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Tim Flannery on the illusions experienced in ‘new’ lands

Flannery, T., The Future Eaters 1994

The deception experienced by each wave of human immigrants into the ‘new’ lands is one of the great constants of human experience in the region. To the earliest Aborigines, it must have seemed as if the herds of diprotodons stretched on forever. To the Maori, the moa must have appeared a limitless resource. European agriculturalists saw what they imagined were endless expanses of agricultural land of the finest quality.

Each new wave of people, arriving from the resource-rich lands to the north, sees in the unoccupied regions of Australia and her neighbours room for development and space in which to flourish. In part perhaps because of this sheer sense of space, each new wave of setters can identify some virgin resource, some field untilled, sea unfished, or forest unfelled with which they can make their future. Yet these unoccupied spaces and apparent opportunities in fact represent something very different, for they are the necessary accommodation that each group makes to life in a hard land.

For the Aborigines, that accommodation meant foregoing agriculture and hence leaving a very different kind of mark on the land. In an ecological sense, the history of all of the colonists of the ‘new’ lands has followed the same trajectory. Their histories look so different to us because we see human groups at different moments: Europeans 200 years, Maori about 800-1000 years and Aborigines 60,000 years, after the time of colonisation. The trajectory, or pattern of development, experienced by each group is as follows. The initial deception leads to a sense of unbounded optimism. But this soon turns to bitter disillusionment as resources are exhausted. Finally, there comes a long and hard period of conciliation, during which the land increasingly shapes its new inhabitants.

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