ROMY ASH

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

“Sorry about the tools, eh,” says Vic­tor St­ef­fensen as I climb into the dusty cab of his LandCruiser. St­ef­fensen re­verses into the main street of Ku­randa in Far North Queens­land. He waves to a group of men who are chat­ting in the deep shade of a More­ton Bay fig tree. “Ku­randa mob,” he says, his friends’ kids, grown up. He drives slowly. Town feels sleepy, quiet, al­ready hot at 10am. Groups of tourists flock to­gether, look­ing dazed. The heat is un­usu­ally dry for this time of year, and it’s un­usu­ally hot. The next cou­ple of days, max­i­mum tem­per­a­tures hit the low 40s. Queens­land catches fire; fire­fight­ers bat­tle 110 fires across the state.

St­ef­fensen is an Indige­nous fire prac­ti­tioner, an ed­u­ca­tor, a film­maker. He says he didn’t choose fire, it was more like fire de­manded to be cho­sen. As step one when look­ing af­ter the land. He runs fire work­shops across Aus­tralia, on coun­try, in part­ner­ship with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

To a work­shop he brings a box of matches. “That’s all we need, a box of matches – and then the knowl­edge, so that we know that we’re safe and where the fire will go out. A lot of times we don’t need fire trucks. Some­times we’ll use the fire trucks if there’s rub­bish un­der the grass, or if it’s a bit more de­vel­oped, but even in de­vel­oped ar­eas the fire trucks have never had to use wa­ter be­cause it’s gone out in the right place. So a lot of the time when the ru­ral fire brigades come, they come to a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. This is a wholly dif­fer­ent fire. They don’t get to use their toys, their wa­ter. They start to take their hats off. They start to take their coats off, then they drop their rake on the ground and hose, then they start walk­ing in the bush and chas­ing but­ter­flies, start learn­ing about the plants, and why the fire is gen­tle, why it’s of no con­cern.

“And then they see – be­cause it’s an Indige­nous burn­ing, we’ve got com­mu­nity there too – and so they see lit­tle kids walk­ing along with the fire, and they see moth­ers and old peo­ple with walk­ing sticks go­ing into

the fire and walk­ing with it. Look­ing at the out­come, the burnt coun­try, we teach, we talk about the in­di­ca­tors and shar­ing knowl­edge. You just get this whole sense of hap­pi­ness and peace­ful­ness and beauty.

“I’ve seen peo­ple change so many times. I have peo­ple come up to me, af­ter just an hour on the land, lis­ten­ing, say to me, ‘I’ve been do­ing it wrong all my life. I thought I knew the land, but I didn’t.’ I had so many old fel­las come up to me and say that, and for them to say it, it’s just in­cred­i­ble. What they’ve done in the last cou­ple of 100 years to the land­scape has not been good. They start to re­alise that when they see the land for the first time, through the eyes of Indige­nous cul­ture and, re­ally, it should be the cul­ture for ev­ery Aus­tralian. It’s so im­por­tant.”

We don’t know yet that Queens­land is about to catch alight, but St­ef­fensen speaks about the hero cul­ture of fire­fight­ing in Aus­tralia, how there’s fund­ing for fire­fight­ing, but a real lack of sup­port for Indige­nous man­age­ment of the land through tra­di­tional fire prac­tices. He says, “Gi­ant fires are run­ning around in the coun­try and killing peo­ple and burn­ing and burn­ing and burn­ing and, you know, that’s all based on mis­man­age­ment of the coun­try.”

As we drive, the road fol­lows the rail­way and the Bar­ron River with the Skyrail pass­ing through the canopy over­head.

“That’s my old house over there, see, un­der the big trees,” he says.

“The jacaranda?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been down here for years. This is the old school. I used to walk to school – well, just jump the fence, go to school ev­ery day.”

We park at the old school and find some shade at the edge of the oval. St­ef­fensen is tall, he folds him­self down to the grass. Takes his cap off, runs his hands through sweat damp hair, and then puts it back on again. We sit cross-legged on the grass. It’s so dry it crunches be­neath us, but it’s cool in the shade with a breeze

blow­ing across the river. March flies buzz around us and St­ef­fensen shoos them away gen­tly.

“There used to be hun­dreds of kids here when we were grow­ing up. This whole field would be full at lunchtime, large Indige­nous com­mu­nity and hip­pie com­mu­nity – lots of hip­pie kids, al­ways bare­foot, the whole school was bare­foot and play­ing big games of foot­ball and Red Rover. Ev­ery day of my life grow­ing up there was some­one run­ning on this field. And now there’s not a soul walk­ing on the grass. Things change, eh. It was al­ways loud, it was alive, this place was alive, now there’s just si­lence. Ku­randa town…” He sighs, but then says, “Ev­ery­thing changes, for bet­ter or for worse. Mak­ing a change for the bet­ter is the chal­lenge.

“My mother, she’s from Croy­don area, she’s Ta­galaka lady, de­scen­dant. It’s on my mother’s side, my Abo­rig­i­nal­ity. All sand­stone coun­try. I love sand­stone coun­try. All that sand­stone coun­try it’s beau­ti­ful. But Ku­randa was a place where Mum and Dad landed and where I just hap­pened to grow up right from birth, so this is home as well. But right across Far North Queens­land, it’s all home.”

When he was a young man St­ef­fensen lived for 15 years in Laura on Cape York, learn­ing from two el­ders. He started film­ing on a cam­corder, record­ing what he de­scribes as an in­cred­i­bly com­plex “map of knowl­edge”. It was here, with the el­ders, he lit his first fire, il­le­gally. “No one would give us a per­mit.” He watched the fire do ex­actly what the el­ders said it would, and in the com­ing months af­ter the fire he saw the land re­new it­self, the re­turn of na­tive grasses, the re­turn of miss­ing an­i­mals.

When he works with com­mu­nity he says, “a lot of them say, our el­ders have passed, we don’t have our knowl­edge any­more, but I al­ways say to them, yes you do. The most im­por­tant el­der is still there – and that’s the land. All the knowl­edge is in the land. That’s where the knowl­edge comes from, it comes from the land.”

• He speaks for a long time. The shade moves. I lis­ten.

ROMY ASH is a nov­el­ist. Her first book, Floun­der­ing, was short­listed for the Miles Franklin award.

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