07 December 2010


For a Balanda like me, a whitefella from the far far northeast - burning country (manwurrk) with Aboriginal landowners was certainly something out of my sphere. I went to Arnhem land with a research plan in place and that plan depended on having Traditional Owners, our friends at Dukladjarranj, help us light savanna fires. The question at hand is whether and how these cool fire-sensitive conifers - manlarru or Northern Cypress (Callitris intratropica) - can actually suppress these fires. (turns out they do....quite an amazing ability for a plant if you think about it).

In tropical savannas all over the world, it is rare for any given patch in the landscape to go for more than a year or two without getting burnt. And in northern Australia, people have been setting those fires for more than 50,000 yrs. For Balang and his countrymen in Arnhem Land, fire really is nothing - burning country is just what you do when you're in the right place at the right time. Wamud, 2 yrs old, learned to strike matches and lighters before our eyes. His mother Bulahnjan would show him a decent clump of grass and he'd work his little fingers on the flint till he set it ablaze.

It goes without saying I had a lot of catching up to do. Fire here is just part of the landscape, the ecology, and the culture. Despite how well I know this, understand this, study this, there was such an overpowering sensation of nervous energy - anxiousness, even trepidation - when it came to letting those crackling matches sail from my own finger tips into the grass.

Then of course there's another side - the pyromaniacal 5-yr-old residing in us all (though still way behind Wamud). Fire exerts such an instinctual and emotive force on our psyche. All mixed up with the sensation of absolute irresponsibility, chucking matches left and right, was childlike delight in mayhem.

Understand though, this was far from chaotic arson in the bush. With Balang's guidance we were setting our fires to target the transects we had set up through stands of Cypress. Of course what the fires did past the study site was beyond our control. I will say we were playing quite conservatively. It was relatively early in the dry season after late rains, meaning fairly wet grass, and the local Djelk rangers had already lit fires along the jeep track about a kilometer downwind...leaving extremely limited potential for disaster.

But after the 4th fire we lit, I almost vowed to stop. It was a fairly unspectacular burn. We waited a bit too late in the day and the trade winds were all but dead. We lit the fires with Balang and Bulahnjan and the bloody thing was taking so long to reach our study transects, they decided to walk home. Eventually the site burnt and we got the data we wanted. With the sun filtering magically through the smoky evening, we walked home too.

Two days later, I returned to check out the scene of the crime and scope out the next spot we wanted to burn. After finding a couple decent patches of unburnt Cypress nearby, I traversed North to look for more. After about half a kilometer, the thigh-high bunch grass gave way to a fresh burn. And relative to the little patches we had lit up so far, this burn was bigger, much bigger. As I gazed to the north and west, taking in its full extent...then followed its lines back eastward, behind and upwind from where I had just come, my heart sank. This was my fire. How else could it have burned? The back burn. Fires are certainly driven by the wind, but they can also creep upwind from the ignition point and sneak around the place in all sorts of devious ways.

Shit...this was way bigger than I had intended. My rational brain fought to keep things in perspective. All in all, it was probably less than a square kilometer in size - still very small by Northern Territory standards. But these thoughts fought hard against my emotional reaction - the weight of realized culpability and consequence. The freshly burnt country ran all the way west to the jeep track and stretched long and wide to the north where some low rocky country probably (hopefully) caused it to peter out.

No more burning, I said to myself.

What a silly thing - how unaccustomed was I to being part of this force that's so commonplace in Arnhem Land? More rationalization ensued. Its just a speck (and really it was), as I continued walking through the low charred stems and ash. It would have burned anyway (but then not by my hand). Nope. No more burning. And so on went the inner dialogue all the way back to camp...

A silly thing indeed - a very Balanda reaction - I've wrought such destruction! How melodramatic. This little fire seemed so huge to me there on the ground. And yet I knew the whole time that in the grand scheme of this landscape, my fire really was nothing. We burned again - three more sites. And after all was said and done, you know what? I went back and tracked the back edge of that 4th fire - the one I thought got away - and it didn't connect. That big patch burn wasn't even mine - it was burned from helicopter by the local Aboriginal Ranger crew. What did I tell myself? It would have burned anyway.

And now its months later back in Tasmania...I'm armpits deep in data analyses (thinking thinking thinking about our amazing friends the Cypress trees) and about to tuck into some serious writing. But to really write about fire I wanted first to remember living with fire - as if I'm afraid to re-acclimatize to the predictability and control of our "modern" life. So I get to relive my own little coming of age with burning country, experiencing savanna ecology live. And my heart still jumps at the thought of those fires, drifting and flaring through the grass. Ironically, the utter beauty of burning country - its wildness and unpredictability - belies the fact that it may ultimately have left the mark of humanity upon an entire ecosystem.

But all abstract reasoning and philosophical waxing aside, fire is a beautiful thing.

**photos taken with a Pentax k10

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