When did it start? When did men begin to think of trees as adornments to their pride or fortune?
Was it when the lighthouse at Alexandria was built to guide ships to the harbour so commerce should not be hampered by mere geography and the fall of night?
Some say the lighthouse was built to tell the world of the greatness of the Ptolemaic King Ptolemy II. But it also displays the hubris of men. The architect who built the edifice for Ptolemy had the king’s name rendered in plaster, but when, inevitably, the plaster fell away it revealed the name of the architect chiselled in stone. Ego on the slow burn.
Whatever the reason, it is said that the wood required to keep the fire alight day and night denuded Arabia of its forests. Ego 1, Forest nil.
Then goats ensured the forest could never regrow even when the kings and architects were disconnected skeletons and the lighthouse had collapsed under its own weight. The result remained; seeing the forest as an extension of the male ego ensured its obliteration.
Or did it begin on Easter Island in 1250 when men carved ever-bigger Moai from trees to intimidate their enemies on the island, that is, their cousins and fellow humans. In order to celebrate their ego it resulted in a man standing beneath the last tree. ‘Will I cut this last tree down to satisfy my hatred of my cousin or will I save it for my grandchildren and for the sake of trees themselves? No, I’ll cut it down, my hatred needs more satisfaction then the mere existence of a tree.’
Whatever the timing, the fact that people and their religions and commerce began to see the natural world as their domain is the reason the forests of the world are now diminished. The male commercial ego and religions that declare the world to be the domain of men are the causes of almost all wars and global environmental destruction. It took a mob of reviled hippies to save whales from complete destruction so that millionaires could run whale tours, but who will save the trees?
During the summer of 2019 and 2020, the forests created to feed the wood-chip mills accelerated the east coast fires. In combination with high fuel loads in unkempt National Parks, these forests of small silvertop ash were guaranteed to turn a forest fire into an inferno. We need to staff and manage National Parks with a view to safety and care and our forests must be managed so that Australia gets both economic and environmental benefit, not just a quick injection of funds to large companies in a fire sale of national assets.
The demand for paper and packaging has turned our forests into a commodity, and the failure to keep the forest understory controlled has meant that we are now in danger when we live anywhere near these commercial plantations.
Aboriginal people had a burning regime that allowed, on average, eight to ten trees to the acre. The canopies of these massive trees were never in contact, and the forest fuel was maintained as a place to grow grass and vegetables, to graze game animals and to make travel comfortable for humans. Fire in such forests is controllable.
After the dispossession of Aboriginal people, millions of acres in Gippsland and other districts were ringbarked to provide more sunlight for introduced grasses and to multiply the herds of hard-hoofed animals. The result was increased flammability of the whole system. We created the recipe for last summer’s inferno but, of course, we didn’t blame our management, we blamed the trees themselves.
When the fires had abated near Mallacoota we cut our way back along the roads that lead to our farms and houses to fight the more localised fires still threatening us. While we were busy, contractors moved in behind us and painted the letter K on almost every big tree along the roadside, whether they threatened to collapse onto the road or not. The contractor is paid by the tree, I’m told.
One of our local foresters bought a box of black spray cans and desperately tried to hide all those insidious K’s. The K was for killer. Killer tree. Not killer fire, or killer forestry, but killer tree. The tree was to blame. Our lone hero did their best but thousands of grand trees were destroyed to keep contractors happy.
Thousands of them were cut down, including several scar trees and one where my uncle was made to sleep to prove to his grandfather that he was ready for the lore. That tree was massive and the atrium at its base was large enough for two people to sleep comfortably. It had five large windows in the trunk, which had been made by Dooligah to express the power of the lore. People today are frightened of Dooligah but Dooligah only upholds the lore, he is not an instrument of casual violence.
We begged Parks Victoria to look out for this tree a year before the fires exploded, but in the aftermath the Dooligah tree was cut down. It didn’t burn, couldn’t have burnt, but it was cut down and other trees have been felled on top of it because they also are ‘killer trees’. No hope of any of them falling onto the highway but they are to blame and have to be destroyed. Blame the tree not the forest manager.
Canoe trees, altered trees, massive examples of growth and inspiration to many travellers have been wasted in this display of antipathy. Oh, we have to keep the community safe, people are inclined to say. Well, the community of Mallacoota was not kept safe, it was exposed to extinction by the method of forest management. It was not threatened by massive ‘killer’ trees but by the servants of mammon. If it hadn’t been for the foresight of a local copper and a Parks manager who anticipated this fire a decade ago, the whole town might have gone. Dedicated fire fighters did a great job but despite that devotion the planning for the future seems to revolve around hatred of trees rather than a review of our forest management.
We need to use the forest to sustain our communities. Australian forests have experienced that utility for around 120,000 years as explained by soil cores that are used to analyse human use of fire, but we need to manage and value them differently. We need fewer but larger trees. We need to harvest trees for timber but we need to maximise the use of that timber and enhance its value. We need to respect the trees we harvest by paying for their true value. At the moment we clearfell entire forests and leave the forest floor as a ruin of stumps and gouged soil and then we wonder why the next crop of plantation timber is more spindly than the one before it. We turn the perfect timber into wood chips, send it to Japan for processing and then buy it back as packaging for our hamburgers.
Industry is manipulating our governance to allow it access to our common wealth but if we want to have a forest for our grandchildren we, as a community, need to manage all usage. Not closed forest so that bushwalkers can experience ‘wilderness’ but managed forests that are cared for to keep both the forest and the community safe.
There are few wilderness forests in Australia. Wilderness was a concept unknown to Aboriginal people because they visited and used every corner. They were in intimate communication with the land. People who love the bush in its present state will learn to love a more open and less combustible forest. It will be more open but all the birds, insects and animals will still be there. The koalas and wallabies will never have their pads burnt off in uncontrolled fire. It will be a different forest to the one we see today, but Australia has experienced this forest type before, during the eons of Aboriginal forest management.
There are still some who have scorn for the evidence of Aboriginal accomplishment but 120,000 years of prosperous forest management might one day be seen as genius. That management system has to be part of our response. Big businesses in the forest industry will heap ridicule on the idea and will find plenty of social media trolls to do their bidding, but it is our forest and we need to pay attention to its needs. That care will serve our economy well and we will still have a forest to serve as balm for our burnt souls.
Bruce Pascoe is a writer of Bunurong/Tasmanian heritage. He is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and was awarded the 2018 Australia Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Dark Emu (2014), a history of Aboriginal agriculture, won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award.