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.


  1. 3 years later I am here looking for what Mountain Ash is used for that is more important than the lives of the 2000 remaining Ledbeater's Possums. I'm a treehugger because trees make our oxygen.

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