The clothing of God in human flesh is a reminder that spirit is not separate from body but embedded in it. This should bring a reverence for biology. It should send us to our knees, worshipping all creation. Yet, all too often, dominion validates destruction.
Australia in particular is ravaged by this patriarchy; exploited, eroded, denuded, depleted. So perhaps we, rather than hiding Christmas behind the red-and-green tinselled lather of cliches, beach balls and triangular trees, should reconsider. There are other views.
Two of the most compelling are from practical men who, by rights, should be worlds apart but whose message is astoundingly similar; natural farming guru Joel Salatin and Cape York fire practitioner Victor Steffensen.
Their differences are stark. Salatin is a white, dungaree-wearing mid-west American, a persuasive communicator and self-described “Christian Libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer”. Steffensen is an Indigenous Australian film-maker, musician, writer and fire practitioner, at home in the bush and resident mainly in the Top End. Their common ground? Both are on a mission, driven by a profound reverence for biology.
Salatin is the Christian, although he was brought up on Adele Davis’ Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit and the “health freak” movement. His tenth book, The Marvellous Pigness of Pigs, sets itself to resolve the false dichotomy between “worshippers of creation” (environmentalists) and “worshippers of the Creator”. Yet it’s Steffensen’s book Fire Country that, for me, triggered the old Sunday School hymn. “All things bright and beautiful,” I found myself humming as I read. “All creatures great and small …”
Steffensen grew up in the village of Kuranda, near Cairns. At eight he started his first fire. It was a mistake, destroying the backyard chook pen and, very nearly, its inhabitants. Then, as a young man curious about lore, he met two elders, the brothers George Musgrave and Tommy George and learned to read country.
You’ll have heard the term “mosaic fire-farming”. It suggests a many-splendoured intricacy that can seem fanciful, given the vastness of our continent. But Steffensen’s descriptions restore that sense of intricacy. One by one he tells how each kind of country – boxwood, gum, ironbark, casuarina, mixed tree, storm-burn – has the right season and the right moment to burn.
The right moment, says Steffensen, can be read from the condition of the soil, the ripeness of the seeds and the state of grasses that have evolved to “customise the right fire for the country”. Such fire is neither too fast nor too slow, nor too hot, nor too high. Wisely lit, such fire will burn only the undergrowth, char a small ecosystem at a time – perhaps only as big as a tennis court – then self-extinguish.
It’s gardening, really – and therefore inherently spiritual. As Salatin says, God made a garden for humanity to begin, He spent his first night as a numan surrounded by farm animals and visited by shepherds, and chose another garden, Gethsemane, for his final earthly hours. Jesus’ parables were “a practical apologetic for earth stewardship” and the current plague of cheap industrial food is “earth rape and bodily harm” that amounts, simply, to sin.
Steffensen shows the exact same reverence. He recalls his first experience of fire lore, the old man, Poppy (George Musgrave) “dancing through the flames like some kind of fire spirit sprinkling magic dust onto the land”. He contrasts that with his experience back-burning with national park rangers, using utes and flamethrowers. “Speeding along … spraying fire everywhere” it was more an act of war than of love.
“The country is suffering,” says Steffensen, “because no one knows how to look after the fire anymore.” And because Western culture’s insistence on separating knowledge into areas – hazard reduction, biodiversity, escape – dilutes that knowledge, weakening it and depriving it of sacred force.
When Salatin asks “what does a food and farming system look like, that exemplifies spiritual truths?” his answer could easily be in Steffensen’s recipe for using gentle, restorative fire to heal land, encourage food plants, nurture grasses, reduce weeds and reinvigorate animal populations.
Those early colonists saw smoke threading into the sky: not the black billows of canopy destruction, the plumes of dread. Rather, these were the thin white spirals of healing smoke, native grasses being burnt with love and intense specialist knowledge to enhance flowering, benefit seed production and improve canopies.
Although the settlers didn’t know it, this was “medicine smoke for the trees”. Maybe we don’t need the choppers and the funding buckets. The fight. Maybe we just need to learn how the gardening is done.
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Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).