Review: Fire Country by Victor Steffensen

Towards the end of Fire Country, Victor Steffensen looks at the sickness in the ecosystems of southern Australia and fears that they wouldn’t be healed before “another major timebomb went off”. It’s 2019 and the sickness he’s talking about is the build up of vegetation — choking tangles of debris, natives and weeds. By December he’s been proved sadly correct. The Black Summer erupts, 17 million hectares of southern Australia burn, at least 3 billion animals die. It’s a moment of terrible prescience in a book full of them. I think Steffensen would say that it is the country’s warnings that we ignored. But for us non-Indigenous people, we need a translator.

Fire Country is a book about Indigenous fire management. It’s part-memoir, part-instructional manual, a personal journey through practice. Steffensen is Indigenous through his grandmother Ada, a woman from the Tagalaka people from the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland. Like many Indigenous people, Steffensen had lost touch with that part of his heritage. As a kid he is a bit of a “fire bug”, fascinated by flames. On one memorable occasion he sets fire to his dad’s banana grove, taking with it the family chicken coop. As an older teenager, he tries uni in Canberra. But it isn’t for him, and three months later he’s heading back north, finding himself in the Queensland community of Laura.

It’s here he meets Awa-Laya brothers and Elders Poppy (George Musgrave) and TG (Tommy George), who become family to him. He signs up for the local employment program, which leads him to working with the national parks. He watches the rangers burning off to reduce fuel in the park, leaving the trees dead and the earth scorched white; “In no way did I feel good about it,” Steffensen writes. Already, he’s seen the different approach of Poppy and TG as they walk their country, lighting small, cool burns that clear only the grass growing under the trees. The Elders have some of their land rights returned to them through Native Title, which allows them access, but not the right to manage the country (Steffensen characterises it as “a pass to go backstage but you could never be part of the band”). One day, watching the Elders lamenting the ill health of the country, Steffensen encourages them to light it up. They do, and flee the scene, feeling a mix of elation and dread, rightly fearing the response of the non-Indigenous land holders. But of course the Elders know exactly what they are doing; the fire soon puts itself out and soon the land is growing back healthier than it was before.

Us non-Indigenous people so often see fire as something dangerous, to be feared, both literally and metaphorically. When there’s fire in the country, people and homes usually go with it. When things are “sparked” they are usually bad: riots, violence, revolution. But the idea that Steffensen sparks is something different, a “good fire”. It is a revolution that this book offers, but it’s not a kind that is familiar to us, so grounded is it in care, connection and compassion. It offers a different way of looking at things.

The differences between non-Indigenous and Indigenous fire management are both stark and subtle. They are stark in their results. Steffensen describes the “thin, white, medicine smoke” that indicates good fire, compared with the roiling black smoke and pyrocumulus clouds of out-of-control bushfires. Afterwards, the trees are still alive, the ground is covered in a fine black ash. Seeds in the soil, undamaged by the cool fire temperature, are stimulated to germinate. With the grass reduced, a patchwork of other plants grow, herbs and medicine plants. Invasive plants are forced back. Kangaroos and grazers soon return to nibble on the fresh shoots. Contrast that with the scorched landscapes of the Black Summer.

The differences are more subtle in practice. Indigenous fire management is in part a question of timing. Different types of vegetation are burned at different times. In the north, this is usually the cooler dry season, just as the grass is reaching the perfect balance between green and dry. The result is a mosaic, with greener areas acting as living firebreaks. More important though is the difference in values. As Steffensen describes, Indigenous fire managers are never burning for one result, whether it is hazard reduction or for conservation. Rather, it is wholistic management, a complete spiritual, cultural and environmental practice where none of the parts can be separated.

It is this that is perhaps hardest for minds institutionalised by Western science to grasp. After demonstrating a burn in Victoria, Steffensen’s knowledge is dismissed as “gut feeling”. He describes how Western science reduces knowledge. “When knowledge is separated into different categories,” he writes, “It becomes watered down”. Interestingly, conservationists are most often adversaries to Steffensen’s work, even as they surely share at least the desire to help the environment. Time and again, Steffensen and his work are blocked by non-Indigenous people, particularly the “boss men”: police, parks and wildlife, and pastoralists. He faces racism in the workplace. Sometimes these encounters are funny: on one occasion he’s told by a fire fighter he’s not allowed to burn while wearing crocs. At other times they are infuriating, as when Steffensen and the Elders seem to have jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops to burn a new site, only to have the permit cancelled at the last second by a smug “tablecloth shirt boss” (the managers who never leave city offices). They burn anyway. So often in this book, progress follows only after what is legally-speaking an offence, which surely demonstrates how reductive laws can be.

Scientists say climate change has had a big hand in the recent bushfires in Australia, particularly through contributing to something called the Forest Fire Danger Index, a measure of moisture in vegetation. Steffensen though is confident that Indigenous fire management has a role to play here; “it’ is not all doom and gloom,” he writes, seeing climate change as the land “telling us something”. Indigenous fire practice, after all, has been shaped by sixty-odd-thousand years of climate change, including huge swings between ice ages. Still, scientists say the warming coming is faster than any of those ups and downs — we’re truly facing something unprecedented.

Throughout his career, Steffense has developed many projects — workshops, archives, knowledge maps — to transfer knowledge. Central to this is “praction”, a fusing of practice and action. “Nothing could be learnt unless it was lived,” he writes. This means being on country full-time, so it can be listened to. “Burning the country to look after it this way takes more time and effort than any other modern fire management techniques,” he says. Most importantly, this knowledge transfer needs to be Indigenous led. Steffensen describes how too often non-Indigenous people have made off with Indigenous knowledge, only to misrepresent and misapply it.

Throughout Fire Country, Steffensen shows his talent for pithy metaphor, a way of making complex ideas instantly graspable. Describing the impact of colonisation on the land, he writes:

In some places the country looks like an old house that hasn’t been lived in for a hundred years. Like most empty old houses, it has been trashed by hooligans. All the windows are broken, the paint is cracked, there is graffiti everywhere, and there are massive holes in the walls. No one is living there any more, no one is looking after it.

Like Stranger Things, he describes the uncanny effect of poor fire management as creating “upsidedown country” — the burned bare branches in the air like roots, the thick tangle of recovering scrub and debris a canopy on the forest floor. He evocatively conceptualises our damage to the environment as an “accumulating debt”. The land will take generations to heal, hundreds of years to replace old-growth trees. Someone has to pay.

I was reminded often when reading Fire Country of another book I read this year, Feasting Wild by Gina Rae La Cerva. They share a conviction that people are integral to the environment, that we have the power not just to not harm, but to “create abundance”. La Cerva, like Steffensen, also advocates for a return to knowledge by practice. Steffensen ultimately gives up on archiving knowledge, saying it is just “documenting data and putting on a shelf to collect dust”.

When you put it all together, an enticing vista appears through the smoke, what Steffensen calls “the new wave of human environmental evolution”. You come to realise that he’s no longer talking about fire management, but a total overhaul of the way we live and work and relate to the land. There is more here than just healing country, it’s about healing us too. It’s not going to be an easy job. But he’s given us the spark, and most importantly, a language to articulate where we want to go and how to get there. Let’s do it.

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