It’s three weeks after Christmas and rain is falling softly at the Sumac Blockade, a small circus of tarpaulin pitched on a logging road in the Tarkine wilderness. Located in the north-west of lutruwita/Tasmania, about three hours’ drive from Launceston, the blockade was established in September 2018 to halt deforestation by Forestry Tasmania for the international timber company, Ta Ann. The Tarkine’s first name is takayna; many areas within it are heritage-listed as Western Tasmanian Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes. The rainforest is vulnerable, immense, elusive. We sit in a circle around the fire, eating bin-dived mince pies while giant trees sway above us. My abused copy of Into the Woods by Anna Krien is open in my lap. Krien’s work of narrative journalism tells the story of Tasmania’s decades-long forest battles, a testament to the wildness of the state’s politics and ecology.
I’m finding it almost impossible to read as the smoke seethes in my direction. I cough into the filthy collar of my jacket, and fantasise about taking a dip in the creek. I notice a fellow walking towards us from his parked red Land Rover. He’s wearing rumpled shorts, his stocky calves sticking out from dusty climbing boots. His hair is the colour of buttermilk. I recognise him: it’s Ed, who does odd jobs and maintenance at my apartment block.
‘Hey Ed!’ I close the smoke-stained book.
He smiles reluctantly, ‘What are you doing out here?’
‘Oh, you know, just camping.’ I say, slightly embarrassed. As a general rule in Tasmania, you can’t go to many places without bumping into someone you know. It can be both a blessing and a curse—lots of the same people wear different hats.
In Into the Woods, Krien explores cronyism and corruption by connecting the dots between Tasmania’s political and private sectors. Describing the monopolistic control of the timber company, Gunns, over the island’s timber industry, Krien writes: ‘When it comes to Gunns and Forestry Tasmania, it’s impossible not to wonder: is the dog wagging its tail, or the tail the dog?’
While many of the industry players from Into the Woods have receded, the battles for Tasmania’s forests continue amidst bushfires, logging and mineral extraction. As I stir honey into a cup of tea, blackened kettles hiss on the smouldering coals. A volunteer is explaining to visitors about local biodiversity hotspots, waterways and percentages of waste burnt on the ground. Like Camp Florentine, the locus of the conservation battle in Into the Woods, the Tarkine Sumac Blockade is an ephemeral place where people come and go. Sometimes there’s barely a skeleton crew to fill the tents, slumped like empty butterfly cocoons against eucalyptus trunks. During summer, swathes of backpackers, cyclists, climbers and grey nomads come through, drawn by the ‘Come up for a cuppa’ sign at the entrance to the blockade. Confused drivers steer station wagons and surfie vans up the dirt road, rubbing their eyes as they emerge in the sudden cold, their faces sobering as they receive the spiel. It’s ten degrees colder here than the surrounding towns. With tufts of buttongrass spitting from locations with names like Milkshake Hills, it feels a bit like a land dreamt up by Doctor Seuss.
Woodchips splinter underfoot, as wind soughs through the trees in long breaths, and leeches dangle from mould-coloured logs. Baby ferns unfurl their fists into green boxing gloves. Bird voices whittle away at silence. The rain falls like an afterthought. Mud turns sticky in ditches and march flies conk out in the dying embers, bees trailing confusedly after stumps of leathery wood. Smoke drapes the horizon like a violet curtain.
The island is burning. In the summer of 2019, bushfires kindled from dry lightning consumed over 200,000 hectares of land, scorching wilderness areas in Tasmania’s south-west and central plateau. Luckily, takayna was spared. Just three years ago, fires burned over 85,000 hectares of cool temperate rainforest and buttongrass plains in the Tarkine World Heritage area, turning banks of rare pencil pines to ash.
When the Sumac Blockade was evacuated, we piled into our friend’s ash-streaked Camry and headed down to the beach. Soot drifted onto our heads as we coughed and danced on the sand, ignoring the bursting sky at the horizon. It is hard to come to terms with apocalyptic clouds full of exploded forests. During the hottest and driest month recorded in Australia there were a plethora of natural disasters, yet many news sources refused to join the dots: flooding in Queensland, droughts in South Australia, cyclones in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and uncontrollable bushfires in Victoria and Tasmania.
Writers are tasked with breaking the silence. Krien writes, ‘If ever there was a canary at the bottom of the world, it is Tasmania […] I remember leaning on the ferry railing on the way here, trying to will creatures to the surface. I’m not sure I’d like to risk looking at the ocean without that hope.’ In an era of extinction, we need imagination and urgency to enact alternative visions for the future. The phrase ‘climate change’ chimes, but doesn’t ring alarm bells. Nor does it bring us closer to the mosaic of impacts that are unfolding across communities on the front lines. The catastrophic impacts are being felt by those who are least responsible for causing anthropogenic global warming. How do we relate to an absence that we can’t yet feel —to a crisis that principally affects the unknowable Other?
In a 2017 study on the global extinction crisis by the National Academy of Sciences in Mexico, Professor Gerardo Ceballos wrote that ‘The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.’
Into the Woods is textured with gritty, uncouth phrases and surprising disclosures. ‘There is always the temptation to say, fuck it, no more friendly logos, pretty pamphlets, strained meetings with politicians and industry; no more long nights deciphering bureaucracy with its endless loopholes.’ Krien writes. Dealing with expert researchers and blustering political figures, she remains observant, vulnerable and open, dispelling vitriol as industry representatives and activists clash with unrelenting hostility. Krien is stuck between warring opponents, but she doesn’t hold back from the fray; she goes beyond territorial markers to listen. ‘It finally strikes me what’s been pissing me off about some of these ratbags I met out at the blockade. Why aren’t they in here having this conversation?’
To speak to and listen for the voices on the sidelines is to go deeper into the woods, where Tasmania has a terrifying history. Further to the north-west from takayna lies Cape Grim, the site of the ‘cleanest air in the world’ where record levels of carbon dioxide were measured in 2016. In 1828, Van Diemen’s Land Company employees committed a massacre at Cape Grim. Colonists abducted and enslaved Aboriginal women, shot at groups and threw their bodies from the cliffs. This place is now known to some as Suicide Bay. Histories like this are hidden behind the island’s cryptic landscapes. On the border of wilderness and urbanity, I live beside an overpass where cars, buses and occasional logging trucks slam along the Southern Outlet. The columns of kunanyi/Mt Wellington rise in the distance like organ pipes.
One day on my way to work, I see a platypus in the rivulet where industrial tanneries and breweries dumped industrial waste in the 1800s. In Us and Them: The Importance of Animals, Krien writes how ‘other’ creatures provide a mirror for us as humans to see ourselves. The platypus writhes and dimples the reflective surface, turning shyly from the gaze of sulfur-vested workmen. The monotreme is elusive, slipping between concrete tunnels, weed-infested eddies and weirs. It defies taxonomic classifications like a regular Houdini. In the same way that a thylacine can’t see its own barred stripes, I wonder if we can’t see the stratification of human and non-human beings around ourselves.
‘Is this you?’ I ask Ed, opening a coffee-table-sized book in the teepee at the Sumac camp: For the Forests: A History of the Tasmanian Forest Campaigns by Helen Gee. The chapters are divided into conservation battles, a kind of activist bible profiling campaigns from Geeveston clearfells and pesticide rallies in Lorinna, to the Florentine Blockade depicted in Into the Woods. Leafing through the pages, Ed appears in a few articles, looking photogenically rugged with glacial blue eyes and a yin-and-yang singlet. He was among the first activists in Tasmania to construct a tree sit during the campaign at Farmhouse Creek, and is an acclaimed wilderness photographer.
‘Yep, that’s me.’ His eyes crinkle as I pass him the book.
I’ve been taken into logging coupes with my mother since the age of eight, tagging along to demonstrations where forestry employees swore and activists pissed on the ground. I remember crying at night as our parent left my five-year-old brother and I in a tent at a festival. While camping as a kid in the hinterlands of New South Wales, other children taunted us, shoving my face into an ant’s nest and hitting my brother with bundles of sticks bound together—paint brushes for the art workshops. During later trips I preferred the comfort inside the car where I could binge-read Harry Potter, and ignore the outside world.
Sometimes, when I go out into a forest, I am unnerved by my own strange inadequacy; a feeling of purposelessness and corporeality. What is my point? I am a human being. All I know how to do is how to be. But at the same time, I don’t know how to be. I feel incomplete and needy, reliant and unproductive, yet stolid. I am disconnected from and yet dependant on billions of disparate organisms whose names I don’t—can’t—know. My attention is limited to the cushiony moss and swooping cirrus clouds reminding me that I am not alone. If I think of them as ‘them’ and me as ‘other’, I am alone. I don’t think we realise how much we need the ‘other’ until it’s lost to us. There’s an English word for that unknowable world of difference: nature. In Tasmania we are known for having a lot of nature. But we also have one of the highest rates of roadkill in the world—around half a million native animals every year. Until the thylacine was declared extinct in 1936, it was hunted as part of a government scheme that portrayed the creature as an untenable threat to the colonial pastoral project.
The problem of ecocide is that the untenable threat is us. The cause of climate change lies within selves, and its effect impacts others. We have no narrative to process the collective shame that belies a sense of failed responsibility, which is easily converted into denialism. Krien delves deep into our human response to these emergencies: how do we, as individuals, tessellate, while the systems around us crumble? How are we confined as humans and animals, as if our interests were separate and mutually exclusive? ‘So, whose side are you on?’ Krien is asked repeatedly by forestry employees and activists alike. She eludes the finger-pointing and silver bullets, insisting that we go further into the woods.
According to John Woinarski, a professor of conservation biology, Australia has lost more mammal and plant species over the past 200 years than any other country. We have the highest rate of mammal extinction, with over 30 mammal species declared extinct since colonisation, and we are facing a global mass extinction event—which will continue to escalate even amidst efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to writer Jane Rawson. Now more than ever, we need to change the way that companies, these coalitions of humans, behave.
I keep turning back to Into the Woods because Anna Krien doesn’t ignore the escalating urgency that systemic failures present to us. She depicts a kaleidoscopic view of people and place in Tasmania, mediating the troubled relationship between human values and ecological communities, giving insight into a challenge that continues to divide people. A month after my visit to the Sumac camp, Ed comes to our apartment to investigate a faulty cupboard door. I give him my dog-eared copy of Into the Woods, hoping he won’t notice the rats in our compost heap.
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer from lutruwita/Tasmania. Her work has been published in Voiceworks, Cutcommon and the Digital Writers’ Festival, and in 2018 she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize.