Return of the Fire Spirits: a review of ‘Fire Country’ by Victor Steffensen.

Fire Country is a masterpiece of Indigenous storytelling. Part autobiography, part landcare manual, it fans the flames of a cultural revival transforming contemporary Australia.

Cultural burning is at the heart of Indigenous land care practices. After two centuries of suppression and misunderstanding it’s making a comeback. Faced with a landscape plagued by wildfires, public interest in fire as a tool for regeneration is gaining momentum.

Steffensen plays a major role in the revival. We follow his journey as he finds his path with elders Tommy and George (Poppy) Musgrove. They feel that country is sick from mismanagement by disconnected people who don’t understand it. When Poppy lights an illicit burn the negative reaction from authority ignites the author’s resolve. He initiates a traditional knowledge recording project and gives a presentation about cultural burning to white officials and landowners. Later, the community is granted Native Title and elders regain the power to burn their own country. Steffensen looks on as Poppy lights it up: ‘I watched him dancing through the flames like some kind of fire spirit sprinkling magic dust onto the land.’

Steffensen is taught how to apply fire and heal country himself. He workshops the knowledge outside the community and negotiates with ‘boss culture’ so that elders can revive the practice on a broader scale. His passion for country and culture compel him to share his story, but it is not his voice alone that sings from the pages of the book. He writes ‘to give the old people a voice, and for the land to be heard.’

The book is a manual in reading country, with all its minutiae of ecosystems and seasonal indicators. ‘Reading the landscape is a skill where the land is the boss and tells us what to do.’ It all starts with the trees. ‘Trees are the keys to reading country: they are like the traditional elders of each individual ecosystem,’ writes Steffensen. He takes us through far north Queensland, looking at the combination of trees in a place and what they tell us about soil and fire requirements. In traditional burning, fire is never allowed to burn the trees.  Rather, smoke from a fire on well-managed country is like medicine: ‘the trees bathe in the white smoke to improve their canopies, and the leaves give a gentle shimmering dance when the smoke comes into contact with them.’

Some trees indicate ‘no-fire country.’ Groves of casuarinas are fire sensitive, and with their ground layered with needles and their wind-whistling, make beloved campsites and are never burnt. Likewise with trees that shade waterholes and streams. Trees shade the land and are closely linked with the health of water systems. Destroy the trees and the waterways will suffer. ‘I was told by a respected Elder that if you mistreat water, it will run away. It will dry up, go underground, leaving an empty waterhole behind.’

This recognition of the interconnectedness of everything includes people. Healing country means healing communities. Steffensen shares the story of visiting a town where the kids were all getting into trouble and generally running amuck. He arrives to find that the place chosen by authorities for burning is a bare horse paddock. He walks to the river with an elder, who tells him that no-one goes there anymore because the banks are all overgrown with grass. They decide to abandon the official plan, and burn the river banks instead of the paddock. He later hears that the kids are back fishing and swimming in the river as they should be, instead of out vandalising cars.

Fire Country isn’t focused on hazard reduction but on looking after country and community. Reviving traditional burning is a way to empower Indigenous people and reconnect them with the land. Preventing wildfires is a consequence. Rather than authorities taking the knowledge away as a hazard reduction method, Steffensen wants traditional owners to be leading projects themselves. Implementing living knowledge heals the present and the future: ‘Poppy would say that if the people start looking after the country, everything can come good again.’

Fire country resounds with the voice of a skilled educator, learnt the hard way through years of running workshops. Years spent trying to convince fearful, suspicious, or racist people. A voice that needs no support from western research methods: this is traditional knowledge speaking. The expertise of Indigenous land management is clear. Steffensen proposes that it holds its own authority as ‘a good science, a practical science, a knowledge that originally comes from this land, its people, and the spiritual dimensions from beyond. The Aboriginal science of Australia.’

We have entered a new era where Australians are actively seeking out Aboriginal knowledge. The success of books like Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu,’ and now ‘Fire Country,’ re-instate the authority of Aboriginal cultures in their own land. Steffensen tells a fascinating tale and in the final, stand-alone word of the book challenges Australia to face its greatest fear. ‘Fire.’

Fire country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia.

Victor Steffensen (2020)

Published by Hardie Grant RRP $29.99

A too-hot prescribed burn near Nannup, Western Australia, Oct 2020 (Jinni Wilson)

review by Jinni Wilson