THE ODOUR was unmistakable. The smell of damp earth, of moss, of rotting logs. As a log truck passed, the scent of the forest was spread across the tarmacadam of Macquarie Street in the heart of Hobart. It was carried on sawdust and dried leaves, on pieces of bark and twig, mixing with the dry city dust, in gutters, in doorways and window sills.
Walking to work one morning I was reminded I had not been able to get to the forest at the start of spring, when the swift parrots arrive. This morning the forest had come to me.
The busy Macquarie Street might seem far removed from the forest, as indeed it is, but its daily log traffic reminds people in Hobart each day that the forest is out there beyond the hedges and picket fences of city and suburbia.
At the same time, the politics of the Tasmanian forests, a war of sorts between the foresters and those trying to save the eucalypts, is spread out each weekday across the highway, for all to read. As in all wars, propaganda rules on all sides. Words to describe what is old and what is new, or to cloud definitions between both, are distorted and bent, like wood in a veneer mill given a new shape and a varnish, to polish untruths into truth.
And with a little sanding and buffing, phrases like carbon sinks, high conservation value and environmental sustainability are given different meanings by those wanting to cut down trees, or those wishing to save them.
Out there on Macquarie Street, watching the parade of what was once forest pass, I refuse to be influenced by semantics and statistics. I just follow my nose.
I don’t need the lexicon of the Tasmanian forest industry – which groups trees in categories of old-growth, regrowth or plantation – to determine what age the remnants of a forest might be, and whether they meet the criteria for felling. I only have to sniff the air out there on Macquarie Street as a log truck passes.
Old trees, whether they be ancient specimens or re-growth ones that may have obtained their maximum height and span, have a certain smell about them. The key is the amount of decay, which produces a damp, earthy odour of rotting wood, of moss and lichen.
New-growth, neatly cut into long logs, smells fresh, of eucalyptus oil liberally sprayed into the air, on Macquarie St a scent clinging to fluttering flakes of sawdust.
I spent my childhood in southern England. There was a Scots pine plantation close to my home, a wood in which I spent countless hours bird-watching and leaning about nature.
In the clear Surrey air those trees gave off a smell of turpentine, especially so when they were felled and carted away to a local woodworks. After a visit to hospital to have a badly cut leg stitched, I couldn’t venture into the plantations without thinking of antiseptic and air so fresh and clear it made you embarrassed to sneeze.
The ambience of the oak, beech and silver birch forests became a far more comfortable environment, especially as these old trees with rotting limbs attracted nesting woodpeckers and tawny owls.
There was a physical difference between the forests, too. The old forests were littered with dead branches, a rotting environment for insects like the giant stag beetles with antler horns I used to catch and take to primary school for “show and tell” classes. These dead branches, fragments of fallen dead trees and leaf litter now have a name, coarse woody debris, and are a vital habitat within the wider one of the forest. The old forest is, after all, about life and death. It’s not a habitat that works in the plantation or even a regrowth forest. It provides a home to the very things that attack plantation trees, whether they be insects or disease; it is a potent fire risk and, eventually, will obstruct harvesting, not least because dead branches can be dangerous to loggers when they fall.
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In Tasmania trees can’t be just that: trees. Forest politics deems they be ideological and philosophical symbols, they stand out like totem poles on which dogma and emotion is painted. And a forest can’t be a forest, in which the age of individual trees is immaterial, from the youngest sapling of just a season’s growth, to a giant swamp gum that might have been a sapling itself when Henry VIII was on the English throne in the 1500s.
A forest in nature is a compromise between two extremes: old and new, birth and death. The word compromise does not feature in mankind’s lexicon of the forest. A forest in man’s world is a unit to be neatly delineated into old-growth, regrowth and plantation, often in lines on a map. We are told by the forestry industry there are few forests – save those protected in reserves – that have never seen the blade of an axe and so cannot realistically be deemed totally old-growth. We are told by militant conservationists that forests that clearly contain the relics of camps and logging rail lines are pure.
There was a time when single trunks were carried on multi-axle log trucks, giving a clue to their considerable age. The girth of the trunks and the colour and texture of bark also revealed that some of these were ancient swamp gums (Eucalypt regnans), representing the tallest flowering plant in the world.
After these giants were photographed and their age revealed in the media as genuine old-growth pre-dating European settlement and not regrowth timber, I noted that whole trunks were rarely seen being transported down Macquarie Street. It appeared trees were being split and it was difficult to determine their age, although the odour of old-growth, like Old Spice deodorant used by older, mature men, told of age and not of sapling youth.
There was also a time when big trees carried big slogans extolling the forest industry and belittling the Green Party and its philosophical allies like the Wilderness Society.
A giant tree one day carried a message to the then leader of the Greens Party in Tasmania, Peg Putt, reading: “This one’s for you, Peg.” After a picture of the tree appeared on the Tasmaniantimes.com website the slogans stopped.
To the other extreme, forest activists have attacked log truck crews on Macquarie Street. Protesters have abused drivers, have thrown themselves under the wheels of trucks stopped at traffic lights and chained themselves to radiators and bull bars. Like the Tasmanian forests themselves, Macquarie Street has been a frequent battleground.
I feel a sadness when I see the trucks pass, a feeling of helplessness and frustration that I can’t stop what I know to be a vital habitat for birds and animals being carted to the docks. I stand outside the office where I work, at Number 93, and count them, one every seven minutes at peak times. I sit on the sidelines, however. I sit on the fence, and my excuse for this is my occupation as a journalist on the Mercury, Hobart newspaper. Professionalism demands I stay objective, and do not take sides in the great forestry debate, or war, in my writings about Tasmanian wildlife. Not for me the rage, or even the discomfort of the tree-hugger.
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The forestry wars in Tasmania are ongoing and widespread. They are campaigns fought on many fronts, from the Tarkine in the North-West, to the Blue Tier in the East, Recherche Bay in the far South. In recent years the protesters’ focus has followed that of the loggers to the forests bordering the world heritage area of the south-west, the Weld, the Styx and the Florentine.
I steer clear of the forest war zone, but events conspired to take me along the southern reaches of Macquarie Street one Sunday morning, on the route to the latest battle-line, that of the Florentine Valley.
A group of forest protesters called Still Wild, Still Threatened had set up a camp to thwart a forestry road being cut into the heart of the upper Florentine Valley. As the forest conflagration spread to the Florentine, the protesters were attacked by loggers, who smashed and then burned cars at their camp.
At the time I had been drafted in to edit a sister publication of the Mercury, the Derwent Valley Gazette, and a story emerged a little different from an ongoing series of ones about forest protest and the loggers’ violent response. The Florentine lies to the west of the Derwent Valley and its main town, New Norfolk, and a group of residents had decided to go to the forest themselves to make a case for its preservation.
The residents were at pains to stress they were not activists and had no association with those manning the tented camp on the forest floor and the bivouacs suspended in the forest canopy, although they shared the protesters’ aims.
They were generally older than the mainly student activists, clean cut and professional people, grandmothers and grandfathers among them, who not merely urged that the forests be saved but who had a plan for the forest to generate an income of its own, not from logging but through tourism in the region. They also stressed trees’ importance as carbon sinks in a climate of global warming. The event in the forest was billed not as a protest, but a community day. I wanted to see what was happening myself, and I told the Gazette’s lone reporter that this would be a story I would be covering, and she could have the weekend off.
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The forest is not a place for work, and I hate to take my notebook there, even to record birds that I might see. For the busy human, wild places, often with sweeping landscapes, are places of rest and recuperation. The Florentine Valley forests are wild, without doubt, and viewed from the crest of the narrow valley they sweep across the landscape as far as the eye can see.
I felt compelled to reach for my notebook, though, when I spoke to Alan Lesheim, one of the organisers of the community event. He said he had found traces of Aboriginal settlement, from possibly thousands of years before Europeans first walked in the valley and gave its features quaint names in their own European tongue. There is a cave called the owl pot and a patch of towering gums standing on what is termed Lady Binney’s Corner. The Forestry Tasmania area to be logged in the forest is merely called coupe FO44A.
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Alan Lesheim, a professional photographer from the nearby town of Gretna, had spent the previous few years photographing the plants, animals and birds of the Florentine. Now he sat on a mossy fallen log and talked of a special, magical place. He had just led a party of Derwent Valley residents, and a few from a little farther afield, into the Upper Florentine, to a forest glade. Lesheim was so passionate about the forest that his voice broke as he described it.
“Don’t look up, look down,” he said. “It’s not just the majestic trees. The beauty is on the ground, just take time, pause, to look at it.”
Lesheim had lost count of the hours he had spent in his favourite place, photographing orchids, lichens and ferns in detail, or taking more general shots of the tangled and chaotic landscape around him. One quest was to observe and then photograph the elusive pink robin, an objective achieved when a beautiful male perched for a split second on a log close to where he was standing.
“Magical,” he kept repeating, before giving a talk to the party about the forest ecology and the history of this particular spot.
“It’s living history, natural history and human history, largely in the form of the Aborigines. They had such a low impact that they have hardly left a trace,” said Alan Lesheim, to those gathered around him. It seemed unlikely road-cutting and logging in the area could happen in the near future, because globally woodchip prices were low and contractors and carters had had to curb their operations. Woodchips were piling up on the wharfs of Triabunna to the east, and Burnie and Bell Bay in the north.
The loggers, however, soon arrived, escorted by a contingent of 65 police officers, some of whom marched alongside a truck carrying an excavator and ushered it into the forest. An exclusion zone was declared around the path of the proposed road and into the areas of the forest, far distant, destined to be logged.
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I was not in the forest the day the police came. Back at my office on Macquarie Street I saw the pictures. I wanted to cry out, to cast aside objectivity and scream.
Like the Aborigines who trod the Tasmanian forests before us, we humans possess a primordial animal memory linked to our souls, we plumb the sap of our primordial roots. Our yearning for wild places lies closer to our lizard brain than to our more recent reasoning cortex. That might explain why spending time in the natural world restores and even heals us. A growing body of research shows that it reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. It has also been shown to bolster the attention span of children, so perhaps we must look to the young to explain the magic of the forest, in the way a child’s remarkable ability to learn languages points to the ancient power of communication, the power of the word.
A few months later I tramped Macquarie Street again, on forest business. The forest group was holding a press conference at a city hotel, making a plea once again for the forest to be saved. Alan Lesheim displayed before-and-after pictures of the parts of forest where he had led visitors, before and after it had been destroyed. All his work showed GPS co-ordinates to confirm that the pictures were on exactly the right spot. One of the locations was where he had photographed the pink robin.
* * * * *
I’m walking down Macquarie Street, not counting log trucks this day. They seem to have dried up this summer’s afternoon, and now I am counting birds. I walk down Macquarie Street from my home on the fringe of the city most days and, when not distracted by trees on trucks, the urban bird-watcher in me seizes the moment to watch birds.
On weekdays, walking the streets connecting the highway, and the highway itself, will be the only chance I get to connect with nature, and its sights and smells.
Fluttering all along Macquarie Street are the birds you would expect to see in suburbia, new holland honeyeaters and little and yellow wattlebirds. Forest ones intrude, too, like black-headed and yellow-throated honeyeaters, and sometimes yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
The black cockatoos follow ancient flight paths that lead down from the forests of Mount Wellington, towering over Hobart, to winter feeding grounds amid casuarinas nearer the coast. The flight path follows a tight valley that becomes Macquarie Street. Tasmanian folklore says the black cockies coming off the mountain foretell stormy weather. In my experience they come rain or shine, or snow, but do they also come into the city to flee the destruction of their forests, and the fireballs that prepare cleared ground for new plantings?
My journalistic impartially will not let me dwell on anecdote and speculation but I take note of an article in the Age newspaper in which a correspondent writes of seeing yellow-tailed black cockatoos along the restaurant row of Lygon Street in Melbourne. The birds come at a time of bushfires in country Victoria which have swept what remains of shrinking old-growth forests. hat is beyond doubt is that black cockies need ancient years, trees of at least 150 years and probably a lot more that provide cavities for their nests.
And strong-billed honeyeaters, an endemic species in decline in Tasmania, needs rotting limbs in which to find grubs. And Tasmania’s dusky robin, and another endemic, the scrubtit, needs the coarse weedy debris scattered across woodland and forest floor to find insect food.
* * * * *
The log trucks start coming again as I watch black cockies at work on European elms, prising grubs from the bark of bough and limb. Sitting on a bench in Franklin Square at the edge of Macquarie Street’s wide expanse, I look to the slopes of distant Mount Wellington – from where the cockies have come – and see forests that have not been touched by man, only nature and its frosts and rain, and fires.
And cutting through all the propaganda of what forest can be felled and what can’t, I reason that there are only two types of forest, a yardstick laid down by Mother Nature herself. There’s a forest that provides a home for animals and birds, nesting cavities and insect and pollen food; and there’s the other.
I sit on the bench in Franklin Square and I sit on the fence but I cannot view the forests that I smell going past me, and I see in the distance, as a means to an end, as a resource to be exploited for commercial gain.
They are an end in themselves.