Passed on through the generations, could Indigenous cultural burning save Australia’s landscape from another catastrophic bushfire season?
He’s a keeper of memories. Custodian of a knowledge that has been handed down for thousands of years: the ability to see when the land is sick and know how to heal it.
When he reads country, Victor Steffensen is drawing on a sophisticated, historical and complex understanding of the nuances of seasonal shifts, of minute observation of nature. The intimate knowledge of ecosystems and how things are interrelated, of fire and water, the significance of the timing of flowers blossoming, the breeding behaviour of animals, the particle nature of trees and the ground they stand on.
It is knowledge, he believes, that can heal our country and prevent bushfires like those we’ve just experienced.
“When we burn the right fire in the right ecosystems, we enhance our native vegetation,” Victor says.
“I’ve done burns all over the country and seen the improvements in landscapes and there are even places where the last wildfire went and didn’t burn our cultural burn areas.
“The fires went out and went around them.”
Victor’s knowledge of nature is encyclopaedic in its layers of detail, but he came so close to never knowing any of these things. Had it not been for an enterprising station owner, Fred Shepard, nearly a century ago hiding two young Aboriginal boys in mailbags when the police came looking, Tommy George and George Musgrave would have been taken away from their country; stolen, their traditional culture erased. As it was, they became cattlemen and still lived a traditional life with their families.
Had it not been, several generations later, for a boy who was looking for something, who loved the bush but who was lost and directionless, who, at 18, went on a fishing trip with friends, the knowledge would not have been passed on to him.
If chance had not brought Victor to Tommy and George in the tiny town of Laura, on the Cape York Peninsula, his path might have been entirely different.
The elderly brothers would shape his life. For the past two decades, he has been teaching Indigenous cultural burning practices, sharing the gift of the knowledge that they gave him with the rest of the world.
Victor was always fascinated by fire. At eight, he put a lit match into a pile of dead leaves in the banana patch in the backyard. It went up over the chook house and nearly roasted them alive. His father was not pleased, to put it mildly.
By his own admission, Victor was an indifferent, disinterested student. Growing up in the rainforest town of Kuranda, on the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns — a town, he says, of hippies and Aboriginal people — he failed nearly every subject at high school.
For fun, he and his friend Barry Hunter would make little action films with the school’s camera.
It was hard trying to understand his Aboriginality as a mixed-race person. “I knew there was something missing in my life, a huge void I wanted to fill.”
His mother’s Tagalaka people were from the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the 1920s, his nan and her people had been sent away to missions or to do unpaid work, their language and culture lost.
Victor had an idea that he wanted to be a ranger, or an actor maybe. An Aboriginal liaison officer scored him a special entry to the University of Canberra to study cultural heritage. He was 17 and the weather was freezing.
He studied English and he did try. “I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn, about plants and trees and knowledge of country, things that were relevant to me,” Victor says. “The only thing I learnt down there was hot food and keeping warm and trying to cook for yourself.”
Three months later, he was back in the warm sunny north having dropped out. His father said he had to get a job and do something with his life. “I didn’t have a clue what to do.” That was when he went fishing with his friends.
Laura had a population of about 100, with only eight houses for Aboriginal people. While he was getting to know people, he could see two old men in the distance and knew they were respected.
“I was sort of nervous because they had a really strong presence and I knew they were watching me, even when they weren’t looking at me.”
He was able to get a job in the local community through the work-for-the-dole program. “I was totally rapt.”
Then he had to find somewhere to live. One house had only one person living in it: Tommy George — or TG, as he was known. Even though all the other houses were overcrowded, and he had three bedrooms, no one had been able to live with TG.
“It was his house and it was under his rules: no alcohol, don’t touch his stuff and no making a nuisance of yourself.”
He would kick people out into the street if they broke his rules. Invited to move in, Victor made himself useful in the house and listened to Tommy’s stories, which would go on for hours. He would play the guitar to Tommy, who loved music.
Victor was soon upgraded to community ranger and given a uniform. Tommy was the head ranger. “From that day on, I had countless adventures with them old people,” Victor says.
He would stay for 10 years, always on the $200-a-week work-for-the-dole program.
“I was just happy learning from them, it was an honour, that was all I wanted to do. They took me under their wing and shared their world with me. They were the happiest days of my life, so far. They really set me in a straight line, put me on the right path.”
Every day, he was out on country in the bush: hunting, fishing and learning about plants, animals, places or stories, using George’s finger as a GPS pointing the way.
Learning about trees; the chemicals in the leaves that are used for medicine, the bark made into crafts, the food and spiritual uses — every fibre of every tree was taught to him.
Sitting around campfires would be Victor’s university and there were no books involved. Tommy and George were fit from walking and they could see a tiny creature from miles away: culture kept them moving and sharp into very old age.
Tommy and George — who was known as Poppy — were the last of the Awu-Laya elders who had the traditional knowledge and stories of that country. Two old men carrying thousands of years of information. It was vital to pass it on before it was lost forever but the distracted young people weren’t showing much interest.
Wanting to make sure the knowledge didn’t go to the grave, Victor started recording them on camera. “They were hungry to pass on their knowledge, that is all they ever wanted.”
And they taught him about fire.
The old men would look at indicators in the landscape: if it was time to burn a certain ecosystem, there will be certain flowers that indicate when they burn. Until European settlers took fire out of the landscape, “the country was well-managed and were a lot of grasslands and healthy landscapes”.
Back in possession of their traditional homelands, George and Tommy talked about fire even more. The country was “sick, unbalanced and unhealthy”.
“They were heartbroken,” Victor says.
Since it was still classified as national park, they were not allowed to burn it to heal it. They constantly complained: “It needs to burn, it needs to burn.” Victor persuaded them to do it anyway.
The first burn was illegal and they got into trouble. There were many battles with the state department of national parks. But they kept on doing it until, says George’s grandson Dwayne, “The parks and government and police all said, ‘these old fellas, they’re doing good here’.”
Cultural burning researcher Peta Standley says it was “amazing” to watch the men skilfully burn the landscape. “Flowering was protected… there was an increase in the diversity of the understory, there was a decrease in scar height,” she says.
Getting their first permit from the Queensland national parks department was, says Victor, “like getting a letter from the Queen”.
It was the beginning of the cultural burning movement of which Victor has become the face.
Indigenous fire has many layers, but the key factor is a cool burn, says Victor: “low intensity”. It is white smoke, not the thick black smoke that turned the world dark during the 2019/2020 bushfires.
“Fire is beautiful,” he says. “It’s just like water; it trickles through the landscape and the right fire protects the trees and it brings food and encourages new life. It is a gentler technique and it takes a lot more time to apply because the fire is slower.”
The old men knew the country and when to burn to clean it out and make it healthy. Each ecosystem would become ready one by one. The next system would put the fire out because it was still green.
The cooler fire moves beneath the canopy and allows native grasses to grow underneath and animals a chance to move away.
When Dr Standley came to them wanting to do a PhD on fire work, Victor told her it could only happen if Tommy and George were properly recognised.
In 2005 they were awarded honorary doctorates by James Cook University, listed as co-researchers on her PhD thesis. “When they came back from the university thing with the little blue hat, they thought they were king of the world,” Dwayne says.
Dr George Musgrave passed in 2006 and Dr Tommy George in 2016. “And if they were alive now to see those devastating bushfires, they would be terribly disappointed,” Victor says.
Long before the bushfires, Victor had seen “suffering in the landscape” and animals struggling to find food. “The land has been neglected and the bush has been neglected. Right throughout the country I go around and I just see sick country most of the time,” he says.
“Alarm bells have been ringing for a long time.”
Today, after those devastating bushfires, Victor is in more demand for his workshops than ever before, both in Australia and overseas. He doesn’t see himself as a leader but as an “instigator”. Pushed for a title, he will allow “mentor”, “educator” or “messenger”.
He never forgets that Tommy and George “chose him” to do this work in Indigenous cultural burning. “This is a responsibility that was thrown on me and I intend to finish, to keep the legacy going,” Victor says.
“We need to honour our Indigenous knowledge of Australia and allow that to thrive into the future.”
Tommy and George are always with Victor. When they passed, they knew their work would continue.
“They always said, ‘Keep going, keep going, boy. You keep doing what you’re doing’. And from there, I did it for them.”
Producer: Ben Cheshire
Feature writer: Susan Chenery
Photography: Ben Cheshire, Greg Nelson, supplied, AAP: Dean Lewins
Digital producer: Megan Mackander
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