Why do these books matter to a discussion of a national park that doesn’t even exist yet? Because the worth of the idea of a Great Forest national park lies in its implicit recognition of the interrelatedness of things. This is not a national park for an individual lake, or reef, or mountain. It is a national park for a system, one that takes in water and fire and culture and geology and evolution.
We’re getting better at doing this: the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, established in 1975, protects not one reef but more than 3000 reefs, whose interdependence qualifies them as one giant natural system. And recently, scientific talk has turned to the idea of a Great Southern Reef, a matrix of cool temperate reefs stretching 8000km around southern Australia from Coolangatta in the east to Kalbarri in the west and taking in all of Tasmania’s waters. Again, a park for a system – anchored by landmark species such as giant kelp (Macrocystis pyifera).
The Great Forest would link 1.1 million hectares of land, of which 710,000 hectares is forest, and incorporate 25 existing conservation reserves into one vast, enclosed terrestrial system with outer urban Melbourne framing its south and west, the Baw Baw Plateau in the east, Lake Eildon in the north and the La Trobe Valley in the south.
And if kelps are the anchoring vegetation of the Great Southern Reef, and corals fill the role for the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Forest has its landmark species as well: most notably Eucalyptus regnans, the mountain ash. The tallest flowering plants on Earth, these old giants watch over the Countries of the Gunaikurnai, Taungurung and Wurundjeri Nations, sundered from each other since European arrival in the region in the 1830s. (Professor Lindenmayer’s book shows for the first time the boundaries of the three nations on the Central Highlands, and links its photography to each).
What emerges from the combined reading of Watson and Lindenmayer is a sense of a vast, sacred space at the foot of the Great Divide, entangling millions of years of geology and evolution with thousands of generations of human experience and culture. A place that cares for us – with water, air and climate moderation – even while we settlers fail so evidently to care for it. A place so full of mysteries that we are likely to destroy any number of them before we even discover their true natures.
The Central Highlands were formed by volcanic “cauldrons” 373 million years ago, and the topographical traces of those events are still visible in the escarpments south of Eildon, and the presence of tors (obelisks) and waterfalls.
The forests as we know them now emerged about 60 million years ago. Among the wettest places in mainland southern Australia, the hills and valleys came to be dominated by mountain ashes 25 storeys high. Given optimum conditions, a mountain ash can grow at a rate of one metre per year for the first 50 to 70 years of its life and might top out after 120-150 years at 90-100 metres in height and a girth of around 30 metres. And there the giant might rest, drawing tonnes of water every day from the forest floor to transpire it into the clouds, for about 550 years. How to frame this? There are trees, just an hour from Melbourne, that are taller than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and very nearly as old. They too have seen warfare, and wildfire and murder. They too are labyrinths filled with secrets.
The great trees endure much violence over the course of their long lives. They develop hollows from lighting strikes and falling branches, and damage from termites and fungi. Tree-ring studies show that old trees might survive up to seven fires in their lifetimes, and the scarring left on their trunks can yield vital information about the extent and direction of those past conflagrations.
The great individual trees have been given names by colonists, like the Furmston Tree near the village of Fernshaw, which collapsed in the 1990s, the Ferguson Tree near Healesville and the Edward VII Tree in the Upper Yarra. It’s a curious indictment on our history that we have both conferred names on some trees for their singular majesty, and also gone on to dismember them for profit.
Among and under the regnans are cool temperate rainforests of myrtle beech and sassafras, living relics of Gondwanaland. The trunks of these dinosaur trees are heavily encrusted with lichens, mosses and hornworts that trap and hold moisture. The rainforests of the Central Highlands, unlike their counterparts in the tropics, are largely silent places, deeply indifferent to the presence of humans. They take 50 or 60 undisturbed years to develop, and once they’re logged, they’re lost for another half-century.
The giant trunks of the dominant trees, when they fall to the forest floor, create a rich and complex understory community. And it’s like the barroom scene from Star Wars in there: iridescent ghost fungi, ancient ferns up to 1000 years old, and the world’s tallest moss, Dawsonia. A silent white glider; pink, red and bright orange robins. Thornbills doing their mimicry. The critically endangered Baw Baw frog, of which only 250 individuals remain, and a rare lily called tall astelia, in one of only twelve populations left on Earth.
These are only a cross-section of a wide range of habitats: there are also manna gum forests and snow gum woodlands, and fens, a type of grassy marshland also known as a mire. They’re delicate, vital structures. Watson’s book records Angus MacMillan’s despair at getting his horse bogged in one. It would not have occurred to him that he and his horse were vandals, interlopers in a delicate world.
Living in close dependence upon all of that vegetation are a remarkable cast of animals – to name just a tiny sample, the Leadbeater’s possum (wollert), which was thought to be extinct until rediscovered near Marysville in 1961; the superb lyrebird (buln buln); the feathertail glider, which weighs only 15 grams and has incredibly sticky feet powered by sweat glands and vacuum to assist landings; the greater glider, yellow-bellied glider and mountain brushtail possum. Cavity-dependent species like possums and gliders need hollows to live in. We don’t have woodpeckers, so hollows are mostly made by fungi and can take centuries to form.