A whisper from the woods

Ask me (almost) anything, November 2023

Nov 20, 2023

For this week’s article, we asked Mark to please help us have a better understanding of the First Nation People (FNP) of Australia. We asked Mark to please help us understand how the FNP takes care of nature and the environment, and what we can learn from their age-old traditions.

This question is inspired by the event that Mark and his wife, Jill, are planning for next month. Our Global Tree Initiative founder, Tenzin Ösel Hita, will travel to Australia and meet the FNP. You can read more about this here, and make a donation to support this event.


Mark’s response

All humans are connected to each other in some way. All landscapes were originally connected, depending on the breadth and depth of your vision and understanding. It follows, therefore, that all humans are connected to the landscape and its ecology, whether we see our place or not.

Continental formation and dispersal created the landscapes we see today. In time order, Columbia, Rodinia, Pannotia, and Gondwana began from 2 billion years before the present (yBP) until 65 million yBP. The first continent was Columbia (1.5-2.0 billion years BP). Rodinia then evolved from 1.3 billion to 750 million yBP. Then came Pannotia until 540 million yBP, then Pangaea until 200 million yBP, and finally Gondwana (meaning “Forests of the Gonds”) emerged at 175 million yBP.

The image below provides a visual idea of the BIG process of evolutionary geography. It shows how the southern continents; Southern Africa, Australia, India, and South America, have so much in common in their ecologies. This sort of conceptual framework needs to be put in its rightful place, because we cannot conceive of the timeframes in which human existence has evolved. We are living in the blink of an eye!

Gondwana supported the first forests of “trees”. Its ecology was humid, wet, and lush, with emergent plant forms dominated by ferns.

The break up of Gondwana around 65 million yBP, liberated India, Arabia, Africa, South America, and Australia as the ‘modern’ landforms we see on the planet. See the illustration below:

The first Eucalypts (syn. Gum Trees) began to appear in Australia around 60 million yBP and by 2 million yBP were the dominant plant group with over 700 species occupying every habitat across the continent!

Australia Gum Trees

At around 65,000 yBP (and perhaps before 100,000 yBP), the First Nation Peoples (FNP) of Australia settled the continent. By this time, the last of the megafauna were dying out as the continent became drier and hotter. Trees were evolving to create forms that could survive the harsher conditions. The ecology varied from savannah grassland in the inland to dense forest on the coast and rainforest in the north.

The FNP evolved with these ancient landscapes. They are intimately connected to the landscape, the species of plants and animals, and the forces that have shaped it. The FNP occupied every corner of the continent – the evidence is revealed in the spoken word transmitted across more than 700 language groups. See the illustration below.


The FNP knew every plant, animal, and insect species in their “Country”. They knew by observation, testing, and treatment, how to use the resources to benefit all. They understood its limits and its bounty. They respected the Country as they would family. It was part of their being and that of their ancestors. Using and modifying the landscape was strictly controlled by links to “totems” – animate and inanimate associations that bound tribal behavior by law and custom.

The reciprocal connection meant they and their Country were dependent on one another for prosperity and survival. And, the knowledge and learning were handed down by stories and “Dreaming” lore to each generation by Elders who held that knowledge. Plants, seeds grains, and natural materials were gifted and traded as part of custom when in another’s Country. Modern science is learning from traditional knowledge holders about how landscape and ecology were managed and nurtured. Small changes could be made to their environment, but only to enhance its health and vitality for all species in the ecosystem.

As newcomers to this ancient continent, we must learn the best aspects of this knowledge to care, together with the FNP, for our shared Country. The health of the continent demands we restore the landscape to its best condition and diversity for the greatest benefit to all people. Trees are part of that mutual obligation to “Country” as well as soil, water, and the diversity of species.

Indigenous knowledge is a key part of that task.

– – –

Mark, thank you very much for this educational article. We are learning so much from you, and we appreciate your sensitivity and knowledge when learning from you. Thank you for helping us understand the FNP a bit better.

Cover image source: See here.


Please share this. Thank you!


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