Several articles address the historical human relationship to plants, not so much in terms of plant utility but more through changes in attitudes and beliefs, and therefore shifts in plant meaning. This article on plant lore introduces the world of animistic beliefs of prehistory, Natura, when humans as hunter-gatherers were a part of nature itself, existing within nature, essentially as they had evolved from it. As communities grew, human environments were more man-made, hierarchies developed, writing emerged, and culture began to dominate nature – so the narratives of belief changed. Former animistic beliefs were now married to accounts of deities that populated spiritual but more human-like worlds, the deities, heroic sagas, and legends of Agraria. This system of belief reached its zenith in the rich recorded narrative of Greek mythology, outlined in a separate article for its insights into the changing human experience of plants. As cities expanded, the spirits of animism were lost, replaced by a polytheistic world of many gods, and eventually the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions.
In spite of the Neolithic Revolution, up to the last 250 years or so, the vegetation existing over the surface of our planet was largely a product of 3.5 billion years of evolution untouched by human hand: it was biotic and natural environmental factors that had forged the differentiation of plant forms in time and place. Our concern here though, is with that sliver of time when humans began to alter this ‘state of nature’ as natural landscapes were increasingly transformed into cultural landscapes, and biomes into anthromes.
From historians we have learned that in taking a long-term overview of this period in history we can look to two general kinds of human historical influence. First, there are material factors like the reorganization of plant distribution, the impact of human technology, and the consequences of human migration. But what happens in history is also a consequence of cultural factors like collective learning, ideologies, religion and other systems of belief that influence behavioural outcomes, especially attitudes to plants and ways of managing the land. This series of articles headed ‘settler beliefs’ investigates some cultural influences on our human attitude to nature, the land, and its management.
For convenience, this process has been divided into just two periods: Aboriginal values of Natura, and the pre-industrial Agrarian European values that arrived in Australia with the First Fleet.
The object is to gain some insight into the sources of values that determined attitudes towards plants and land management.
Though individual psychological motives are complex, it is possible to examine societal values institutionalized in religious belief and accepted social practices.
Clearly Aboriginal and European approaches to land management were completely different. The factors guiding Aborigines were discussed here – so what were the different ideas followed by the Europeans? What were the underlying assumptions of the settlers as land managers? What was their grand narrative: and if they were to write a Big History for their times what would it have said?
At the outset it is clear that settler societies in Australia would have much in common with settler societies in other Neo-Europes, including America, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Religion permeated all aspects of daily life. It was the source of constant conflict between European nations after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and among local communities allegiance to one Christian denomination or another was the source of various forms of social discrimination. The Church, in its various forms, presided over the critical life-moments of birth, marriage, and death. Embedded in the biblical text (taken by most people at this time as a literally true historical account of the Creation of the world by God along with his ordained code of behaviour) were both explicit and implied assumptions about the relationship between God, people, and the world (nature).
What, then, are the building blocks of a grand narrative? For simplicity this can be divided into two parts, the nature of the physical world on the one hand and, on the other, its origin, purpose and the relation between it and humans on the other.
Assessing the scale, structure and composition of the physical world and universe (our environment) clearly depends on the capacity of our science and technology, some landmarks being the discovery that the earth was round, that the speed of light is 299 792 458 m/s, the creation of radio-telescopes and electron microscopes and so on. How we behave towards our environment will depend in part on this knowledge which also places limits on the degree to which we can impact the environment. If we observe extreme danger over a river then we are unlikely to cross.
But our behaviour is also guided by our instincts (desire for food, water, shelter, mates etc.) and the constraints we have put on our behaviour through social customs, religious belief, and the law. These topics are explored in the articles indicated in the navigation bar – the spiritual (both Christian and other) that underlie assumptions about the origins and purpose of the environment and which outline the way that it can and should be treated.
Plants & the land
In examining plants in particular there is the long history of human spiritual attitudes to plants revealed through mythology and folklore. Finally there are the strict codes of behaviour that are not specified in the Bible, the written system of law brought from England concerning land ownership, property rights, trade and the use of technology.
The new settlers who arrived in the Colony of New South Wales with the First Fleet had a completely different outlook on the world from the indigenous people who gazed back at them from the shore.
Aboriginals people had a particular view about the relationship between spiritual and physical worlds – how the Earth had been created and their role within it which included their relationship to one-another and to the land that provided their food and resources. The new arrivals from England had their own ideas on these matters. They believed in a Christian god and a literal interpretation of the Bible which told the story of Creation in Genesis, also outlining a code of behaviour in its Old and New Testaments. There was a confident attitude to land ownership and a definite plan as to how their new home should be managed to make it productive: their survival depended on the rapid introduction of agriculture so that, when the provisions transported all the way from England ran out, newly established crops would be building a path to self-sufficiency: it was a simple matter of practicality.
Aboriginals they met, though also extremely practical, interacted with the land in a different way. For them the land had a deep spirituality and they were connected to this spirituality through their Creator-ancestors, the Dreamtime and the all-encompassing spirit-world. To work with the land, its animals and plants, was to always be aware of its spiritual reality. Settlers too had a spirituality through their Christian belief but it was based on the relationship between God and man and had little to do with the way they interacted with the land (see Christianity and nature). Before Christianity had arrived in the British Isles things were very different – more like the spiritual world of the Aborigines.
First published on the internet – 1 March 2019