How many trees make a forest? Cultural debates about vegetation change in Australia

Tom Griffiths*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    49 Citations (Scopus)


    Environmental history, as it has emerged in recent years, is most distinctive in the way it illustrates a serious engagement between the disciplines of ecology and history. This article begins with an exploration of the lineage and promise of environmental history, particularly in the Australian setting. It then analyses a number of the cultural debates about vegetation change in Australia - about clearing, open landscapes, scrub encroachment and burning practices - and draws attention to the way that morals, politics and aesthetics shaped environmental perception and still do. Clearing was the dominant discourse in the history of landscape change and a legislative requirement for secure settlement. At the same time, criticism of clearing and its effects represented an early conservationist sensibility, but the heroic pioneering labour of clearing, the political imperatives associated with it and the escalating ecological legacy it generated, have sometimes made us forget how open was much of the Australian landscape when Europeans first arrived. The morality of clearing - the arguments for and against - focused the minds of settlers on the trees and the loss of them, while the aesthetics of pastoralism attracted their eyes to the grasslands and made them rejoice in the curious legacy of 'open' landscapes. In the early nineteenth century, the most common usage of the word 'forest' was to describe land fit to graze: 'according to the local distinction, the grass is the discriminating character [of forest land] and not the Trees'. At the same time, pastoralists were unwilling to recognise the role of Aboriginal people in creating such open landscapes and this reticence to acknowledge the Aboriginality of the pastoral economy persists today. This in turn affected the way settlers perceived the new forests that appeared after European invasion. The fate of the vegetation Europeans found has understandably been so much the focus of science and history - its removal, replacement, utilisation, modification and conservation - that 'new forests' easily escape scholarly attention; and being new, they seem far less valuable and threatened. They have generally been perceived as a nuisance, as enclosing and encroaching, as 'scrub', as 'woody weeds'. The politics of understanding regrowth are related not only to the issues of clearing and density, but especially to the culture of burning in Aboriginal and settler society and its implications for management and biodiversity. If the coming together of ecology and history best defines the new 'environmental history', then the most illuminating confluences are those where each discipline helps the other to identify what constitutes a unique 'event', both ecologically and historically. The article therefore finishes with examples of events in two landscapes - the long drought of the 1890s in western New South Wales and the Black Friday bushfires of 1939 in the mountain ash forests of Victoria - to illustrate how each emerges as an intriguing artefact of nature and history, a cultural exaggeration of a natural rhythm. Even as we discover the ecological depth of each apparently 'natural' event, we are reminded of its historical specificity.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)375-389
    Number of pages15
    JournalAustralian Journal of Botany
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


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