Today, we suffer the loss of fire. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
"I shiver at the taste of
fire ..." writes poet Carol Drake. Take a close
look at Australia's prehistory, and you might well
shiver. For fire tells that land's story.
Great destructive brush fires have swept Australia
several times during the 20th century. In 1983 one
killed 71 people and a third of a million head of
Ecologists have taken stock of this destruction.
They've found, as we so often do, that it's the
complex fruit of human intervention. That story
begins 40,000 years ago.
The Bushmen -- thinly distributed over Australia --
lived in a dry land of highly flammable brush. Fire
became their constant companion. They all tended
fire -- carried it about with them. They used it
freely. They hunted by lighting huge
horseshoe-shaped brush fires. Fire herded wild
animals onto their weapons.
That was only one part of it. They cut highways in
the impenetrable forests by burning off the scrub.
They lit fires to get better access to edible
roots. Burn, burn, burn! Fire was their way of
Fire both suited and shaped the ecology. The
eucalyptus and gum trees have tough leaves and
powerful root systems. They hoard water. They're
not easily harmed by fire. If fire does hurt them,
they quickly send up new shoots.
By the time the English dumped prisoners in Botany
Bay in 1788, an ancient balance had been struck
among Aborigines, fire, and the land. Then white
settlement began. Settlers drove Bushmen, and their
ever-present firesticks, out. Underbrush
accumulated. It took over a century to create a
Those settlers should have listened to the old
myths. Listen as they tell the story of creation:
In the early Dreamtime, the creatures of the
world did not look as they do today. ... The Father
examined them and said, "You are not a proper
people and not proper animals. We must change
this." With his firestick he lit a ceremonial fire
that spread until it encompassed the world. It
swept over all creatures. It burned the earth and
the stones. After the fire had passed, the
creatures and the humans took their present form
The Bushmen knew perfectly well they
were wed to fire. They knew that fire shaped them,
and it shaped the world around them.
So the big destructive brushfires finally began in
regions that hadn't been cleansed by fire for over
a century. And we gaze at Aborigine art -- wild
pointillist abstracts with titles like, "Fire
Dreaming at Ngarna," and "Bushfire Dreaming."
As we look, we do indeed shiver at the taste of
fire -- no longer there to daily cleanse and renew
that vast land.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds