, to consider, learn about, and understand aspects of the Pibulmun connections, and knowledge systems. A first step is to also understand why we haven’t, as a community, as land managers, as academics, fully delved into the Pibulmun worldview.
Many people like to point out that there is ‘not a very large’ Aboriginal community here. Some have even said to me that there is no evidence “Aboriginal” people were here at all. They ignore the very places names of their towns and local features;, as a clue. Or they maybe have not understood the history or colonisation, disease, frontier conflict (don’t say the word ‘massacre’), and a range of successive government policies that involved the forced dislocation of people form their lands, with missions and reserves deigned to break traditional culture and language, and assimilate to a single Western system of living and understanding the world. They might also forget to see how farmland and clearing took place at central places of the Pibulmun, and then how people had to be removed from land before we could designate vast areas as ‘wilderness’.
Researchers studying in this wilderness sometimes like to say there are not many ‘sites’ in this area, compared to coastal zones, or places “up north”. One time, Uncle Wayne and Aunty Toni walked along a new track but through the forest and found a scatter of artefacts extending over 300 metres. The track provided a window of visibility into the ground surface since leaf litter and sand has buried the last camps of the People. Imagine what else is out there - what lays beneath? A wardung (crow) followed us for couple of hours while we recorded this site. We called it the Wardung Site.
Recording the Wardung Site - a large artefact scatter in the forest - with Uncle Wayne and Aunty Toni
In trying to integrate TEK into all my work, and also my understanding of place when out hiking, I am learning from Uncle Wayne each time we walk through this forest. He teaches me to first listen to all things. Listening is a form of study. It has taken me a long time, to understand that often people who belong to communities that place humans as part of the mix, not on top of the pile, share a common way of communication – they talk in riddles. No, only joking. But they often express amazingly complex statements in the most simplistic way possible.
I remember working with Elders at a rocky outcrop along the Munglinup River, a mound of laterite atop a granite platform with rock-shelters full of ochre, thousands of stone artifacts, and, like a lame-arse archaeology adventure movie, teaming with tiger snakes. When talking to the Elders about the cultural significance of the place, an Aunty looked at me, smiled slightly, and said: “The Mungan (snakes) are here looking after this place – till the People come back.” It was in the way that she looked at me that forced to reflect on this statement for days and days. I ended writing a whole narrative on the cultural significance of this place from that one sentence. Layered in multiple levels of meaning. The statement was the basis for the place to be recognized formally as a cultural place under state laws and registered as such. Her gaze at that moment stays with me forever.
Mungan Wilgie Koort.
This is how it is with Uncle. Most of what he has taught me is form non-verbal expression, in the bush. Or watching how he interacts with all things – plants, insects, water, animals, wind, smell, spirits. When he does want me to learn something important, he must verbalise. “At first, always first, listen to the land. Listen to your experience. Listen to the place.”
That’s about it.
It’s almost like he is challenging me to go away and work out what to do from there, those few words, instead of just telling what I should be hearing. As a Custodian of his lands for his People, Uncle Wayne is in demand – from bureaucrats, researchers, planners, developers, environmentalists, managers, anthropologists – everybody needs his input on things for things. In all my work alongside him, I can’t say I have ever seen him give an answer on the spot – despite the fact that everyone who ‘consults’ Uncle Wayne is expecting an answer for something on the spot. He does the opposite - he listens, absorbs, studies, analyses, reflects – it may take a day, a week, a month. He takes the responsibility as a Custodian, and so reaches out to his ancestors, his experience, knowledge. Then he might give you an answer. Other times, you may have to change your question. Sometimes, you will not hear from him again.
But if you do, you learn new things.
In this context, I came to understand that ‘listen” is a form of reading the landscape. Sounds of wind, birds, frogs, water, leaves, or no sounds at all – that can all tell you things. The combination of many sounds, or a few, or one. It’s not just about the weather, but sometimes it is. It’s not just about the health of the ecosystem, but sometimes it is. It’s not just about the spirits, but sometimes it is.
Then you must listen to your experience. For Uncle Wayne, he can draw from his trans-generational knowledge. For someone like me, I can draw from the few surveys we have done together in this place, plus what I may have read about while doing a report on the place.
Then you must listen to the place. That is the past and present. What is the place telling us about the past – the ancestral places, the way it was used, the events that happened here – floods, fires, battles, meetings. And the present – who is talking here now? A land manager? A researcher? A man who grew up here and has watched the forest all his life?
This is what I believe Uncle Wayne does, and what he means by listen. To listen requires work. To listen to a place, feel, and your experience, past and present, requires a lot of effort. But he also says, its all about learning. Life, that is.
Sometimes we tend to hear without listening. Sometimes we tend to look at the present without understanding the past. Or we forget archaeology is about people, not just 'sites'. Sometimes we forget to draw from our experience. And if we have little experience to draw from, no matter, walk alongside an Elder for a while, a knowledge holder, and grab a researcher to if you can.
I am trained as an archaeologist and trying hard to unlearn my obsession to walk with two eyes fixed on the ground in the unquestioned search for artefacts, stained earth, depressions, potential stratified deposits. It is an obsession. It is hard to unlearn. Even when Uncle Wayne can take you to any cultural place, or feature - or “archaeological site’ as we like to call cultural places - if you only just asked. Yet still I keep finding myself staring along the traces of exposed red loamy earth, in massive closed forests of giant tingle trees. If I cannot just look up and appreciate these incredible living entities, I fear I need to go to archaeologist anonymous therapy, or something.
But slowly, I am listening, in every sense of the word.
After a decade of trudging alongside Uncle, his teaching by showing method, is starting to have an impact. Ten years is a good effort I like to think. Though I can see how often he shakes his head at me, or strains his eyes, in the disbelief of my ‘archaeological tendencies’. Why search for sites, when you are with a Custodian who already knows where his ‘sites’ are? He has a cultural map. In his mind. I once asked a Gangalidda cultural ranger a question about how often they do heritage surveys as part of their work collecting data on migratory birds, turtle monitoring, weed control, invasive animal management, rouge croc relocation, and a shitload of other work tasks that boggle my mind. So, with my lame (in retrospect) question, he replied, with a slightly puzzled look – “We know where our sites are.”
The Gangalidda-Garawa Rangers know where their sites are.
Same thing – here. In this forest.
But somehow, we have convinced the world to make an industry of heritage compliance dependent on the need for ‘professional’ archaeologists and anthropologists. I have seen archaeologists walk through parcels of bush they have never been to before, under a paid contract. They may have a lot of experience in other areas, but little in this area. They may understand the manufacturing methods involved in making a chert scraper, or detailed understanding of site formation process and the local geomorphology - but what of the social and cultural significance? How can we evaluate the significance of place if not with Elders who have a deep cultural connection to that site or area? Are we only ever going to develop significance assessments based only on Western scientific values?
Uncle Muz, Southern Ute Elder, taught me about the cultural significance of a stone arrowhead by knapping a replica of one, then making a bow and arrow from local materials and then using it.
Uncle Wayne might say to us archaeologists - ‘listen first” - before you head out on a survey. If you need to, draw from others’ experience. Elders. Locals. There is no shame involved if you reach out. Your boss might tell you that you cannot talk to Elders as that can only be done as part of 'government to government' consultation. So do it without your boss knowing if you have to. We are good at that - how many times in the past have we done a survey without Elders knowing? What if you pick up an artifact that you are not supposed to? What if you walk into an area that is secret-sacred?
We work with the Eyak of Alaska under their language revitalization program. The work involves documenting traditional place names and stories and then going into the field to map and record that place. The work does a lot of things, but for my field, it situates archaeology within a broader cultural and social context. I am learning about the archaeology of place, and the place of archaeology. Through this community program, we have been able to register places by knowing the full range of values of the place, including how the process itself of protecting heritage sites in the landscape, is a basis for ecological protection and management, and ongoing cultural revitalization, including language learning.
The industry does not seem to yet fully value holistic approaches, or the value local Knowledge Holders to help in the planning of new developments, or in the heritage and environmental surveys required to obtain permits for the undertaking. Some of us now say we need to decolonize the field. But no rush. It is hard to push for equality when you are a beneficiary of inequality. But that is another story….and things are getting better, we keep telling ourselves. In all the archaeology we do now, at least in Australia, the Traditional Owners are walking with us - leading the surveys. Its heaps better this way. Soon, botanists, ecologists, planners and developers will all be walking side by side with TOs. (Some botanists I know are doing a better job with collaboration than us anthropologists and archaeologists - but its not a competition).
A cultural map, in his mind. I think of it as how a walitji (an eagle) might know his territory. The ability to simultaneously hold the landscape view from above, but with the subtle detail of discerning an individual animal in a dense thicket, an ability to read depth and layers, to feel air, smell variations, glide, dive, disappear, hide. He can smell norn – snakes. He can see things I cannot. Or things I still choose to not see. It is going to take me another few decades maybe to get close or even near this base level. But, I know, it might take at least 400 years. We are living in two different time scales and two different ways of knowing. He said listening is a form of feeling.
One time, my daughter was following Uncle Wayne to a sacred freshwater place and waterfall in Wadandi Boodja. She was only four but was his shadow. He bent down over the freshwater spring to take a drink, and said to my daughter, “look here, look at how clear the water is”. So she crouched down on the edge and pushed her whole head into the running creek, her eyes wide open. We all laughed. But Uncle Wayne said, “You see now, you can feel how clear it is.” And she said, “yes.” Sometimes we must put our whole head in the water to really feel how clear it is.
My daughter Wynn Kivlii about to stick her head in the spring water 'to see how clear it is'.
I don’t have trans-generational knowledge in archaeology within my family tree. But I was taught by other archaeologists with a degree that allowed them to be considered ‘teachers’ or ‘educators’ – not just archaeologists. I guess we call them ‘lecturers’. Perhaps so as not to insult actual teachers - who have a passion and skill for teaching.
I learnt many things, including how to dig a square hole. With my degree in hand and certificate that says I am an archaeologist, I could get work in most places around the world, albeit as a low-level field tech. I have since found that low level field techs are the only people that do archaeology! The higher you go up the archaeological ladder, the less archaeology you seem to do, and sometimes you get too caught up in your own way of doing things.
I was lucky though. As my first boss was a Native American archaeologist, who took me out to do a survey. On the first day, we scrambled up to the top of a high sandstone ridge in Utah. We sat there in complete silence, in the stillness of the desert in this part of the Great Basin, and he said we pray to the ancestors, and we study the landscape below – the survey area – first.
Several years later, I found myself working with community in the Western Desert of Oz, and was taken on a three day journey around a site that we came across while surveying, with an Elder who spoke and sang to me in his language the whole time – to explain the significance of that site we found. Once, doing a community archaeology project on a segment of privately owned land along the Kenai River in Alaska, a young Tribal member pointed out that her ancestors’ knowledge is in the excavation unit I am standing in. And many other Elders and community leaders have taught me about their ways of reading the land, listening to the land, their ancestors, and the present. So, I absorbed these ways of looking at archaeology, and landscape. And they added another element to my four-year degree that taught me how to dig a square hole.
On a community dig in Alaska, Elders taught me to look up, and young ones told me that their ancestors' knowledge are in these sediments.
On an archaeological project once near Nornalup, I would be digging out square holes trying to document evidence of past use of a place and put some time scale to the human history of occupation and explore how people responded to massive events related to climate change. Uncle Wayne would be over in the bush with my son and daughter stripping trees, making things, traps, tools, and tracking animals, eating bush tucker plants. It was a surreal scene, digging into an ancestral Pibulmun camp, while watching an Elder play-teaching my kids about the bush. I would ask, his thoughts, on archaeology, the study of things these ways. And he would encourage it. The search for learning, knowledge of place, comes in many forms. The knowledge of his ancestors is in him, and in the artifacts and sediments we uncovered in the excavation unit, and it is in the plants and animals they were now tracking.
Uncle Wayne showing my son Rhys something during a dig at Nornalup, and Wynn Kivlli following Uncle Wayne to the 50,000 year old human occupation site of Devils Lair, for no apparent reason.
So, imagine being born into this place. Like a seedling. Towering above you are 400-year-old family members. They know things, they have seen things. They have adapted and changed. They themselves were born into a world surrounded by ancestors and family. In a shared ecological landscape. Where moss is as important as the tallest tree. Where root systems interact and support each other, across species. Where birds and animals are embraced as both habitat and life force. Your parents show you what they know, as you prepare camp, gather food for the day, organize a hunt, gather for a dance, a ceremony, a trade. To have stories and Songs that connect places hundreds of kilometres apart, drenched in ecological science, at the same time, as having the ability to procure a plant or animal for use in a multitude of ways, is a deep level of knowledge, and a platform for teaching someone. Their grandparents are still with them, teaching, showing. And it is a cycle. Young kulyungars (children) are called ‘nan’ or “pop”. They are their grandparents reborn. There is a life lesson in this. Just in that. You have all this experience to listen to when you need to.
The embedded knowledge system of knowing your country, is to me, a way of life for the Pibulmun-Wadandi. But it is also a very sophisticated science – a knowledge system. We tend to think the Western science paradigm is truth – there is only one way to know, and learn, and discover – through scientific study. It is a truth. Cultural knowledge is often ignored in scientific research, or for land planning. At best, cultural knowledge is integrated as a ‘dataset’ – in the study of a specific species or issue. But in the same way that we sometimes ignore the advice of the old salty sea dog who has spent a lifetime working as a fisherman to tell you when and where the best time to fish is, but then decide to follow the advice from your best mate Trevor who has come down to your place for the weekend as a cashed up bogan, to get smashed and fill your ute up with a full tank of petrol, and catch a heap of snapper, but you come back empty handed, and often wet, cold and forking out $50 for some snapper that was caught in nets off Queensland and defrosted at the local fish n chip shop some 8 months later. (Uncle Wayne reckons i am working on a detailed map of where the fish aren't). Sometimes, land managers, researchers, conservationists, and I, get blindsided by their best mate to. And sometimes we all have a bogan mate named Trevor who comes down from out of nowhere and reckons they know best, and we go along, despite our better judgement. Trevors come in many forms - clients, funders, bureaucrats, developers - those that come from the outside, and think they know what's best for a place.
Trevor and I did not catch any fish here.
There is definitely an increasing interest across the board in TEK. We acknowledge Knowledge Holders now - and not just because it says we have to in funding guidelines. But where does this integration manifest into on-ground management action? Our we still at the research level of how to do research that includes TEK? Sometimes, we gather TEK, but then fall back on our knowledge systems when it comes down to it. We often fail to realise the gift of Custodians of land with trans-generational knowledge. Its perhaps why I keep looking at the ground. Only opening my eyes when Uncle Wayne has reached the ‘site’ he wanted to show me. Then I write up a site report and publish things and take all the credit. Nah, as if.
So that was a long intro. I am thinking of all these recently, when invited to look at a section of forest by a small team of people who are concerned that prescribed burning practices are threatening the survival of this great forest. It is a complicated issue. Everyone in the local community has an opinion – a theory – a standpoint. Everyone in Australia most likely. What happened this year made international news. That does not happen much down this way.
The passionate protectors, are saying that the tracts of forest that are ‘long unburnt” – that is, 50 years or so without having experienced a prescribed (or “controlled’) burn or wildfire – are healthier than those that have had a prescribed burn or two over the last ten years. They say the long unburnt forest naturally thins itself out.
A stand of forest that has naturally thinned itself out, having not experienced fire sine the 1930s according to local landowners.
The forest that has had a prescribed burn is evident in the landscape, dense thickets of undergrowth, almost impenetrable to walk through. The undergrowth creates a problem, as a fuel load, with high branches and clusters of fallen leaves and twigs, that if set alight, by lighting or a careless camp fire, will create a devastating wildfire that reaches high up toward the canopy of the ancient ones.
So we need to prescribe burn these tracts of forest that have been prescribed burnt?
Photo of a segment of forest 12 years after a controlled/prescribed burn.
Within the passionate protectors camp, is a local landowner who grew up on a farm next to the Valley of The Giants. His family cleared a segment of forest and developed a family legacy, based on hard work and that pioneering spirit that all pioneers had. He told stories of how he and his brother used to run wild and free through the forest, running barefoot, catching marron in the freshwater creeks that 'were the size of your arm'. This is what Uncle Wayne also did, and does here, in this forest. And likely, kids have been doing this around here for thousands of years.
From this to this to this takes about 400 years. (That's a Eucalyptus guilfoylei in the middle!)
His colleague, a beekeeper, talked about how he feels deep, emotional connection to the forest. At one point, we looked at the long unburnt forest and then over to the forest burnt about ten years ago. At first glance, it seemed to me that the long unburnt forest looked less diverse, less healthy than than thicker, recently burnt segment. But I was told you can feel the suppression in the latter - trees and plants choking each for room, smothered. An interesting conservation about the difference between seeing and feeling followed. They were saying to me, in a way, don't just look, push your whole head into it. Uncle Wayne says stuff like that to me as well.
They have teamed up with local environmental organisation, and a forest ecologist from eastern Australia, to carry out research on the flammability of long-unburnt forests as opposed to forest that has been regularly prescribed burnt. The research is influenced by first-hand knowledge of their team member who grew up running wild and free in here – helping to run his family’s property of dairy cows and later blue gum plantations as part of the surrounding farm belt that contrasts deeply with the undulating forest. He knows that the forest of his childhood, where he caught marron the size of your arm, has never been burnt - in his lifetime. Almost 70 years. He showed us how open the understorey was.
And it was. We walked through the forest with ease. The Ancient Ones were there, way above us, but spaced apart maybe every 20 or 30 metres.
We then visited the next block of forest that has undergone a prescribed burn a few years ago. It was a whole different story. Very, thick undergrowth. Trunk density of the medium and large-sized trees was tenfold that of the long unburnt section. We could hardly walk through it.
Everyone is worried if a fire starts here. It could wreak havoc on the local towns. It could be the end of the Ancient Ones.
It is true, the Ancient Ones have experienced fire before. You can see their scars. It is true that the Australian landscape does not mind a bit of fire from time to time. Some say it is a part of the natural way of things. Seeds germinate from smoky water. Animals and plants thrive in recently fired landscapes. Some say that people who have lived here for generations were ‘fire-stick’ farmers and have even created a fire-dependent ecosystem. This is an interesting point. But we know Old People used the landscape in different ways.
There is widespread acknowledgement of cultural burning practices across Australia, that served functional benefits for communities, but also served as a form of biodiversity management or conservation. I was involved in a cultural burn in another area near Esperance, that was part of a joint management project in a National Park. It worked well - cool season burn, looking after a sacred granite dome, 'cleaning up' the dense understorey, mosaic burn that is good for biodiversity, and also will help prevent an intense wildfire in the future.
Carrying out a cultural burn around a sacred granite dome by applying TEK.
Land managers sometimes use the fact that this continent was made up of 'fire-stick farmers' and that their methods of prescribed burning is a form of replicating that practice. There are great collaborations happening all over the place.
But from what I have seen, the complexity of cultural burning is as complex as the biodiversity across this continent. The scale of burning differs greatly, depending on seasonal variation, vegetation and soil. The land is culturally-zoned - and this often relates to ecological zones. The information Uncle Wayne has shared with me about his connection to, use of, and 'zoning' of the tingle forest, outlines in great detail the way he understands how this forest should be managed. But collecting his TEK requires a different approach. It requires a lot of waking and talking.
In the debate on whether to burn or not to burn, maybe we should talk to the Traditional Owners with the knowledge of this? Or maybe acknowledgement is enough for now? Are we managing a landscape that has adapted to a different way of management? Or are we managing a landscape that has adapted to a form of management? There are other questions and considerations. Is the climate changing in a way that is putting stress on the forests? Are fires becoming more frequent and intense because of these changes? Now that we are in a prescribed burning cycle, can we actually leave it alone now to naturally thin itself over the next 50 years?
Uncle Wayne has told me things about these trees. That they are used in ceremony. There is a kinship relationship with certain trees. Individual trees. There are serious avoidance protocols in place - still. There are key things you must not do, in this forest. Certain things you cannot even look at. But this is going into secret-sacred knowledge.
Uncle Wayne can also detail the ecology - the microbiology and ecology of one tree. He expresses the relationship in family, kinship terms.
He also tells me about how they used fire differently in different ecosystems. Cultural burning in coastal zones was different in the open woodland and different again in the forest,with difference between seasons, years, and burning in ways for different reasons. i don't know enough about it, but out and about to learn more. But I do know, that there was no single, prescribed method. Uncle Wayne understands the dingle/tingle forest as different, again. Very sacred.
So we listened to the landowner who has spent almost 60 or so years in this forest. And despite the fact that we had a few polite debates in the forest as we walked and talked, I can see that he also has understanding of the long-term ecology, in a way not too different from what Uncle Wayne taught me.
Cultural Knowledge Systems and Western Science share the same foundation of deep, careful observation, over longs periods of time.
The landowner has a passionate concern that the ancient forest is under imminent threat, directly because of mismanaged forests plans focused on regular, prescribed burning. He says assuming forests need to be managed is fundamentally wrong. He says we all need to stand up now and prevent the next prescribed burn from happening. To do nothing is wrong.
Here I am listening to the kind people that invited me to learn about their local knowledge while interrupting them and talking over everyone.
Later that day I talked with my neighbour. He works for the land management agency that carries out regular controlled burns. He also spoke of his passion, love, of the forest. The care that they take in raking around each giant tree and using fire retardant on each giant trunk before they carry out a controlled burn. He says it is labor intensive, but worth it. For the forest, the Ancient Ones. He says, that if they do not do a controlled burn, we are all destined for ‘the big one’. An impossibly hot, unfightable wildfire that will cause devastation and likely vaporise all that remains of the pocket of Ancient Ones that crosses its path. He says, that leaving a forest to ‘thin itself out’ over the next 80 years or so is not practical. The climate is drier. We have more people out and about. Accidents happen. Lightning happens. Out-of-control controlled burns happen. We need to manage the forest.
But I have seen this all before. Opposing arguments leading to tension and impasse. Many times. With Uncle Wayne. We have worked through the forests to do conservation projects, erosion control, weed control, research, cultural mapping, and planning projects. We have listened at length to the side for ‘no burn at all’. The side for ‘regular burning at all costs. We have read research reports that discuss the ecology of a bird that he has a direct totemic association with, and yet does not mention this fact.
And we have walked it, just to walk it.
But most often, we have walked the forest to record and map some cultural places, to help protect them from clearing, track development, firebreaks, land developments. Sometimes it has worked, most times it has not. We like to think that the protected areas – national parks and reserves – are also protecting cultural places. But I have seen many significant cultural places impacted on protected areas, whether through deliberate vandalism, or accidental disturbance, or massive land clearing such as carpark, access road, or high intensity-controlled burns that got out of control.
And I am just talking about the physical element of cultural heritage. The intangible cultural heritage – people, ancestors, Elders, stories – these elements are all related to the forest, the places. The very act of caring for the land, and the water, is part of the identity and cultural heritage of the People. To take away that opportunity, to say you have no say on management, or scientific research, or monitoring, or planning – is a direct impact upon cultural values.
Its hard when you fail to protect a place. I still see in my mind, culturally modified trees, already registered, and protected under state heritage laws, felled, to widen a road culvert. I have seen lizard traps pulled apart and stacked to make a cleverly balanced stack of stacked stone. I have seen gnamma holes filled with beer cans. I still see dairy cows standing and shitting on rock art engravings that form a central component of a major Songline that is layered with information about how to use and mange an interconnected landscape. I have seen marron come and go from a forest pool – in my lifetime – unable to process the run-off from contaminants entering their ecosystem washed off from sprayed crops and fertilized red sandy loams that once supported giant forests.
It’s hard when your attempts to protect these places fail. But Uncle Wayne never holds me responsible. He just keeps telling me the importance of things – the web of life – how it works. And to shut up and listen and look around once and while. And that the chert artefact I am spending twenty minutes measuring gains significance when considered in the wider natural and cultural landscape that it is a part of. He also tells me that to make change, you need to observe, process, come together as a group, develop a plan based on collective knowledge, and then act. That is implied in the message to ‘listen to the forest”.
You ever seen cows trampling ancient, sacred rock art while weeds crack through the underlying calcrete and crumble it away? I have.
Its hard to see the destruction of cultural places. But what does the erosion of cultural values look like? To me, it looks like silence. It looks like a research paper that has not involved local Knowledge Holders. It looks like a prescribed burn plan that hasn’t been shown to Knowledge Holders – that includes local landowners to, for sure – those who grew up running wild in the bush catching the marron the size of your arm – the way Pibulmum kids have done for generations before the current crop of giant tingles were just tiny seeds – and still do, with their Uncle.
Uncle Wayne was not with us that day we went to listen and learn from the passionate protectors about the critical need to un-manage the forest. I think it was the first time I have been in there without him. It felt wrong. I hold a strong protocol, as a visitor to someone else’s country, to ask first if I can go in there. To walk, hike, fish, hunt, camp, paddle, swim, or work. One time, I remember my friend Trevor got angry with me, over this protocol. He felt he had a right to hike or camp anywhere he wanted - that he did not need to ask permission from anyone, as its ‘public land’, and anyway, he does not know any Elders. He said that as he is actively working in conservation and land management so he is inherently respectful anyway. I take a different view.
The people I have worked with have all spoken in various ways, of respecting Elders and asking permission when travelling through, or using, ancestral lands. So I do. And if not in person, I ask, the spirits of the place. Sometimes you cannot do what you had planned to do. But most often, it feels better. And then, by showing respect, people start to look out for you. You have taken that first step to becoming an accepted (or tolerated!) part of the community. If I opened farm gates and drove across paddocks to get into the forest block over the other side, a farmer might get upset. But if I ask first, and maybe offered to bring over a cuppa, or a pile of wood, or some fish, they might be more open to having me come through. And eventually, show me their secret marron holes. Its simple respect.
After asking Hopi to enter their lands, calling from Australia, and work with them, they took me on a great journey. I learnt about the importance of the Hopi Way of sharing, hard work, protecting water, heritage, and learning from Elders.
But asking first represents other things as well. A commitment to let go of your own understandings and ways of thinking and opening to someone else’s. Asking permission demonstrates the fact that being on one side of history does not entitle you to staying on that trajectory where it is most comfortable. Asking permission acknowledges that you understand there is a connection between past, present, and future, and people, place and landscape. Asking permission, to hike through a place that someone has connection to, whether formally recognized through legal ownership or not, acknowledges that you are open to learn new sharing histories and landscapes. A commitment to respect is the basis for collaboration. Collaboration is the basis for effective management.
Uncle Wayne told me to go that day. I even think he set it up, behind the scenes. The meeting, the field trip. Maybe a test? To see if I could communicate what he would have communicated.
Did I? Not really. I think I did listen. I did open my mind. I closed it from time to time when things went against my views. I got heated. But overall, I was inspired by the commonality - the passionate protectors - my neighbour - my colleagues engaged in research. We all value this forest. But maybe we are all looking at from different scales. I was thinking about how Uncle Wayne, and my field of study, could work in together, with other landowners, locals, botanists, ecologists, land managers, all who are listening to this forest, in their own way.
So, I see we can only learn things from listening. This means, listening to the place, the past, the present, ourselves, our experiences, and others experience, our Elders, our ancestors, our peers. We do not get anywhere if we only listen to ourselves and our own experience; or in only one scale or layer. To be open to considering a point of view or knowledge system that differs from yours, is a way to come together to create change that we hope to see – a well-protected and managed forest and think more about this great impasse on what to do next – to burn or not to burn.
When confronted with this question, we know we cannot answer it by ourselves. Not one person can. The forest will let us know. But we must learn. That means going out there to listen. A lot. Going out there is what a lot of us already do – as researchers, as hikers, as workers. We all have something to offer this place.
It also means listening to yourself, your ancestors, and your ancestral knowledge. Even if your ancestral knowledge means your supervisor’s research report. It might be all you have, but it is valid and useful. The Custodians will appreciate it. Planners will appreciate it. Land managers to. They might not know it yet. But they will. And it means listening to the place, as it is now – the people that live here. The people that work here. Study and monitor what is happening, read the landscape, acquire knowledge, stick your whole head into the water.
A good way to start your plan for a prescribed burn, or your conservation plan, or your research, is to walk and talk with the Traditional Owners. They already have a cultural map, and an understanding of the local ecology, and have culturally zoned this landscape - a useful layer. If we all come together, listening in these ways, we might be able to show others how this forest not only looks, but also how it feels. We are a family of trees sharing a forest. A sacred ecology.
Listening at Nornalup.
And Aunty Toni watching Wynn Kivlii 'see-by-feel' - to find out how clear the water is, and Rhysie-boy with a question on the adaptability of 'freshwater' shellfish in an estuarine, brackish inlet that I avoided answering, as I had/have no idea of the answer.