There’s a beautiful tree out back of my place. I love its almost symmetry, the way it fans for the sky, maximising on the available sunlight and growing strong, even as we are still in drought, long term. Since the fires, trees have been getting cut down everywhere up and down the south coast. It’s slash and burn on the the roadsides, as there is an unusual amount of licence granted for those kinds of actions right now. Putting in fire breaks, cutting down trees, clearing out shrubby undergrowth, making areas around houses more safe. 

Newly cleared roadside

Fair enough. I’ve seen examples down backstreets that were lined with dry, scrubby undergrowth, which the locals see as little more than unnecessary fuel left to burn. Some get grumpy about greens stopping them from burning off, some know that’s not right, many admit that regardless of the politics involved, it has also happened because we don’t listen to the Aboriginal knowledge about how to burn country so that it regenerates. We have the option of doing that now, which is why i am working with local elders to see it happen.

But sometimes you sense that some people are also enjoying this. Almost taking revenge on the bush, for being so difficult. Yeah, there’s a lot of it out there, but we’ve seen this summer how vulnerable it is. And we don’t actually have to perpetuate the archetype of the pioneer, always ready, willing and able to tear the bush down to extend the property.

Properties need to be made as safe as possible and traditional owners burnt in small patches to leave cleared spaces too … but geez we love to slash and burn don’t we?

Trees are not the problem, the way we’ve managed them are. A forest is not just a carbon sink and a home to so many animals and plants. It is a place to breathe and a generator of wellness for the entire ecosystem. In physical terms, forests help produce – along with the sea – the oxygenated air we breathe, so perfectly balanced for the sustenance of mammalian and so much other life. And in psychological terms, time spent in forests boosts our mental and emotional health.

One thing I saw, during the NYE fires in Broulee, was that people’s mental state during crisis is paramount to their outcomes. Both in the way they respond in the moment, to needs like getting hoses ready to fight ember attacks; and in the way they come through it, afterwards. There’s a real case for eco-grief work, taking into account people’s personal experiences (even when vicarious) in consideration also of the wider context of the climate crisis. My work with the International Ecopsychology Society is always a heartening reminder that we heal and grow through crisis with nurturing guidance and thankfulness practices.

We need to remember how to live in and with the forests, with love and respect, rather than either logging them relentlessly or leaving them untouched, which leads to dangerous fuel loads. There are many stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having profound layers of ecological wisdom when it comes to maintaining life in the broadest spectrum of ecosystems.

Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu and Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth have reminded us of how we can live within the natural world without compromising the very fabric of life that supports us. Traditional cultures have so often lived in this way.

By contrast, the process of colonisation, fuelled by more developed technologies (of agriculture, war, industry and now digital), is designed to extract wealth from the earth and accumulate it in urban centres. We need to shift away from this culture and back – as well as forwards – to one that respects its home. Traditional people like the Walbanja where I live know how to practice hunting and gathering, tending to Country, cultural burning, harvesting and ensuring future seasons are plentiful. We need to listen to them and learn better how to keep forests and grasslands healthy, how to propagate robust populations of plants and animals into the future, while the forests they live in and with help create rain as well as fresh air. Comparatively, excessive clearing creates drought, then allows more topsoil to run off when floods follow. We’re seeing it again. Let’s listen to the elders on Country, for better results. 

Artwork generously supplied to SCAE by Raymond Carriage

Geoff Berry is CEO of the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Incorporated Association, who create employment for Koori and at-risk youth with rebuilding and regeneration projects. SCAE aim to build culture and communities that respect tradition, and seek to perpetuate the best aspects of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures, for the good of all, in a modern context. 

*NB: Please give generously to our crowd funding campaign if you would like to see this project financially supported for its work.