in my last article I was just about to climb on my battered soap box when I
ran out of space, so with two fresh pages and your attention, I’ll continue
If you’ll remember, I was talking about eucalypts and I’d just said that as devastating as our bushfires may be and as cruel as our droughts are, they are not the major threat to our eucalypts.
The eucalypt has been exploited since the first European settlement of Australia. In fact the entire development of this extensive continent has been, to a large degree, linked to the land, which is of course, dominated by the eucalypt.
Eucalypt was the timber used for any and all construction well into the twentieth century. Mind you, the settlers hated it at first. More used to the softer and more workable qualities of European timber, they found the hardwood eucalypt most confounding, especially when it split and warped when used green, rendering any building useless when it dried out. However they eventually got used to its properties and learnt how to work the timber of the ‘gum tree’, discovering that it possessed some qualities most appropriate for local conditions. For instance, they discovered the red gum didn’t rot in water, making it ideal for bridges and wharves, and they discovered also that it was termite resistant – a good thing for the northern parts of the continent that were rife with termites.
The eucalypt was a seesaw of good and bad for the early settlers. As more and more people pushed further and further into the hills they were confronted with the daunting task of cutting down ancient forests to make way for their farmland. The pioneer bush men were cutting into great eucalypts that were centuries old. They laboriously felled the trees by axe and handsaw and burned out the massive stumps. Ringbarking came into use with deadly effect. And from the timber they built their houses. At first the frames and walls were built entirely from unsawn saplings which they would plaster with clay, the rooves being thatched with sheets of bark. Soon enough, with the advent of the mechanical saw, along came weatherboards. So up went the houses and down came the trees at an alarming rate. All manner of furniture and every conceivable commodity for inside and outside the house was made from the timber that surrounded the settlers. And of course the more innovative they became, the more the eucalypts were cleared. The march went on relentlessly - and has never stopped. The clearing continues, regardless of our modern education. We settlers are not settling for anything less than the complete annihilation of our heritage. Well, actually, whose heritage?
In parts of Australia,
another form of annihilation is befalling our eucalypts. Large numbers of them
are dying, though not, in this instance, by the saw. This is due to a wide range
of problems that commonly come under the umbrella of a condition called ‘dieback’.
One of these problems - root fungus – causes the large-scale death of eucalypts. This fungus establishes itself in an area of forest and when the soil is wet and warm, is capable of spreading quickly. Large areas of jarrah forest here in WA are very susceptible to this devastating disease, as are thousands of hectares of silver-topped ash in Victoria. Because the fungus lives in the soil, it is easily spread by construction and forestry equipment.
The death of eucalypts
in farmland can be blamed on many different problems, though still referred
to as dieback.
Agricultural practices change the nature of the soil in farmed areas, causing many imbalances, such as the water table (which lowers), fertilizers (which alter the delicate balance of nutrients in the soil), and the structure of the soil itself (which becomes impossibly compact due to the constant compression caused by hard-hoofed domestic animals).
In the early days of farming, when survival was the driving force, many ancient forest areas were ruthlessly cleared by ringbarking, and this often left only a few clusters of old trees for shade. Those over-mature trees are dying now but the resultant soil compaction caused by domestic stock has prevented the regrowth of saplings. Combine this with the over-use of fertilizers and the ill use of natural water supplies, and we have a suite of mistakes that has contributed greatly to the devastating and permanent change of the Australian landscape.
Just two hundred years ago the first white settlers stumbled and fumbled and barged clumsily into this country and there began the systematic destruction of a unique and magnificent land, its ecology unbalanced to such an extent now that it can never be put right. We did this without due thought for the land or the future. Not from malice, but from ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. Harsh words, but true.
Let’s hope that
a legacy of hindsight, retrospection, guilt and shame are enough for the next
generations in charge of this battered country to learn from our stupidity and
to then diligently and determinedly save what little is left of Australia, though
it will never be for them what it has been - nor even what it is now - for us.