|My childhood world was a very different one from that enjoyed by young people today. I learned that Australian history consisted of gallant, but often ignorant and unsuccessful attempts by Englishmen to explore our continent. The Aborigines, where they rated a mention, were just one of the world's most primitive people who were now, in a sad though inevitable process, making way for a superior people. Some heroic Europeans, such as Daisy Bates, were kind enough to devote their lives to “smoothing the pillow of the dying race”. During English lessons I was given the works of one of modern Australia's first poets, Judge Barron Field, to read. In 1825 he wrote:
I can therefore hold no fellowship with Australian foliage but will cleave to the British oak through all the bareness of winter. (M. Clark, A Short History of Australia)
Only later did I discover that his balding head had been described by a contemporary as “a barren field indeed”!
I was also taught that our continent was inhabited by inferior animals. The marsupial kangaroos, wombats, koalas and the like were quaint but, in a remarkable parallel with our Aborigines, unable to cope with competition from introduced sheep, cattle and foxes. They would pass away in the natural course of things, to make way for the new, vigorous and somehow more fitting European Australia. I read books that told me that Australian rainforests, what little there were of them, were recent invaders from the north, an impoverished and unimportant appendage of the great forests of South-East Asia. I also learned that Aborigines had not had any impact on Australian flora and fauna, that we had no dinosaur fossils of note, that Australia had always inhabited a fixed position on the face of the earth and that our wildflowers, although strange and wondrous, could never attain the grace and beauty of an English rose. I am not talking of a distant age, for these views were common in the 1960s when I attended school.
I took a great interest in all of these things as a child and eagerly absorbed these “facts”. It was only when I reached university that, one after another, the pillars supporting my world view began to crumble. I was finally convinced only during the writing of this book that Australia has a history of human occupation extending back at least 60,000 years. It is a history of one of the world's most unusual and highly specialised people. Their impact on Australia was enormous and I now see virtually all the continent's ecosystem as being in some sense manmade. Finally, far from passing away, Aboriginal peoples and the things we can learn from their culture are daily becoming more significant to all Australians. Even more importantly, the Aborigines changed the course of evolution for humans everywhere, for they were the world's first future eaters.
As for our “inferior animals”, now that the sheep has faltered, Australians ride more and more upon the marsupial's back. This is partly because Australia's tourism industry, now the third strut of our economy, is based in no small part upon the attractions of our wildlife.
The whole concept of inferiority is now being questioned as people realise that context is all-important in determining what is inferior or superior. Given certain conditions marsupials cannot compete with placental animals, but alter those conditions and the reverse is true.
Our rainforests are now widely acknowledged as being the most ancient of our land-based ecosystems, which gave rise to most others. It is also becoming increasingly accepted that rainforests arose on the southern continents and that Australia has some of the most ancient rainforests on Earth.
Research on newly discovered Australian dinosaur fauna is challenging previous conceptions of what dinosaurs were like. So important are these discoveries that an Australian dinosaur recently made it onto the cover of Time magazine. The chicken-sized species survived three months of darkness each year in a refrigerated world.
Far from being fixed on the Earth, we now know that Australia has wandered over the face of the planet for billions of years, sometimes lying in the northern hemisphere, sometimes in the south. For 40 million years, after finally cutting the umbilicus with Antarctica, it has slowly drifted northwards, in isolation, at about half the rate at which a human hair grows.
Our splendid native blooms have also now come to the fore and every day fashionable Europeans, Americans and Japanese pay premium prices for banksias, waratahs, dryandras and many other spectacular Australian flowers. The incomparable waratah bloom can command five times the price of a fine rose in Sydney's florists.
Another most vital change is occurring in Australia. It is a growing realisation of the way in which nature works there. For biologists are finally understanding that evolution in Australia is not driven solely by nature “red in tooth and claw”. Here, a more gentle force - that of coadaptation - is important. This is because harsh conditions force individuals to cooperate to minimise the loss of nutrients, and to keep them cycling through the ecosystem as rapidly as possible. Thus, entire ecosystems have evolved in Australia that, when untampered with, recycle energy and nutrients in the most extraordinarily efficient ways. Aboriginal people have long understood this and have shaped their culture accordingly. Even the Europeans, with their code of mateship, are perhaps being shaped by these same forces.
These changes to our world view are an early, yet crucial step in the process of adaptation of an essentially European people to life in Australia. By virtue of my profession, I passed through the revolution a little in advance of most, for the powerhouse of the change has been centred upon discoveries in biological science, archaeology and anthropology. Through this personal experience I have learned how important histories are to people, including myself. They define our place in the world and validate our claims to inheritance, both individual and national. The radically changed world view that many Australians possess today means that Australians can now define themselves through things that are uniquely Australian.
The passing of Federal legislation to recognise native title in Australia in 22 December 1993 is one of the first and perhaps most important legal changes to flow from our new and very different view of our place in the world. In a sense, it brings to a close a period in our history when we possessed a purely European view of the land.
There is no doubt that conflict between people holding different world views will become more forceful. The debate as to whether Australia should become a republic or remain a monarchy is partly a debate between those who see themselves as people of British descent in Australia, as opposed to those who see themselves as becoming a people unlike any other.
The same sentiments drive many arguments concerning resource use in Australia, being critical to the greatest question of all, how many Australians there should ultimately be. This question is inextricably interwoven with our views concerning Australia's racist past, multiculturalism, ongoing immigration and government attitudes towards family size. It is also partly dependent upon the technologies we possess, and the standard of living to which we aspire. As difficult as these factors make it to address the question of population, it more than any other, will define Australia's future.
The Australian nation came into existence less than 100 years ago as a result of the last successful invasion of a continent. The invasion has brought together people from virtually every corner of the Earth in a land unlike any other. The traditional histories and folk wisdom of the new settlers are as different and diverse as those found anywhere, but they are the products of other places, other ecologies and other times.
How are Australians, then, to adopt, develop and feel comfortable with a world view that will help them to survive in this strange land? For me, the solution has come through an increasing understanding of the way in which our continent works. We need to learn more about our Australasian homelands and how the land has, often in ways not perceived, shaped its people.
It is not without some reserve that in The Future Eaters: An ecological history of the Australasian lands and people I have emulated the title of Bede's great work A history of the English Church and People (731 AD). But I do so because these books share a fundamental similarity. Bede wrote at a time when the English Church was a new thing; yet it was destined virtually to define the English people to themselves. The Australasian people too are mostly newcomers. They and their land must form a bond as great and as lasting as that between England and their Church. Otherwise we will always remain poor, confused strangers in our own lands.