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Stories - issue #3

The Right Fire

Photography by Peter McConchie

Replacing western fire regimes, based on hazard reduction, with Indigenous fire management methods could help save Australia and improve the environment: we must learn from the knowledge and practice of the elders and pass it on to future generations.

I first met George Musgrave (Poppy) and Tommy George in the mid-90s in a town called Laura in the lower region of Cape York. They were two old men sitting with their families. I was told that they were brothers, and were among the most respected and knowledgeable men in the area. I was instantly intrigued by their status and wanted to learn more about them. As I peered over at them I could see that they were watching me. Even when they weren’t looking at me, it felt like they were watching me. They had a really strong presence that I was drawn to, but it made me nervous to think of approaching them. The two men were the last of the Awu-Laya elders who knew the traditional knowledge and stories of that country. They wanted the young ones to inherit the knowledge and take over their roles as leading elders.

I will never forget the day that Poppy lit the first fire on country in front of me. We were standing in the middle of a small community of boxwood trees about twenty kilometres out of old Laura town. The ecosystem was only as big as a couple of basketball courts and was surrounded by a small creek and stringybark country. The grass was quite thick, dead and dry, and we were standing in it up to our knees. “I’m gonna light the grass now, like the old people used to do,” Poppy said loudly and proudly. He walked over to the stringybark country and ripped off a long piece of bark from the closest tree.

“You look now.” He teased one end of the long piece of bark, lit it up and then walked through the boxwood patch in a repetitive, figure-eight type movement. He was almost skipping as he dragged the bark along, making the fire follow him around.

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