Changing perceptions of the country
The country in and around Charles Darwin Reserve has been viewed in very different ways by different people. Four views of the land stand out: the traditional and modern Aboriginal understanding of the land as a part of their identity; the British settlers’ commercial and industrial model of the land, where land belongs to individuals for productive purposes whether through pastoralism, mining, tourism or other means of extracting its resources; the naturalists and scientists view who saw the country as a rich sample of nature to be collected and classified; and that of the volunteers and tourists who see the country as a place to enjoy, while offering their time and skills to its management.
For 40,000 or more years Aboriginal people have understood this country, and their knowledge has been consolidated into a complex culture of stories, dances, art and songs. These told how the land was created and how it should be used, and by whom, in order to sustain the people. Much of the story of the land and its meaning, is the property of individual Traditional Owners and has restrictions on its telling. How much of this story still exists for the Charles Darwin Reserve area is not generally known.
In general terms, the Badimia believe there was a creative period in the world called Cudaroo, the Dreaming, the time when the earth was soft, and creative beings travelled over the country making the features of the earth and leaving spiritual powers in the land.
Aboriginal people inherited custodianship of the land and are responsible for its care. Particular people and groups are responsible for certain areas and sites. A senior man, a custodian of the country, must go in and talk to the spirits and ‘open up’ the country before other people go into that country.
N. Green, Yamatji Land and Sea Council objection to National Native Title Tribunal on grant of exploration licences, NNTTA 35 (May 2001).
This way of perceiving the country supported a hunting and gathering culture, which is believed to have lived within the limits of the land’s productivity. Its main means of changing the landscape and its productivity was through fire.
The view of the country held by the settlers of European origin was vastly different. It allowed for economic exploitation in ways which seriously depleted the land's natural resources. At the same time natural historians were inspired by the richness of the land in its natural condition.
Attempts to exploit the land which became Charles Darwin Reserve included sheep pastoralism, gold mining, and wholesale clearing and cultivation for wheat farming. None of these succeeded, and the land remained in a relatively natural state.
The purchase of Whitewells Station in 2003 by Bush Heritage Australia (then Australian Bush Heritage Fund) with assistance from the Australian Government, continued the shift towards valuing the remaining areas of natural bushland. Both the government and private citizens contributed money and skills towards its purchase and protection. In the Mongers Lake to Lake Moore area, this shift had started in 1982 with the Western Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife identifying the White Well vacant Crown land as important for nature conservation in the face of proposals for clearing it for wheat farming. By 2007 it had not yet been made a nature reserve. In 1993 the Federal Government funded the purchase of Ninghan Station for its Traditional Owners, and in the late 1990s Peter Underwood on Mt Gibson Station started to promote the natural and cultural values of the land, leading to the property's purchase by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in 2003.
In a sense, Charles Darwin Reserve has come full circle under Charles Darwin's philosophy of interest in and concern for his fellow creatures. The land is now managed to bring it to a state similar to that in which the colonial explorers found it, when it was under the care of its Traditional Owners.
Charles Darwin's perceptions of Western Australia
At first glance, the great naturalist Charles Darwin would probably have described this country in much the same way as he did its southern equivalent, the country around Albany on the south coast of Western Australia, which he visited in February 1836, on the voyage of the Beagle:
I do not remember, since leaving England, having passed a more dull and uninteresting time. The Country, viewed from an eminence, appears a woody plain, with here and there rounded and partly bare hills of granite protruding. One day I went out with a party, in the hopes of seeing a kangaroo hunt, and walked over a good many miles of country. Every where we found the soil sandy, and very poor: it either supported a coarse vegetation of thin, low brushwood and wiry grass, or a forest of stunted trees…… The general bright green colour of the brushwood and other plants, viewed from a distance, seemed to bespeak fertility. A single walk, however, will quite dispel such an illusion; and he who thinks with me, will never wish to walk again in so uninviting a country.
Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches Penguin Books, 1989, p33
Chris Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson,
donated a $300,000 inheritance from the Charles Darwin estate to Bush Heritage for the purchase of Whitewells Station,
and helped raise a large part of the money invested to manage it as Charles
'I think it [extinction of plant and animal species]
is the greatest issue facing the world today, and I wanted to do
something about it.' Chris Darwin, ‘Darwin invests
in natural selection’,
Weekend Australian November 23-24, 2002 p8
Like his forebear who found the Albany landscape ‘so
uninviting’, Chris Darwin was not initially attracted to this piece
of drought stricken and burnt country when he first saw Whitewells Station
in October 2002. It was dry and apparently lifeless, with large areas
of charcoal black stakes and bare sand after a bushfire. He saw no spectacular
features or endangered species, no flushes of wildflowers or movements
of birds or animals. But after several days he saw the significance
of this refuge of Australian ecology as part of the large regional remnant between
Mongers Lake and Lake Moore and realised its critical importance
in the stand against extinctions of plant and animal species. Chris
was not alone in his decision. His partner Jacqui was always
central to the whole project.
My aim was to try and help to stop the 6th
Mass Extinction Spasm of planet Earth. I was helped in that quest
when I inherited some money so I thought that here is my chance to
do something special. That was when I had decided to help a charity
buy some land with as many threatened species as possible. I decided
to do this in Australia because it had the combination of high biodiversity,
secure land tenure and cheap land.
White Wells exceeded my expectation, it was so biodiverse
and cheap. It has been a fantastic experience. Helping buy the reserve
has got a monkey off my back as I now feel that I have done my bit
to look after the species that we share this small oasis that is
spinning through the desert of space with.
(Chris Darwin 27 May 2006 pers
comm to C.Nicholson)
In making his contribution towards purchasing Whitewells
Station, Chris Darwin was conscious of the regret his great-great-grandfather
expressed towards the end of his life:
As for myself, I believe that I have acted
rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to Science. I
feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often
and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my
fellow creatures. (Francis Darwin
The Life of Charles Darwin, Senate 1995 p.328)
Charles Darwin pioneered so much of what we now know about
natural history. What would he make of this country today?