Monday, 31 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 2

Hello Everything. Thank you for every breath, for each one is only by your grace. Thank you for every moment of our consciousness, and for every fleeting part of you which we are able to perceive, as well as the infinitude of what we will never be able to perceive. Help us in our humble journeys along the lifespan you have allotted us, Everything. Help us to help ourselves, help us to help one another, help us to help you. Thy will be done. Amen.
Hello everyone. Last week I proposed that the Garden of Eden and other such myths of a previous Golden Age may be hinting of an actual era of prehistory, and I described in the most general terms what that era might have looked like.

It's possible that the connection simply doesn't exist, and that the myth of the Garden is just that - a myth - with no connection to any historical memory whatsoever. My main inspiration for the proposition for what I'm calling the Garden Age, immediately preceding historical time, was not the book of Genesis but a book by Bill Gammage called, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011).

The main thrust of Gammage's book is the extent and sophistication of the early Australian people's use of fire to manage the land. Australia's flora is uniquely fire resistant (sometimes even fire dependent) but of course all prehistoric people used fire, and we may everywhere underestimate to what extent, and to what precision, fire was used as a land management tool in all sorts of places. But what I'm interested in is the land management itself. For Gammage describes a people who are neither settled nor really 'hunter-gatherers', but mobile and conscious gardeners of their entire continental landscape. At the very least I think this fact has been under-appreciated, and it has implications in other fields of human enquiry.

Have a look at this picture of the Endeavour River (Cooktown in North Queensland), painted in July 1770. It is about the first known attempt to accurately depict an Australian landscape.
You can see the extent of the Endeavour's camp. All the rest is highly managed landscape where today there is dense forest - what we call 'wilderness'. Gammage provides dozens of these pictures, and argues convincingly that these are accurate depictions, painted by professionals who were the day's version of official photographers. He also provides innumerable written first-accounts of the landscape, with its clearings, its patched forest types and its well worn system of paths.

The 1788 country did not just look like parkland, as was often noted by early settlers and explorers, it was indeed carefully managed estate. It made moving inland very easy for the newcomers, along well established tracks, often along waterways with lovely cleared grazing areas. Macarthur didn't have to clear land to graze sheep - he just requisitioned and fenced ranges previously maintained for kangaroos. As for terra nullius, the legal basis for European possession, it is rendered an even more wicked and tragic fiction by these insights. The people were under their laws, with their territories, and they managed every foot of the land. So um, yes, the land was stolen.

The evidence Gammage presents starts with insights about sophisticated, carefully variegated burning regimes across the entire country, but it doesn't end there. There are methods of what we would unambiguously call gardening, like harvesting a portion of yams and leaving the best ones, sometimes moving roots to expand the area of 'cultivation'. There are elaborate and ingenious systems of dams and fish traps. Kit, including weapons and tools, was rarely carried far, as it was kept in stashes near the place the goods was normally used, the earliest farm sheds. There was seasonal settlement as well, and Gammage leaves us thinking not so much that the Australians might be nearly breaking into a settled agricultural mode of existence (say along the Hawkesbury River), but that they had been capable of that transition for centuries, and were even aware of this capability, choosing their continued nomadism with their eyes open, with the understanding that it was in their best interests given the needs and vicissitudes of the country that provided for them.

This isn't all new. There have been people chipping away at the idea of 'unspoiled wilderness' along with its passively harmonious hunter/gatherer denizens for a long time. But I think the enormity of the realisation is breaking through with this book, and what interests me are the obvious implications for the rest of anthropology and scholarly conceptions of prehistoric peoples all over the world, including those 10,000 years ago in, say, Mesopotamia. In short we have a new way to look at the emergence of complex human society.

For if the Fertile Crescent and the surrounding country was an extensive garden for, say, the last 25,000 or 40,000 years, we have a ground to explain the domestication of animals, the slow development of more intensive agriculture from more extensive gardens, early steady population growth itself, weirdo beehive cities with no apparent agriculture like Catal Huyuk, and perhaps much else. We need find no big break, no sudden revolution of thinking or practice, just a continued relationship with country.

When we look at 1788 Australia we are not looking at a 'timeless' situation. This level of complexity does not just appear, but takes time to evolve. A lot of time. Although we cannot narrate it in any detail, the complexity speaks of a long and involved history. Tens of thousands of years of it, with notable events and innovations almost every generation (plausibly anyway); a long, winding story of discovery, invention, crisis, innovation, leadership and, in short, cultural development.

Unfortunately the Garden Era is not an archaeological era, neatly delineated by a specific stone tool kit or something. The tool kit may not change significantly as the Garden develops or indeed even once agriculture is intensified. It is a social era, a dialectical era. It is also a distinctive religious era. If anyone is wondering why archaeology is not describing the Garden era to us, we should note that after just two centuries the evidence of the Australian garden is all but gone. (Not entirely, as Gammage carefully illustrates.)

One objection to the idea of highly complex socio-ecological development in Mesopotamia might be that warfare would prevent relationships from lasting long enough. I would love to say that warfare might not exist, but there is plenty of both archaeological and anthropological evidence to say that it most likely did exist. But if we take the range of peoples through Australia and Papua as a broad model (whilst not a universal sample, this covers a lot of cultural territory), an observed feature is that warfare is very rarely about taking territory, but mostly small scale and somewhat ritualised. This may be precisely because, a) the new territory is not understood as deeply and, b) territory requires management so more is more work so best stick to the territory you already manage. I'll note here that land management is also a deep religious motivation, but I'm leaving that 'till next week.

In short the intimacy of the ecological relationships in every territory - the capacity for which being the very advantage that Homo sapiens have (this is an important point tucked away here) - is its own gravity against major disturbance by war, even when seasonal, ritualised minor warfare plays an ongoing role in maintaining the necessary sustainable population. We'll also note that although stone age weaponry was pretty lethal, horses had not been domesticated, military units beyond a clan group had not developed, storage and supply were um... undeveloped and, well, war is hard work. There is land to manage and place-based ritual responsibilities to perform.

I have purposely avoided some of the most compelling material, about the inextricable religious motivations of the Aboriginal people, most notably in Gammage's chapter entitled, "Heaven on Earth", evocatively enough. Next week I intend to write about the religion of the Garden which at the most popular level (ie Shamanism aside) is basically the religion of totemic relationships, or totemism.

As I said last week, the myth tells us we can not return to the Garden, and in a deep historic sense I think the myth gets this right. There is a continuing tradition of wanting to return however, and following is an iconic appeal for a return, an appeal to romanticism. I don't agree with Joni, but I can empathise with the sentiment deeply, as I know many others do also. Here she is, that the argument be at least put perhaps, and because it is a beautiful song regardless:

Everything, thank you for the expanding text of Genesis. Bless our critical faculties as we attempt to comprehend the big history of your blue jewel and its creatures, that we not be deceived by any false teaching, especially if it be mine. Thy will be done. So be it.

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