Issue 8 Feature Article

Defending the Wild Lands
Dr Pete Hay

This is the island at the end of the earth. Beyond the blue cut of its horizons the world is winding down, buckling under the weight we press upon it. Irresponsible governments supply much of that weight. We consumers, obsessively guzzling, gorging and discarding, are responsible for much of the rest. The doctrines that sanction these pathologies – doctrines that chart wellbeing through the quantity rather than the quality of economic growth – are articles of faith to the most powerful men (they are usually men) and institutions on the planet. What does it mean to stand upon the island at the end of the earth and gaze out at the mad heedlessness of this, the last of the exuberant times?
First, it is to view the planet from a comparatively uncluttered vantage point. As the world ‘globalises’, its political, economic and cultural variety rendered down, its riotous anarchy displaced by a single integrated system, it may be from the geographical outriggers that the imperialist nature of this grey and uniform world is most clearly discerned.
Second, it is to recognise the value of this island. It is to look upon a world enduring rapid impoverishment on all dimensions except that which is most illusory and of least import, and to know that here there are still blue skies and star-studded nights, clean air and water, fish in the sea, forests (with mammals in them), trees (with birds in them), mountains untamed, time and space, wonder, mystery, magic, spirit. It is to know that this is an island like no other, complete unto itself. Most of us at least understand that here is a special place without, perhaps, quite knowing why.
Tasmania is a wet and temperate island. It is lush, green, robust, its terrain broken into serrated ridgelines, arêtes, moraines and mountains, the whole punctuated by sudden lakes, tarns and driving creeks and boggy, tussock-pocked plains. The whole is stitched together by a bewildering tangle of vegetation, the types and communities of which shift with startling frequency.
And here, I think, is the clue to the island’s call upon its people’s commitment, passion and mobilisation for action. It lies in the land. The island’s especialness – its definitive qualities, the core qualities that we might call its soul – are the biophysical currents that shape life in all its forms. They are the still older, imperceptible but implacable geological currents that will one day decree the island to have had its day. And they are the forms of life, in all their boisterous variety (human included, therefore), that have co-evolved, through deep tides of time, with the island itself. You want the essence of Tasmanian soul, distinction, transcendent value? You must look to the wild lands. It is there. And much follows from this.

*

I am in the Kodama Forest in the Blue Tier. Above me is a dusty forest road, and an untenanted space that was once the briefly vibrant tin town of Lottah. The Tiers are an unplotted maze of shafts, diggings and other slow-rotting artefacts of the mining days. But here below the Lottah Road I am in a small defile of stately, mature tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), their fronds curving, shivering above a quiet, deep-breathing forest hall. There are people gathered here. Many are local activists, members of Friends of the Blue Tier; some are Japanese students from the University of Tasmania. We are to hear and read poetry, and there are Japanese translations of poetry written for the occasion, fluttering on tasselled ribbons from frond and sprig. A hale breeze blows, and it penetrates even this sheltered hollow, setting up a tinkling soundscape from the strings of bells with which the grotto has been festooned. In the damp mould by a faint creek line threading the grove, a Japanese water harp has been installed. The ancient green of Gondwana and the trance-inducement of the soft ripple of bells dissolve the bounds of time. It is a special place and it can be nowhere else on earth – but it connects me to the special that is in all the Earth, affirming the futility of xenophobic place meanings, scoping my sympathies, my responsibilities, globally.
I am walking in dry sclerophyll forest on Bruny Island. It is hot and the bush steams. A combination of rain and sun has released delicate sweetness from the forest. The sheer life of it assails your senses. It – life – has danced abroad, flaunting the joyous esprit of its being in the here and now. It is a celebration of the pure, marvellous fact of is. It is in the canopy, where a carillon of birdsong trills flawless, intricate movements of the bush’s symphony for infinite voice. It is on the ground, where echidna fixes me with a droll eye, twitches its pike-armoured back and waddles away. There are tiger snakes everywhere, their glide all fluid grace. The thud of apprehension that customarily accompanies their sudden pretence is absent today. They are benign with the glories of the day. I examine the abstract masterpieces of bark-sap-insect patterns on tree trunks, ‘Self Portrait’ by E. viminalis, and E. viminalis has a palette of such delicate mauve, smoke, pink, green-tinge, indigo, rust, cream, olive and lemon that it defies reproduction. But even this, I know, is a façade; mere surface show for a whole hidden world within a world, one of utter, marvellous complexity.
So a writer writes of the wild places. It is a perspective from aesthetics – according to my dictionary, ‘the science of the beautiful’. Fact yields to feeling, to impression, to spontaneity, allusion, poetry, suggestion. It privileges that which might evoke wonder, epiphany, even rapture – though a grounded, worldly rapture. Artists working in other modes will deploy the same expressive priorities. Photographers will, for instance.
Those who take a camera and an artist’s eye into the wild lands do so, I would presume, for a variety of reasons. Speaking personally, when it comes to visual communication I want most (not exclusively, but most) to experience that which inspires; that which will renew the passions of my engagement with the island and confirm my commitment (not made lightly; such commitments are never made lightly) to the place that I call home. There is a political point to wilderness photography, then. It is to remind – or even inform – those of us entrapped within mundane routines of the wonder that is out there in the tangled wild. It is to give solace – oh, yes – but it is also to recruit, and to affirm commitment and strengthen resolve. So there is a political point – but of course also an aesthetic one (as if the two can ever be more than artificially separated out in creative activity). Photographers – those whose work is presented here – are visual poets of the wild world. The effects they seek are the effects that poets seek.
Here I want to assert the validity of aesthetic understandings of the wild places – and not merely valid, but as valid, possibly, as any other frame of engagement. This will become clearer if we go where the photographers have gone. We could go to the Arthur-Pieman on the clamorous West Coast, into coastal dune country, a vast Aboriginal midden of such incalculable import that it merits World Heritage protection. We would find no such protection; we would find the epitome of management ineptitude and the systematic trashing of irreplaceable Indigenous heritage by unconstrained ORV activity and by deliberate, calculated atrocity. We could move through the West Coast mineral belt – carefully excluded from the World Heritage Area when its boundaries were drawn: because in this scheme of official value, mining trumps World Heritage – and there we might catalogue the scars of those who go in search of the next briefly incandescent mineral boom. It is not difficult to find evidence of the subservient status of values intrinsic to wildness when it comes to extractive economics, or energy generation, or high-impact recreation. But let us instead climb a mountain road into the tiers to the east of Launceston, in the headwaters of the North Esk River. Up the Camden Road with Ben Nevis on our right shoulder, and into the Camden forest. Into a clearfell.

*

It is one thing to be endlessly lyrical. It is one thing to craft imagery (by word, by photo) of what is special, unique, of infinite value within this wondrous island. It is all that should be needed. For it is surely not even comprehensible that people – Tasmanians, at that – would deliberately set out to destroy the rich manifestations of glorious life that hold the island’s soul.
It is hard to explain a clearfell to those who have never stood within the slaughtered heart of a dismembered, firebombed forest. Those who have so stood customarily deploy ‘ground zero’ language. Dresden and Hiroshima are invoked; sometimes more conventional battleground imagery. I have used it myself, though the truth is that, given its association with the utter extremes of horror that humans can inflict upon other humans, I am somewhat uneasy about it. The trouble is, in the absence of battleground imagery it is very difficult to find comparative points of reference that can evoke an approximate mental image.
Here was forest: a breathing, complex mesh of living relationships. Those myriad intricate worlds – all gone; obliterated entirely. The colour, pattern, process, those individual units of life, the chaotic worlds of rioting spontaneity – they are gone. The springing exuberance of these entangled, time-sculpted worlds should be proof against destruction; too resilient. But people come who do not see the small, intricate worlds stretching down and away forever, nor even do they see, for that matter, the larger world that is the forest itself, though it is right there for the seeing. What they see is a double-digit return to shareholders. They bring blades, chains, arc lights, obliterating fires… They wage war on behalf of death.
This is the process. First, the forest is smashed apart; razed to the ground. It may be that some small pockets are left standing. In the weasel words of the times this is now referred to as ‘selective logging’ – a cynical misuse of the term that once referred to logging regimes that left a forest’s structure intact. Then the dead forest is shunted into windrows. And then it is napalmed. The storm of fire smoulders down to an ashed armageddon, a boneyard of grotesque torsos, charred and twisted shapes as void of feature as the shadows of hell.
There is a decisive hinge between the thoughts of humans and the fate of the forests. Someone dreams thus, and this is what happens. Another might dream a different dream and the forest, too, might dream on, merely dream on… None of it is inevitable – we can choose the dream we want. One dream leads to grey wastes of death, to the panoramic sweep of a monochromed wasteland. This is the dream of those in power.
We are witnessing in the Tasmanian forest the triumph, total to the point of totalitarian, of the anti-values of technocracy. Maximised production, the greatest output from the least possible input, is the rule, and all other values are swept away before the single cause of maximised technical efficiency. It is the triumph of process over consequence, of the how over the what and the why. Decision-making is distilled to questions of technique and procedure, politics is pared down to a narrow range of technical options, while questions over more fundamental matters are screened out; stripped of legitimacy.
What is at stake here is a fundamental clash of values: place-contemptuous technocrats who look to the forest and see mere ‘resource’, valueless in any terms other than dividend and export dollar, against those who look to the forests and see the very pith and soul of the island. Those of us in the latter camp spend our lives in a grey fog of grief. It is real grief, and unlike the grief experienced at the death of someone dear, it is never assuaged, because it goes on and remorselessly on. With every forest that is ripped apart the island is diminished beyond repair, unbearably diminished in the sensibilities of those who love it for what it is – and its people are diminished with it. In his catalogue essay for Richard Wastell’s exhibition of clearfell paintings, an exhibition ironically entitled ‘We Are Making a New World’, Richard Flanagan writes:

The great forests are gone, and they will not return, and nor will the intense human response we had to such places. Everything hereafter will be ordered and imaginable, paintable and representable in a way that those wild places never were, and we will be less.

It is a lament loaded up with sorrow, rightly presaging the diminution, for all time,of the island and its people.
Those who commit the desecrations say, ‘The forest grows back.’
No, it doesn’t. Whatever comes back is not the forest that has gone. It may be in descent from that forest, but this has not been an evolving. There has been a rupture of the fabric. At best now there is a seam where once there was not. But nothing can be the same after rupture; certainly not after rupture as emphatic as this. And even this assumes that native species will be permitted to return. These forests in the North Esk headquarters are being replaced as I write by regimented rows of exotic Eucalyptus nitens; monoculture where once there was rich, explosive life. The area is the catchment for Launceston’s main domestic water supply, and it is currently the epicentre of possibly the most rapid conversion of native forest to plantation on the island.
No mere management solution, one dedicated to the constrained vision of maximising efficient extraction, can bring an end to the harsh politics of the forests. Only a massive reduction of the scale of the timber industry, a return to a social forestry, labour- and sawlog-intensive, and oriented to local need can achieve that. A forestry small in scale, the sort that was envisaged by those who naively called for a plantation-based industry two decades ago, thinking that an industry of that modest scope, one deployed upon farmlands of marginal productivity, would be the saviour of the primal forests. No one imagined back then an industry of such magnitude or of such insatiable rapacity, one that came to say ‘plantations it is – and to make way for those plantations every forest that has not been vouchsafed some form of reserve status becomes a candidate for clearing’.
The diehards of the North Esk headwaters, small sawmillers – not necessarily even old – retired millers, retired ‘fallers’ (as they call themselves), in some cases have only the rudiments of formal education, but they are wonderfully articulate. They speak in a strong, olden drawl, and they are brilliantly inventive in their deployment of language. ‘They’re baldin’ ’er up there today, mate,’ one sawmiller said to me, ‘they’re completely baldin’ ’er.’ They look with horror on the current regime of slash-and-burn logging, a regime that impoverishes their communities and squanders the natural capital that had traditionally sustained them.
‘We used to spend hours working out how to fall a tree so as to do the least damage to the forest,’ said one retired ‘busher’ (another local colloquialism) and then, with bitterness, ‘I don’t know why we bothered.’ I talked to a man with a one-person mill that lies idle for most of the year. He insists that most of what goes to the chipper is ‘millable’, and that it is only greed, laziness and incompetence that condemns it to the chipper:

I could make a year’s living out of just one truck load going down the road there to St. Leonards – where they’ll just say, ‘no good, off to the chipper with it’. That’s because they don’t know how to mill. I do. I can get timber from logs that no one else can. I could make a fortune out of the blackwood that’s going to the chip. If they’d drop one log off here on the way I’d make more from that one log than they’d make from the rest of the load.

Much of the antagonism expressed towards current forest practices is directed towards its effect upon water quality, particularly in the headwaters, where topsoil loss, irresponsible chemical use, the ‘thirst’ of new plantations and the bulldozing of nascent streamlines is seen to be causing permanent hydrological change. Some are scornful of industry and government scientists, who are thought to turn up to do their studies and take their measurements at precisely the times when they can be sure of not finding anything in breach of the Forest Practices Code. ‘There are people up here can’t read and write,’ said one local,

and none of us are scientists, but we’re here all the time, and we see things – dead wombats in the creeks and that, the creeks foaming like y’ wouldn’t believe, algae up here where none’s ever been known before – we see stuff that the bloody scientists never see because they aren’t here when it’s right there in front of you.

Who should we believe? Scientists who turn up three or four times a year, stay for an hour, gather samples and take them away? Or local people of little or no formal education who have developed a keen eye for the most subtle of changes; who understand the land in its minutiae, and the nuances of its biophysical processes?
There is also much sadness for the animals and birds whose lives are destroyed in clearfell operations and the subsequent laying of 1080 poison. It is not only the Tasmanian devil that is in decline, they insist; the eastern quoll, the spotted-tail quoll and many of the native birds are all vanishing from us. One sawmiller, a man who walks barefooted through the bush in all weathers, spoke of the wild things of the bush in an entirely unselfconscious way that was saturated with brotherly affection.
I heard a story that vividly painted the enormity of the tragedy of the Tasmanian forests and the people who love them. A sawmiller waved to the mountain at his back, and he said:

That bush up there is all I know. I can take you up there and show you how the wind shifts when you go a yard or so that way, and how the temperature pools differently over there. And this summer they’re going to flatten that bush. They’ll plant it out in nitens, but it wouldn’t matter if they let it grow back – it still wouldn’t be the bush I know. And that’s all I know. They might as well cut my brain out.

We have, in these communities, a clash of values as strikingly divergent as can probably be found in all Australia. Over here are the people for whom the natural world is merely resource, there to be used as efficiently and on as large a scale as can be managed within the constraints of available technologies and stocks of raw material, and in which there is no worth beyond its transformation into cash value. And over here are those for whom the natural world is a source of transcendent meaning: the domain of spirit and wonder, a force and principle of life that enjoins respect, perhaps reverence. It is to live amid such transcendent natural values that the folk of the latter stamp have come to their chosen places – places with which they have then forged deep and powerful bonds.
You don’t inherit place. You commit to it. You take its meanings upon yourself: its history, its rhythms, its defining character. When you make of a place a home – an affectionately regarded range of ground from which you take identity (literally your ‘home ground’) – you are taking upon yourself an active duty of care.
It is this sense of commitment that drives the campaign to protect Tasmania’s remaining wild places. Unlike the Esk headwaters, not all of these places are forested. They include threatened remnant grasslands, much-needed government protection for which seems, as I write, to have been successfully derailed by a selfish, future-discounting primary producer lobby with, apparently, over-much clout in government. They include Aboriginal coastscapes of incalculable human and natural heritage value, such as the midden, dune and scrub country of the Arthur-Pieman. In non-forest areas threats are more likely to emanate from resort and other brutalist building intrusions as money and influence ride roughshod over sound planning practice; from dune- and bush-trashing motorised off-road ‘recreationalists’; or from the ignorant and bloody-minded racism that manifests in the wilful destruction of old-beyond-time Aboriginal artefacts.
The areas for which this book argues are no less significant than those that already enjoy protection. They are sites of primary attachment for very many Tasmanians as well as others all over the world. As these attachments are systematically violated a profound, deep-wounding sorrow manifests – a well of communal grief experienced at the island’s diminishing. It is time to resist: to say to government, to say to industry, you will not tear apart our home for some mere economic pittance. These wild temperate tracts exist nowhere else on earth, and in the complexity of living forms, processes and relationships that embody the island’s soul are to be found values that cannot be comprehended within the price calculus of the marketplace. I say again: you will not lay the fell hand of death upon our home. We will – be assured – defend it.

Dr Peter Hay is Reader in Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania and a widely published poet and essayist. His research focuses on environmental thought and the politics of place. He is the author of several books including Silently on the Tide (2005)