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Feature Story
Photo of Joshua Rostron
Fires Down Under

by Sharon Levy

In Australia's remote Northern Territory, traditional Aboriginal burning practices hold vital lessons for the American West.

As the sky darkens, the outlines of the savanna trees vanish into blackness. Cyrus and Lindsay Rostron, our two Aboriginal guides, aged 13 and 11, respectively, hold firesticks in their hands. They touch the burning branches to the grass, and flames spread around us.

The boys dance barefoot in the orange glow, silhouetted against the tall, weirdly beautiful shapes of termite mounds. Their grown-up brother, Miko, who wears a sooty bowler hat, eases his muscular body off a rock that's too close to the fire. He gives Lindsay an encouraging slap on the shoulder, then stands back to admire the blaze.

"Fantastic, isn't it?" says David Bowman. A tall, wiry man with a hawkish nose, he grins in the firelight, his face streaked with sweat and charcoal. Bowman, a fire ecologist at Charles Darwin University, is learning how indigenous people use fire to shape their homelands and keep the land healthy. He is one of the first scientists to study traditional burning practices by working directly with native people. Today he is on the Rostrons' home turf in Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal "designated land" that stretches from the edge of the Arafura Sea deep into the stark landscape of the Top End of Australia's Northern Territory.

Near the tiny settlements or "outstations" that serve as home bases for native people who have traded town life for full-time residence on their traditional land, Aborigines still burn on a regular basis, and wildlife thrives. Plant and animal diversity is as great as, or greater than, in some ecologically similar areas of nearby Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage conservation site. Within weeks of the fires set by outstation residents, scorched areas sprout carpets of new greenery and attract numerous kangaroos, which fatten on the new growth and can later be hunted. Species such as the partridge pigeon and the northern quoll, a meat-eating marsupial about the size of a cat, have declined or disappeared throughout most of their range but remain abundant near the settlements. Wild fruit trees flourish. The Bininj, as native people here call themselves, accomplish all this in ways that most white, or Balanda, fire managers believe to be impossible.

The Rostrons are among the few Aboriginal families who have been able to carry on their burning traditions without interruption. "There's a research emergency out here," says Bowman. "This is the last chance to truly understand native burning."

Stuck in Reverse
The Secret Harvest
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Sharon Levy spent a decade working as a field biologist in the woods of Northern California before taking up science writing full time. She is a regular contributor to National Wildlife and BioScience.

Photo: Glenn Hunt
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Winter 2005
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council