How do you respond to the death of a 100-million-year-old forest? That’s the question we are left with in the wake of the summer bushfires in Tasmania, which have eradicated some of the last remnants of the world’s Gondwanan ecosystems. Some scientists are now predicting that due to climate change, the remainder of these forests will be destroyed within the next century. It is a terrible conundrum – how can we acknowledge, and feel, the epochal significance of this event, without sinking into a deep depression? The current philosophical lens through which we view ‘nature’ leaves us incapable of dealing with such a challenge. Our struggle in the coming years will be twofold: to learn resilience in the face of mass extinction, and to nourish that which survives.
The flames were still licking across Tasmania when I travelled down to the Otways in January. These forests are the twin siblings of those on our island neighbour, separated only eight millennia ago by the end of the Ice Age and the flooding of Bass Strait. They were also in peril themselves, with the Christmas blaze at Wye River threatening to chew back through the dried out coastal bushland and into the rainforests to the west. I was in a slurry of shock and bewilderment. The grim predictions of death for the Tasmanian relics of Gondwana had blindsided me. From the previous scientific reports, I had gleaned that while the Australian mainland was likely to be desiccated by global warming, Tasmania’s higher, cooler latitude and exposure to the rain-bearing winds of the Southern Ocean might spare it the worst. Without quite realising, I had made this belief a foundation block for my future hopes and designs. Now that featherlight architecture had blown away in the hot north wind, and I was confronted with the mortality of a tree I had always loved but rarely seen: the ancient Southern Beech. I had come to the Otways to try and spend a little more time with them, while I still could.
The patch of forest I visited was on private land, purchased a few decades back. Four or five generations prior to that the Gadubanud, or King Parrot people, lived here. They resisted contact with the first white invaders, maintaining their independence and distance. A string of border wars in the late 1840s devastated them, but some of their descendants live on in the area. Most of the forest on this particular property had been logged last century, but there were still a few groves of old-growth Myrtle Beech on the steeper gully slopes, around which the rest of the forest was regenerating. The first trees you see are Mountain Ash, young giants only forty or fifty years old but gaining almost a metre every year. This is the tallest flowering plant in the world. One individual discovered east of Melbourne in 1880 was measured at over 132 metres, making it the tallest tree ever recorded. Naturally, they had to chop it down to work that out.
While the Southern Beeches co-habited with the dinosaurs, with a fossil record dating back more than eighty million years, the Mountain Ash and its fellow eucalypts are brash teenagers, originating ‘only’ thirty-five to fifty million years ago. They were minor players in our forests until around twenty million years ago, when Australia dried out during its drift north. That was when they began their campaign of terror against the older Gondwanan species. Loaded with incendiary oils to fuel the bushfires that crack open their seeds, they are the suicide bombers of the plant world. In the larger infernos that are now the norm, the older Mountain Ash will sacrifice themselves, but their children live on and flourish. That being said, even Mountain Ash forests will thin out if the current run of excessive bushfires continues. Nevertheless, with their recent transportation to other continents, eucalypts are well poised to prosper in the chaotic new world we have made. The same cannot be said of the Myrtle Beech. In the temperate rainforests the Southern Beeches have settled into an uneasy truce with their Mountain Ash competitors, occupying the moist, sheltered glades that most closely echo their primeval home, Gondwana.
When I was ten my teenage sister was involved in the fight to save the rainforests of Goolengook in East Gippsland. She ignited my imagination with the idea that this forest was a relic of Gondwana. The word Gondwana itself seemed to be an incantation, all soft misty consonants and grey-green vowels. It comes from the Sanskrit Gond-avana, ‘forest of the Gonds’, after the ancestral lands of the Gondi, an Indigenous people in Central India who are to this day waging an insurgency against invading mining and logging interests. This name was then assigned to an ancestral supercontinent, dating back more than 180 million years, which included Australia and its neighbouring islands, alongside India, Africa, Antarctica and South America. The Gondi’s story is echoed across these other continents, which, with the obvious exception of Antarctica, contain nearly all the world’s tropical rainforests, peopled by indigenous nations still fighting to protect them. But the vast forest that once blanketed Gondwana was very different from those of the tropics today. Alongside pencil pines, cycads and a cornucopia of succulent fruit trees that have long since gone extinct, the Southern Beeches of the Nothofagus family could be found in abundance.
It was this history that I felt as I descended into the gully at the far end of that little plot of land in the Otways. The slim dark trunks of younger Myrtle Beech were making their first appearance beneath the Mountain Ash canopy. Their branches were clad in a patchwork of lichen, while their clusters of tiny, frilled leaves hung in the air like the wings of frozen moths. Superficially, they resemble the European Beech, and that’s how they acquired their Western common and scientific name. Nothofagus means ‘Bastard’ or ‘False Beech’, which reveals more about the Eurocentric worldview of the scientists who named them than the tree itself.
Beyond our shores, they can still be found around the fringe of the Southern Pacific. Under the shade of West Papua’s Southern Beeches, Birds of Paradise court one another while freedom fighters weave their way below, avoiding Indonesian army patrols. The Silver Beech forests of New Zealand filled in for The Shire and Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, while the remote Nothofagus forests of Chile inspired a young Pablo Neruda to write some of his first poems. Southern Beech fossils have been discovered in Antarctica too, where the harsh polar winds that arose after Gondwana’s disintegration entombed them in ice.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #30 – subscribe and we’ll post you a copy immediately, or you can pick one up from our network of stockists. You will also be able read the piece online in full very shortly as part of the digital version of our magazine.
Fregmonto Stokes is a writer who sometimes draws. His alter ego, mining magnate Twiggy Palmcock, was responsible for the downfall of the Abbott government.