Hope and hopelessness mingle in the singed Tarkine
We’re driving up from the Rapid River, a beer-coloured tumult capped with froth and busy with rain; huge myrtles the size of eucalypts were camped on one bank and the blackwood was just coming into yellow wattle-flower, an unexpected sunshine in the dim wet green; on the ground we had spaced our steps around conical mounds rising up like wide muddy candles, the fragile homes of burrowing crayfish.
‘After the fires were going, there was a group of us that were watching closely where they were going and where they might go, and we were pretty nervous about what might be taken out … will Beckett Falls go, will it get down to the Rapid River?’
On the other side of the bridge there had been a black and brown mess of burnt trees and leaves; it had looked as though a giant had picked up the entire forest and shaken it in ash and then dropped it down again. For the fires did get down to the Rapid River, spooling through the guts of Tasmania’s Tarkine region. They got to a lot of places: more than 60,000 hectares in the Mawbanna fire alone. We’re skirting the western border of this burn; on the Fire Service maps back in January, this fire had seemed enormous, as though a toddler had pushed a long, black paintbrush through the north-western corner of a map of Tasmania. ‘There were a lot of private messages between people, talking about what was and wasn’t being done, and of course none of us are firefighters, but … we sort of felt we were the only ones who were really thinking about what gems could be lost.’
It’s Nick Monk talking. He’s driving his grey Subaru Forester through the steep curves and watching out for fallen trees. He knows this area much better than me, and he’s an old friend. We grew up in the same road in Lindisfarne, an ageing suburb on Hobart’s eastern shore, and now we’ve both settled our families in the chilly Huon Valley, half an hour’s drive south of the city. Monk’s a forthright and amusing forensic policeman who has also managed to carve out reputations as a tenor singer and wilderness photographer; I would be terrible at all of these things. He’s burly and has a big personality that booms through a room, and he’s not afraid to give an opinion—‘I was angry that the fires weren’t jumped on immediately, because it was blatantly obvious to me and a number of other people that there was a massive problem when that lightning came through’—but this is tempered by his experience of how such organisations work; a recognition that he doesn’t have the expertise or all of the facts.
Yet it’s clear that tremendous damage was done by the Tasmanian fires in the early part of 2016, compounded by the winter floods that tore away the scorched soil and jumbled the trees. But I’d stopped reading all the articles spelling out a series of similar, earnest, crucial and utterly terrible facts: that the rainforest just doesn’t recover like the eucalypts do, that serious consideration needs to be given to changing the way we allocate firefighting resources. The dangers that further climate change would cause, the devastation that would ensue, the management practices that would need to be enacted. I knew these facts well enough, and all they did was make me feel powerless. I felt crowded by the theme; perhaps this was reflected in a question I asked Tarkine National Coalition (TNC) director Scott Jordan when we visited the north-eastern forests on the first day: ‘Do you reckon there’s any weariness in the national media about covering Tasmanian forestry issues, and Tasmanian environmental protests?’
But very few writers had visited the area. The temperate rainforests of the largely unprotected Tarkine, a modern-day battle-ground for the environmental movement against forestry practices and mining leases, are a hell of a long way from Hobart, let alone the mainland, about as far away as you can get from the capital city without treading water in the Indian Ocean. And I wanted to see this devastation on the ground and how the area was recovering; it was a landscape for which I felt a certain responsibility, as though a much loved sister was in hospital, and even if there was little I could do, at least I could visit and sit by her bed.
We start from my place around 6 am, shoving the gear in the back of the car. I’d been up at five, an hour before normal, but normal is already tiring at the moment, and Monk and I are both getting over colds. Still, we’re setting off on the warmest day since spring had begun to split the seams of winter; there are clouds of blossom in my fruit trees and the magnolia is nearly ready to stretch out its petals. Heavy rain is forecast for later in the day, so instead of camping out in the forest, we have decided to borrow a bed in Smithton, a regional centre on the opposite corner of the island.
Travelling inland from the coast at Bass Strait, we make our way through bright green agricultural country as the roads thin, country that makes the patches of eucalyptus forest seem more luscious than they otherwise would. It’s not long before we’re eaten up by these forests, and I think of other roads where the transition between farmland and wilderness is so striking; in the Derwent valley just past Ouse, and on the road to Mt Field. These are not surprising forests in themselves; just typical bushland that you meet all over the island, normal as suburbs or fields—but we suddenly burst out on a ridge of scrubbier country, the road changing from orange-brown gravel to dirty white, and it all seems a lot more like the rugged and uncompromising south-west corner of the state until the vegetation opens up and we see the trees stretching out before us, long tracts of rolling forest with subtle hills and highlands, and then it is no longer like the south-west; it is somewhere all of its own.
We meet Scott Jordan and Maree Jenkins at the Tarkine Wilderness Lodge, where Maree is the proprietor. ‘The day I came out, we’d just come out of court actually, where Venture had tried to wind us up’—Jordan is talking about legal action Venture Minerals had launched against the TNC—‘just walked out of the court room, turned on my phone and there was a Facebook post from Maree saying the fire brigade said it’s going to hit tomorrow … so I raced back to Burnie, packed a bag and got out here.’
Jordan is a stocky man with a bald head, deep beard and a small joey tucked into his blue polar fleece. Outside his work with the TNC, he’s a wildlife carer with a yard full of native fauna in one of Burnie’s roughest streets. The pademelons, possums and Bennetts wallabies he cares for are released up at the lodge, where they are gathering around us in their friendly dozens—Bentley, Bounce, Jenny and countless others. Jordan had been worried about his former charges when he first heard that the fires were coming close, but also about Jenkins and her lodge, and he ended up spending ten days there, priming the pumps and waiting on updates from the fire service.
Jenkins explains how it all got started. ‘I was down the Arthur River with some guests. It was the morning after the storm … and we walked round to the island and I could smell smoke … within ten minutes, the valley just filled up with smoke.’ And she knew that it would mean trouble—in her 27 years in the area, the forest was the driest she’d ever seen it. Even the moss was crunchy. Jordan offers a similar reflection: he’d taken a party into the forests around two weeks before the fires struck. ‘Normally’, he says, ‘you come home from the rainforest feeling pretty invigorated, and I went home that day feeling dread.’
We stroll down towards the rainforest together. The open fields where decades ago Jenkins’ uncle had agisted horses have been crisscrossed with dozens of bulldozer tracks cleared to halt the advance of embers. There are one or two explosions of feathers on the ground where plovers have been taken by wedgetails. We slip into a gap in the forest, and it is lovely open walking here too, the kind of country where the trees are loose and the tracks barely recognisable, where the notion of ‘track’ is up for question in an open understorey beneath the fields of green. We visit a massive myrtle, nearly a thousand years old, and then walk along a tannin stream.
This kind of forest is also very familiar—there’s a Tasmanian joke about how few people bother to bushwalk along the forested side of Lake St Clair at the bottom of the Overland Track more than once; there’s a ferry that bypasses the forest, which, for all its stunning ancient trees and grappling waterfalls, can seem interminable. It’s easy to feel a little hemmed in after a long day walking through rainforests, but if you’re in the mood they can be wonderful; on longer overnight trips they can be a refreshing break from impassable scrub or the searing summer. And there’s no question that they’re remarkable—their innate, ancient value is carved into every tree—and I’m kind of shocked at the thought of the fires coming within a few kilometres of this kind of vegetation. Do I really want to see what has been charred in the depths of this corner of the state?
Recently, I’ve been trying to read The Lorax to my son. He’s too young, really, and his attention fades in favour of the weird rainbow-coloured monkey thing that he can cram into the back of his yellow truck. But I always want to finish the book. It’s Dr Seuss, after all, and it feels like I could read those rhymes all day—in another year or so, I’ll probably have to. My favourite book as a child was Green Eggs and Ham, and sometimes I think that the poetry I write should be more like Dr Seuss; perhaps one day there’ll be a Jonathan Richman transition where I stop it with the protopunk and get going with real songs like ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Hey there Little Insect’.
But the other obstacle I’ve found to reading The Lorax to my son is that I keep tearing up. Early in 2016, the 89-year-old gardening presenter Peter Cundall was speaking to Phillip Adams at the Tamar Valley Writers Festival. Reflecting on environmental changes, he said, ‘When I see very little children, it’s so moving, I want to cry, because they’re so beautiful and so innocent, and you think, what have they got to go through, that’s going to be infinitely worse than I’ve ever had.’
I guess I’m a little way along this spectrum. The story of The Lorax, if you’ve never come across it, tells of a boy going to see a character called The Onceler, who lives in a barren wasteland—and you never see any more of The Onceler than his long, green arms and hands—and this Onceler explains how, when he first came to the region, it had been full of stupendous Truffula Trees. Against the protests of the Lorax, he had built a factory and used the tufts of these trees to produce thneeds, utterly useless garments (‘It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that.’) The landscape is trashed—the trees all disappear, the water and the air are polluted.
For all of its virtues, The Lorax isn’t subtle. Yet it’s a book that can give rise to simple emotions, and the simple emotions can be the powerful ones; they get essential things done, and they stop them from being done. They’re the kinds of feelings I had when the pictures of burnt pencil pine forests in the higher country were first broadcast. The sense of uselessness, the irretrievable waste. The story of the graziers who deliberately set fire to the central highlands in the 1960s, destroying thousands of these pines, makes me want to throw something blunt and metallic at the years gone by. It’s a kind of Library of Alexandria moment for this part of the wilderness, a senseless destruction of something that can’t be recovered.
But it’s not just about the devastation. I’ve also been wondering how people concerned about environmental issues will cope when its opponents can’t be fought or condemned in spirited campaigns—you can’t blockade floods in the wilderness, and placards raised against bushfires will just burn—when there is nobody to take to court in a legal challenge, and it doesn’t matter how much awareness you raise, the factors are global and out of your hands. There’s a special kind of despair attached to powerlessness, and I wonder if this will be its own kind of disaster.
The rain hits as the day darkens, just outside Smithton, and we let it have its say, grabbing a counter meal at the local pub before meeting Nicole Anderson at the local district hospital. Anderson is a local GP and bushwalker living on an island of greenery in the middle of the town’s rise. She has been documenting the effects of the Tarkine fires and has also provided our beds for the evening. As the rain pounds down her house feels very dry.
We pore over maps laid out on the living-room floor and Anderson describes the damage. She clearly has a love of the area, describing the gentle curves of the region as a landscape ‘without guile’; as an ‘embracing landscape where you feel at home’. But Anderson also has a determined intensity about her, a concentration on matters of fact that is split at times by articulate outrage. She’s concerned about the public health effects of the fires, the smoke that choked the north-western corner of the state—‘I had people with heart problems, lung problems,’ she explains—and about the loss of so many creatures in the fire’s tread. But she’s remarkably sanguine about the burning itself. Here, the maps do the talking. We follow the fire’s route through buttongrass and coastal scrub—country that’s meant to burn, just like old-fashioned eucalypt forests—as well as areas of plantation timber.
Yes, she explains, there were rainforest seams and areas damaged, and some would never be the same, but the vast majority of the burning took place in areas that were already degraded, or in habitats that had been accustomed to fire regimes. The great swathes of temperate rainforest were outside the fire zones. ‘When people were aghast that the Tarkine was burning down, I wasn’t,’ she says, ‘cause really, what I could see most of it was already disturbed forestry operations.’
This lifts my evening considerably. Could it be that even in such parched conditions, Tasmania’s driest spring on record, the rainforest still wouldn’t burn? This teariness I spoke about earlier—it can rise up in empathy for a terrible loss that someone has experienced, but paradoxically, it presents even more powerfully when I come across kindness offered amid such grief; as though exposure to a sense of hope is almost more overwhelming than the devastation that prompted it.
I’m wondering if any of this will hit me amid the burnt forests, as it does when reading The Lorax—if I’ll feel a weight of loss or the sense new growth, and whether it will make a difference to my reaction.
But what’s astonishing to me is the comment we make most often on our trip. ‘Look at that—now that’s a bit interesting.’
Over and over again. It’s a response to what has burnt and what has been missed, and how the landscape has responded. True, it was just a few points ahead of ‘look at that—jeez, that’s fucked’, but the difference was striking, and even the latter felt more in the line of clinical observation than miserable lamentation. I felt abstracted in a way that I hadn’t been expecting; observing the burnt landscapes as though I were reading another feature article plumbing the cost. I couldn’t quite understand it.
For most of the second day we trail down the west coast, observing where the fire cut a swathe through tea tree and scrubby country, and it’s certainly stark—the panicked back-burning near Arthur River, the dark banks of the Nelson Bay River, churning with mud, the new rain bashing away at the soil overnight. The armies of black sticks that were once scrubby ground, and the most barren country I’ve ever seen in Tasmania, the jagged outlines of Sarah Anne Rocks with all the vegetation burnt back, looking for all the world like a sick desert. But all of this country will recover: it’s already on the way. I feel a sense of excitement—abetted, perhaps, by the churning sound of the river—in the realisation that even with all this twiggy, anorexic abbreviation, this is burning country. It will all grow back. There are tiny fungi, like small brown pins pushed into the soil, sprouts of heath in bell-flower, and while the roadside weeds are enjoying the chance to stretch out, there are new native shoots beginning to find spring. But even this buzz is overtaken by a certain detachment; my awareness of taking notes and watching.
As we turn inland we meet the first ravaged forest. There are scorched eucalypts sprouting with frilly ruffles of green leaves and the strange sight of burnt columns of ferns, last year’s fronds crumpled, bowed and twiggy like broken umbrellas; but with completely new green growth arching and unfurling above them. ‘I didn’t know they did that,’ we both say, or something like it, as we pull off the road to have a look; the contrast between bright green and black seems stronger than anything that day and night could offer, even as the evening begins to stretch out in the hours above us.
On the following morning we rise early and drive through thick forest to the Dempster Plains. The road is covered by fallen trees—it looks like a bomb has gone off, a series of bombs dropped from above—but there’s nothing that blocks our path completely and we manage to weave a way through. These buttongrass plains are fascinating. I’m used to walking through massive golden tussocks, their long, thin stalks reaching up to round balls that crumple when you twist them in your fingers, but here it looks an awful lot like … well … grass. ‘Meadows,’ I say aloud. So many kilometres of green regrowth reaching down across the plains, and again I remember the Aboriginal burning practices, that this is meant to happen; so why are we worried about the trees, about this region at all?
There’s a cold southerly blowing across these new fields. We stroll down the slope into a transitional rainforest edging the plains. ‘There’s a nothofagus,’ says Monk. He’s looking at the shape of the tree, the burnt small leaves, the fallen myrtle lying on the ground. This is very different. This isn’t meant to burn; this had been a wet eucalypt forest well on its way to rainforest. There’s a border of long, black trees lying on the ground with bushes of burnt brown leaves from the unthroned canopy, ashy dirt plastered to the roots. Other trees cling on, their blackened roots fumbling for water in the air—here the soil has washed out too. ‘I’m a bit nervous in here,’ says Monk, and I nod as we watch the wind and remember the recent heavy rain, wondering which tree will be the next to topple. We carry on into the forest until the signs of burning disappear—it’s probably 100 metres, then the trees are green and the browns are light and gentle. But the twisted destruction we’ve picked our way through is insistent. ‘It’s just a mess, isn’t it?’ I reflect, as we make our way back up the hill to the buttongrass.
In the open country I notice tiny sundews growing back in the opened-up soil, glistening sticky nectar on their heads, and look north across the patchwork of burnt and unburnt forest. It’s easy to think of human correspondences. Driving through Dunalley the year after the 2013 fires devastated the town, I was struck by the truth of apparent randomness, how one house can be spared, the next one remain standing, and it seems just like this looking out across the forests. But perhaps this reflects other, underlying causes. Later in the day, at a lovely sinkhole filled with water and surrounded by rainforest species, we wonder: was this protected with a designated drop of water? Or is it just as Anderson suggested, that even with such an incredibly dry season, the rainforest couldn’t bring itself to burn properly? We don’t see enough of the area as a whole to make a judgement. We have heard that the rainforests in the Milkshakes reserve were hit hard, though we don’t have a chance to visit, but this seems more than promising, even with all the burnt landscapes we have seen around the Rapid River.
But then I realise that my mind had been led astray by that long, black smudge on the firemaps; I had been imagining great swathes of rainforest wiped out, rather than this patchy edging, and the comparison had lifted my spirits.
Yet I shouldn’t have been concentrating on the idea of a cataclysm, of disaster averted. This is a kind of distraction, a flimsy optimism constructed from the pits and extremes of worst-case scenarios. The crucial question is what an event like this represents, and what it will mean in 50 years, as more fires burn at increasing ferocity, and another 100 metres of the rainforest are wiped out, and then another.
There are habitats that will burn again, that are meant to burn, and there are habitats that are not. And they will not—not all at once. But sometimes, the real catastrophe is a process.
In the Tarkine, hope and hopelessness were mirrored in the different habitats; yet against all expectations, my dominant sensation had been a certain dispassionate thoughtfulness. ‘One of the things I’m really interested in’, I had said to Scott Jordan, ‘is there’s been all these tactics that have developed over the decades … but when you’ve got a situation like the fires coming through, suddenly you’re dealing with something that, in a way, we’re powerless to combat. How does that change your thinking as someone campaigning?’
‘Well look, it’s a pretty helpless feeling …’ he had begun, before transitioning to a more practical response. ‘But there’s parts of it that are political. When you start logging areas, and you put the roading into areas and you splinter it up with plantations, you create fire risks.’ And I can see the sense of this approach. That this remains a human battle, that we can do things to be prepared for it; that those who care about the environment may as well campaign on these matters, rather than throwing up their hands at the global impact of climate change.
So I regret growing weary of the same facts repeated in so many articles about the fires, of all the description and analyses speaking for the trees—the forest types, the management practices. As I wandered through beautiful forests savaged by flames, I found myself occupying the same detached territory, noting the facts as they stood; facts that we must in some sense regard as clear-headed observers while they play out before us.
And then? Then, perhaps, we get to decide what needs to be done, and which simple emotions will help barrel us along to make the best of the bed we have made.