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ON A cool autumn morning the week before Easter in 1862, a small scientific party led by the founder of Melbourne’s Flagstaff Observatory, geophysicist Georg Balthasar von Neumayer, headed south-southwest with a guide from Winchelsea in western Victoria, roughly following the telegraph route towards Cape Otway. The primary purpose of the party was to continue von Neumayer’s thoroughgoing magnetic survey of the new colony and, as with so many pre-photographic scientific expeditions, landscape artists had also been invited along to document the vistas.
Twenty miles south of Winchelsea, von Neumayer’s cohort paused among the birdsong on a grassy upslope just north-east of what is now known as Moggs Creek on the Great Ocean Road. With the pack-horses resting and von Neumayer deliberating over his theodolite, Swiss-born painter and bon vivant Nicholas Chevalier took out his paintbox and composed a watercolour sketch of the coastal scenery looking south-west over Louttit Bay towards Point Grey and the present-day township of Lorne.
One-hundred-and-fifty years later, there is no denying the skilful resemblance of Chevalier’s sea scene to Louttit Bay as we know it, but pinpointing the precise location from where it was painted is another matter.
In the 1970s in The Coastal Telegraph, a now-defunct local newspaper produced in the Otways, Patricia Carr ruminated about the tangle of messmate and wattle that these days makes the location of von Neumayer’s resting party difficult to find. In documenting the Clarke family, who, many years after Chevalier’s painting, cleared some of the land he depicted for their Eastern View dairy farm, Carr wrote: ”It must have been at this time that the forests were more like parkland than the dense, heavy undergrowth of today. Where now it is sometimes even difficult to walk without forcing aside the brush, it was then possible to gallop horses.”
Carr’s quote would fit perfectly within the pages of Bill Gammage’s celebrated recent work on Aboriginal land management, The Biggest Estate on Earth. This multidisciplinary history opens with a revelatory compilation of early colonial quotes akin to this one, in which first settlers describe the landscapes they discovered on arrival in Australia not as wild bush or untamed wilderness but as resembling English parkland.
By some happy triangulation, my own reading and rereading of Gammage in the past few years has been augmented not only by my rediscovery of Carr’s article, which I still remember reading as a child, but also by the recent return of Chevalier’s Louttit Bay watercolour to the south-west, thanks to a touring exhibition of his paintings that had been in Geelong.
Excited by the convergence between Gammage’s method of using early colonial landscape painting as evidence the Aborigines had farmed this land for millennia with a breathtaking alchemical expertise, and the potential opening of some similar local portal in the Chevalier picture, I found myself striding out from my home to the spot as eagerly as von Neumayer’s party of 150 years ago might have done – though without the carbines and kerseymere breeches, and definitely minus the intellectual certitude.
In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Gammage demonstrates how by a repeated seasonal mosaic of burning, the landscapes of the continent we now call Australia were maintained in a variety of states advantageous to human habitation. Some places were burnt at more frequent intervals than others, some places nurtured with cooler fires conducive to the vegetation needed for the access required, and other places converted permanently by hot burning from forest to open grassland and heath.
With a sophisticated and judicious reliance on the colonial artistic record, and by making comparisons with what has happened in those precise landscapes since, Gammage shows what Aboriginal people have always known: that the burning was effected with great mastery, predominantly for the purposes of food and water, with nutritious clearings typically bordered by forest to give kangaroo, wallaby and other quarry the shelter they like during the day. What was presumed to be a natural park-like expanse by the first settlers – including the Clarkes of Eastern View – was actually created by the agricultural craft of a people for whom, logically enough, sustainable landcare was the first principle of life.
Gammage’s matching of historical evidence with corresponding contemporary vistas is, of course, not a new pleasure – one need only think of the archaeological sleuths of Minoan Crete or Mycenean Troy – but as I stood, not on the tree-choked hill where the party’s horses had once nibbled at an open sward but on the cleared slope that lies in the middle-left of Chevalier’s picture, with my head bobbing back and forth like a honeyeater’s from the scene in front of me to the print of Chevalier’s watercolour in my hand, a new verb coined itself in my mind.
To gammage, as in: to go gammaging – to marry an artist’s representation from the historical archive with close observation of the present-day landscape; to observe remnant evidence of the land management practices of indigenous Australia before white settlement.
From what I could see, the slope of flowering kangaroo grass shrugging its shoulder to the bay in front of me remained in a remarkably similar state to that which the artist viewed from his spot on the opposite hill in 1862. But was this rhyming contour of open grassland and heath bordered by gumtrees the result of centuries of hot burning of the slope by the local Wadawurrung and Gadabanud tribes? With its back to the south-westerlies of Bass Strait, with its surrounds of game-friendly forest, with the creek (known in Chevalier’s day as the Bellbird; its original name is currently lost) flowing nearby and with glade-forming gums left standing for the purposes of shade in the clearing, it seemed unlikely to be otherwise.
Beyond the Chevalier slope, the shallow waters of Bass Strait stretch like a risible tablecloth towards Tasmania, but on its inland side the sylvan bric-a-brac of acacia and messmate has these days occluded the access Chevalier had to the sight line in his picture. My own spot of gammaging (I like to think of the new verb as an antonym of damage) has proved, if nothing else, it is impossible these days to stand as von Neumayer’s party did, like lords of a new arcadia, looking south-west onto inspiring horizons. We peer not over horses browsing in the clearing but through vast gaps in our historical record, caused not only by the usual passage of time but by the unwillingness of first, and subsequent, settlers and scientific adventurers to credit the ”anecdotal” evidence of the land’s expert custodians.
So, does my little amateur spot of gammaging actually prove that the still-cleared north-facing slope in Chevalier’s picture fell under a different fire regime from the south-facing slope on which he lit his pipe and fished out his paintbox? Well, perhaps. But as a writer of fiction rather than hard history or science, I’d prefer to leave that kind of certitude to the province of Wellsian time travellers. One thing I am certain of, however, is that the slow process of learning to read our landscape is every bit as important as the reading of books or viewing art. A combination of these activities can be, well, to use another relatively recent local word, deadly.
For Bill Gammage, the whole project of The Biggest Estate on Earth started with a hunch caused by recognising anomalies between what he read and what he saw in the land around him. I can recommend a spot of gammaging in your own chosen landscape over the summer months, not perhaps as a typical holiday pastime, but as an activity that could transform mere scenery into the living cultural mosaic that is right before your eye
Gregory Day’s debut novel The Patron Saint Of Eels won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2006. His short story The Neighbours Beans won the Elizabeth Jolley Prize in 2011. His most recent novel Archipelago Of Souls was published by Picador in 2015.