What the Australian landscape looked like, before we changed it

As we drove across central NSW the other weekend, admiring the beautiful pastoral countryside, I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of that (if any) was still the way it had been before the Europeans arrived. What had it looked like before we started clearing the hills and valleys? Before we planted imported vegetation?

The Bogong Ranges in 1866

As it happens, the National Gallery of Victoria currently has an exhibition of paintings by Eugene Von Guerin, an Austrian painter who captured much of the Australian landscape in the middle of the 19th century. Obviously a lot of change had already been wrought by then, but there were still patches of undisturbed wilderness for him to record.

It’s an amazing set for those of us who live here to view, particularly of places where you recognise the terrain itself, the shape of the mountains and the valleys, around which everything else has since been so radically altered.

Unfortunately the versions available to view online are only low-resolution scans. I think this will be worth going to the gallery to actually see in person.

6 responses to “What the Australian landscape looked like, before we changed it

  1. “everything else has since been so radically altered”

    I don’t know Jeremy, I’m not sure I suscribe to your view that there’s been radical alterations. Sure, we’ve built cities with the necessary and inevitable change to the landscape but I think there’s still a hell of a lot of Australia that remains fairly untouched and natural.

    Or perhaps my vision is just coloured from having spent a week on Kangaroo Island, of which, the Western end remains veritably wild and unscarred.

  2. The thing is, a lot of what we think of as “wild” is still very different from when we first arrived.

  3. uniquerhys

    I remember visiting Devon and Cornwall in England about 15 years ago and noticing that there didn’t seem to be a single patch of earth that hadn’t been turned over or farmed at some point. Rustic country roads off the beaten track always had a nice concrete gutter and edging. Even the “natural” forests were obviously planted or ancient farmland that had been allowed to return to the wild.

    That trip made me appreciate the value of preserving the “wilds” of Australia even more. You can’t put things back the way they were. The scars on the landscape remain forever.

  4. Yeah, I think Australia has gotten off lightly compared to a lot of other places. Europe is almost entirely agricultural land, and the Americas have suffered far more loss of forest than we have.

    Don’t even get me started on China. Western China is incredibly beautiful; eastern China looks like the climax of aTerminator film. And that industrial hellscape creeps further west every day. I hope they have their equivalent of our 1960s/70s before it hits Yunnan.

    Also, not that you said this, but I think it’s worth pointing out that white humans aren’t the only ones who wreak devastating change on the environment. Australian Aboriginals killed off the megafauna here, and in New Zealand the moa was wiped out by the arrival of Polynesians, not Europeans.

    I suppose you can look at it and say that we’re all terrible nature-destroying monsters regardless of race, or say that we’re all resourceful, intelligent creatures who will one day be creating entirely new environments on Mars and the moons of Jupiter.

  5. thegreatham

    What are you guys on? Most of the Australian bushland had been dramatically altered by the time Europeans came here, there is a reason that many of our ‘unique’ flora require fire to properly reproduce – aboriginal hunting techniques remade the bushland in much of this continent speeding up the destruction of the rain forest ecosystem that dominated prior to their arrival.

    There hunting practices, debatably, caused or completed the extinction of the mega-fauna. Not that I have a huge problem with this I don’t have a problem with people killing animals to sustain themselves or turning most of Europe into farmland to feed themselves.

  6. thanks for this post, looks like a must visit for me. his surname is von guerard (after a quick visit to wiki)

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