Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908) was an anthropologist, botanist, ecologist, explorer and geologist. He saw the big picture: Aboriginal burning had sustained landscapes, ecosystems and human economies through millennia of dramatic climate change and fluctuating sea levels. Howitt identified fire suppression as the major ecological disturbance wrought by Europeans.
Following are relevant extracts from Howitt’s report “The Eucalypts of Victoria” to the Royal Society of Victoria for 1890:
“These annual bush fires tended to keep the forests open, and to prevent the open country from being overgrown, for they not only consumed much of the standing or fallen timber, but in a great measure destroyed the seedlings which had sprung up since former conflagrations.
“The influence of these bush fires acted, however, in another direction, namely, as a check upon insect life, destroying, among others, those insects which prey upon the Eucalypts.
“Granted these premises, it is easy to conclude that any cause which would lessen the force of the annual bush fires, would very materially alter the balance of nature, and thus produce new and unexpected results.”
“I might go on giving many more instances of this growth of the Eucalyptus forests within the last quarter of a century, but those I have given will serve to show how widespread this re-foresting of the country has been since the time when the white man appeared in Gippsland, and dispossessed the aboriginal occupiers, to whom we owe more than is generally surmised for having unintentionally prepared it, by their annual burnings, for our occupation.”
“I feel little doubt that this will explain why it is that in many parts of the country, at all elevations above sea level, certain tracts of dead forest are to be found.”
“I have said that in my opinion the increased growth of the Eucalyptus forests since the first settlement of Gippsland has been due to the checking of bush fires year by year, and to the increase thereby of the chance of survival of the seedling Eucalypts, and to the same cause we may assign the increase of the leaf-eating insects which seem in places to threaten the very existence of the Red-gum.”
Howitt saw that fire suppression led to “Black Thursday,” when tremendous fires raged” across five million hectares of Victoria in 1851. Alfred Howitt was the first scientist to be honoured by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science with the Mueller Medal.
Unfortunately we have forgotten Howitt’s lessons. Once again there are tracts of dead forest through the country and tremendous fires rage across the landscape. Our futile response is to employ mechanised armies of firefighters supported by waterbombers. We have media blitzes and mass evacuations, congratulating ourselves when no lives are lost. Billions of dollars are wasted putting on shows.
- Recurrent megafires are destroying habitat for wildlife and people, eroding our hills and choking our rivers with dirt and debris.
- Trees are dying, native and exotic scrub is invading, native and exotic pests, parasites and diseases are proliferating and native biodiversity is being choked out in long unburnt forests which are ticking time-bombs.
- Deer, rabbits, dogs, cats, foxes, goats and pigs run rampant in a weed-infested landscape.
- All traces of living culture are being eradicated from ‘protected’ areas. For the first time in human history, “country” or “the bush” no longer resonates to laughter, story, song, or ceremony. Elders, whatever their culture, colour or creed, are prevented from tending the land that sustained them. No longer are their hard won lessons passed down to sons and daughters.
Howitt’s holistic science can absolutely dispel the wilderness myth driving modern environmental neglect, and show us the way forward to healthy, safe and productive landscapes.