Monday, September 30, 2013

"Now I could talk about vegetation, cause I'm a plant person, but you'll all go "duh", but if I give you a picture of something with a colourful head you'll all go "wow!", so we'll talk about birds... Birds are to landscape ecology what kittens are to Facebook."
I went and saw Ian Lunt at Ballarat a few months ago and the presentation is online. His presentation is great and he delivers lines like above so dryly, he's a pleasure to watch.

Though I totally realise that above gag will only apply to me and a handful of other landscape ecology folk. That being said later in the presentation he pays out on Eddie McGuire so you can probably get behind that.

You should also read his blog. Particularly this article, which has this following piece of homespun naturalist philosophy that I can certainly get behind:

"To the class of 2011: Leave a legacy. If you seek immortality, hammer a stake through your plots. It’ll probably outlive everything else that seems important right now."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Three Hydro-Electric Commission workers stand in front of the Lea Tree - estimated between 2,000 & 4,000 years old - that they chainsawed and drilled-and-filled as a reprisal against Franklin Dam protesters, South-West Tasmania, 1983.

The vandalism of the Lea Tree - an ancient Huon Pine (Dacrydium Franklinii) - is detailed in this chapter from the Australian Institute of Criminology. The key paragraphs, though, are as follows:
[After the High Court handed down its decision that the construction of the Franklin Dam would not proceed] officials were still concerned that the rainforest area at Warner's Landing might be vandalised in protest against the High Court decision.

These concerns proved to be well founded. Near Warner's Landing stood a Huon Pine tree some 9 feet in diameter. It was a sufficiently prominent landmark to have acquired a name - the Lea Tree. Three men, all over six feet tall, found that they were unable to link arms around the trunk. The tree was so old that it had been left by the convict cutters of the 1820s as of no use for boat building. Given its size, it was quite likely more than 2,000 years old.
On the night of 5 July, 1983, the tree was chainsawed, holes were drilled in it, oil was poured in the holes, and the tree was set alight. The fire continued for at least twenty-four hours.

Whilst it has been suggested by some that the tree was burned by conservationists to attract publicity, a more plausible explanation is that the tree was vandalised by pro-dam interests as an act of reprisal.

Allegations that HEC personnel were responsible for the incident are supported by photographs of HEC workers holding placards bearing various anti-conservationist messages in front of the charred tree. One photograph shows three workers posed next to the smouldering trunk, on which the words '[Expletive] You Green [Expletive]' were painted.
When I initially read that chapter, I could not find that photo anywhere online. Today I stopped by Readings however and found that it had been published in Alex Hungerford's "UpRiver - Untold Stories of the Franklin River Activists".

Seeing the picture really brings a whole new level of uneasiness to the story itself. Reading the tale without the image allows it to somehow remain something of an abstraction. There was a tree; some men; the assumed smell of diesel and noise; but all faceless though.

With the image, though, there are no longer abstractions. The embers of the tree glow in the background. What you assumed the expletives to be are laid out bare. They look like my father's friends, they have the faces of people I know. The lit cigarette. The stubby of beer. Hell, own helmets with earmuffs like that. There's that line in that song by Okkervil River, ya know:
Now, with all these cameras focused on my face
You'd think they could see it through my skin
They're looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but
Evil don't look like anything.
30 years ago in a little over a month.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Kangaroo Tail and The Driptorch

The above photo is a composite of two photos I took this year in East Gippsland, within the vicinity of Bemm River, while working with the Department of Sustainability & Environment and the University of Sydney on a Australian Research Council project looking into the effect of prescribed burning on soil carbon in Victorian forests. This Xanthorrhoea grassland lay around 50m away from one of our forest sites (which were typically dominated by Eucalyptus muelleriana and Eucalyptus globoidea). 

The picture on the left was taken in January this year, as part of our pre-fire surveys; the one on the right taken in May, after the prescribed burn had taken place. 

Prescribed burning in Victoria is something of a controversial issue at times, and there has been much debate, opinion and research into it since the State Government committed to increasing the amount of the state treated with managed fire since the Black Saturday bushfires. 

I realise this image doesn't really contribute a constructive comment on the discussion. The fact is, photos such as these - as powerful as they are - tend to miss the third and vital component of the landscape, which is regeneration. It's lack of it, or it's abundance, it doesn't matter - but it is the conclusion to the narrative of the landscape that needs to be told.

Ideally I'll be able to return to this site perhaps one year down the track and turn this photo series into a triptych.

On a technical note - I managed to pull off both these photos using only what is available on a regular Apple iPhone. Not bad quality, I have to contend.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ash & dust

Mountain ash regrowth from 1939 Black Friday bushfires
I periodically do this thing where I ask my girlfriend and a bunch of my friends something innocuous like “hey, want to go for a drive on Sunday?” and then, once they’ve said yes, it’s only as we’re approaching somewhere around the 40-km mark from Melbourne that I then say to them “… because by the way, we’re going to a forest a researcher from a uni was telling me about last week.” Amazingly, so far this has gone down relatively well every time.

Richard - a good friend of mine and a great scale bar.
This time, my lucky friends were treated to a drive out to Yarra State Forest to check out - and yes, I’m actually about to type this - a big pile of sawdust that’s sitting in the middle of the Mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forest between Warburton and Powelltown (along Britannia Creek, for the geographically pedantic among us).
Before you’re all like “~wow tom cld u get ne moar lamer~” - it's important to get a bit of context around this heap of sawdust and why I decided the fuel was worth expending to go and see it.

It's hard to put an exact date on it, but the pile originated sometime in the early 20th century. I'm tentative to put the date sometime between 1907 and 1924 - as it was in that era that the the Cuming Smith sawmilling company operated in Britannia Creek, which used Mountain ash timber for distilling purposes. I doubt this was the exact site of that mill, however it's very likely that this sawdust originated from another mill that supplied the Cuming Smith mill. (I highly recommend reading Tom Griffith's Forests of Ash for more information around this area).
Boardmarks in an old stump that was
buried beneath the sawdust 
Therefore, we can roughly estimate that this pile of sawdust - which in some parts is around 20m high - as being one hundred years old. Isn't that incredible? And because of the nature of sawdust - which ties up nitrogen from the soil and accumulates water in it's mass - no plants have been able to grow on the heap, so the effect is a preserved bald patch in the forest, ringed by seedlings of ash and fern. It's quite a confronting sight, but allows the most impressive vista of 1939 ash regeneration when you stand upon it's top.
And for that last reason I tend to find this sort of stuff endlessly fascinating. As you stand on the pile of sawdust - the detritus of the industrial exploitation of these forests at the beginnings of last century - you look across Britannia Creek and see what you can only imagine is the fullest expression of nature: towering mountain ash, an understory of Dicksonia tree ferns, the calls of lyrebirds ringing through the valley around you, the shuffling of leaves from yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
And then you walk across the road behind, and sidling between the eucalypts and acacias you find english elms and pines on curiously level ground - botanical signposts of a bygone era, the remnants of the evident gardening skills of former mill operators - and you can’t help but wonder how easy it can seem in one instance for man’s impact on the land to be washed away with time and the steady onward march of ecological succession, while in another, it stubbornly remains - heaped, bare, and sunbaked, warding off any chance of assimilation.

A planted oak tree at the former mill site.
It brings up a lot of thoughts around our ideas of nature and what constitutes the notion of wilderness that we carry with us whenever we walk into aesthetically beautiful, awe-inspiring landscapes.
Anyway, after all that personal musing we headed down to the Polish Jester in Warburton and ate a heap of pierogi and borsch and had a few bison-grass vodkas and that’s probably the reason my friends accommodate this sort of behaviour from me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bushfire Cycle

Flowerdale after the February 2009 bushfires.

Reported in the media over the last week has been the release of the Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor Progress Report. As it's title clearly suggests, it serves as an audit on the implementation of the recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Comission. Its release in the media has been not particularly all-encompassing, but the reports have generally been of the following nature.

"The Bushfire Royal Commissioner Implementation Monitor (BRCIM) report says, despite a minimal bushfire threat in Victoria during the 2010/11 season, anecdotal evidence has emerged suggesting public complacency on issues of fire preparation and planning..."
- 'Worrying' public apathy: bushfire report, Sydney Morning Herald, July 29th 2011

"'Moving towards another fire season and the third anniversary of the 2009 bushfires, the state must not be complacent and lose momentum in implementing the required actions within the agreed timelines,' the 179-page report states..."
- Bushfire apathy 'worrying', The Age, July 30th, 2011

Doesn't bode well, does it? Interesting to observe, though, is the following. Back in 2004, the Council of Australian Governments released the following graph in their National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management.

They called it "The Bushfire Cycle":

Their explanation:

"The bushfire cycle occurs principally in southern Australia. It proceeds until the next major event and can extend over 20 to 50 years... The question is whether the cycle is inevitable or whether there is an opportunity to influence outcomes and mitigate the impact of the various elements. Although ... bushfires are inevitable and Australians must learn to live with the exposure, the Inquiry concluded that some community and government action can be taken to reduce the impact of, or even eliminate altogether, elements of the cycle."

What the authors didn't envisage in 2004 was of course the February 2009 fires, which, with their similar distribution to the 1939 Black Friday fires, would have increased their estimated cycle length from 50 to as much as 80 years. This question has been brought up previously on this blog, and can be summarised in the language of the Bushfire Cycle in the following way - "how do you explain a cycle to someone when it may very well last longer than their lives?"

Furthermore - the 2004 report went on:

"While individuals need to be held accountable for their decisions and the public needs to be satisfied that all matters of concern have been investigated, bushfire mitigation and management will not progress if blame dominates over learning."


It's a fair cop, Christine (and society ain't to blame) - Sydney Morning Herald, July 31st, 2011

It can be quite disturbing when reality mirrors, so closely, a graph obviously made with minimal effort in Microsoft Powerpoint. And even less comforting is when journalists seem so content in lending a hand in leading the public in vicious circles.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"We have still not lived long enough": Fire and history

… Try, at every step, to expose the lie of terra nullius, and so move towards a post-colonial Australia that is truly at home with its environment and history, where the Aboriginal and the Asian and the White Australian can believe in the truth of history, and the justness of a future, that is so much more than a beautiful lie.
- Tim Flannery,
in the concluding line to his 2003 Quarterly Essay
Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia

Two brown paper packages arrived on my desk at work a fair few months ago now. In the first, the 1986 first edition print of Joan Webster’s Complete Australian Bushfire Book; in the latter, three heavy volumes of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report. Two texts, different in design and style, but more or less charged with the same unenviable task of answering that plaintive question asked after one surveys the scorched earth, the smouldered homes, the vacated family Christmas seats and names stricken from the community listings – “why?” Why did these fires, these apocalyptic fires, happen? Or, perhaps more tellingly – why did we let them happen?

It was around a week and a half after the February 7th Bushfires of 2009 that Tom Griffiths, a Professor of History at the Australian National University penned an award-winning article entitled We have still not lived long enough. His title was inspired by a phrase uttered by the 1939 Black Friday fires Royal Commission Judge Leonard Stretton – that they, the people who lived and died in the forests that were hellishly consumed on Friday the 13th January, 1939, had not lived long enough.

As Griffiths points out, Stretton was not so much commenting on the youthfulness of the dead, but rather lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of both the victims and survivors – “the innocence of European immigrants in a land whose natural rhythms they did not yet understand”, and “the fragility and brevity of a human lifetime in forests where life cycles and fire regimes had the periodicity and ferocity of centuries.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Keppel Lookout over Marysville, October 2010

Keppel Lookout, south of Marysville, the epicenter of the public effect of bushfire. The Cathedral Ranges are seen further north. As of late 2010, the effects of fire are still visible.

Stephen Smith from the local Department of Sustainability & Environment talked to us about some of the observed ecological responses to fire. Some devastated, some rejuvenated. Positively, some endangered species, such as the Buxton Gum, fall into that latter category, which is apparently flourishing after the disturbance February 7th, 2009, provided.

The story of the Barred Galaxias (Galaxias fuscus, right) is particularly fascinating. Prior to the fires, the greatest threat to the fish was due to colonisation of its habitat by introduced Brown and Rainbow Trout. Incredibly, what preserved the fish's distribution in the streams near Marysville was due to a poorly constructed culvert that acted as a trout barrier. It's incredible that, occasionally, human negligence and poor engineering skills can have a positive effect on an endangered species.

The culvert has since been repaired, and replaced with a constructed trout barrier.