In the Taungurong language, Toolangi means ‘tall tree’. True to its name, Toolangi State Forest is home to many of Victoria’s most astonishingly lofty trees that are primarily of the mountain ash species. The scientific name of the mountain ash is Eucalyptus regnans, meaning ‘reigning’; it too is a fitting title for the tallest flowering plants in the world. These kings and queens of the forest grow to great heights, can live for centuries, and provide habitat for an abundance of species.
Towering 73 metres above the forest floor, with a girth of 16 metres at chest height, the Kalatha Giant dominates Toolangi’s treeline. After the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, a short walking track was created around the tree with signage explaining its significance and the ecology of the area. Following this track up into the forest, you may not at first be able to see the tree for the woods – but peer up through the understorey and you’ll be staggered to find yourself right at the foot of this old dinosaur.
The Kalatha Giant has stood for centuries; it is believed to be between 300 and 400 years old. In its time, it has seen multiple fires tear through the surrounding forest, and though they did not fell it, the tree still bears the marks of their passage. The enormous ‘Cathedral Door’ hollow at its base is a burn scar, a charred gothic doorway between sprawling buttress roots. The older the tree, the thicker its bark, and the more protection it has against fire: by now, the Kalatha Giant has an impressive organic armour. The path leads the walker past a stag – the dead trunk of a tree that was killed by fire some time ago. Although they are no longer alive, these trees have a role to play: before their eventual collapse, they provide vital nesting hollows for animals.
Somehow, the Kalatha Giant also escaped the hand of man. Nearby, a colossal, moss-covered stump bears axe-scars where planks were wedged into the trunk of this former giant as platforms for early loggers to hack it down by hand. It’s a kind of labour that is hard to imagine in an era when machinery can fell trees in a matter of minutes. Who can say what saved the Kalatha Giant from a similar fate? The surrounding stumps and stags seem to point to the unlikeliness of its survival, but at the same time are a reminder of the cyclical nature of the life of the forest.
At different stages in its life, the mountain ash tree attracts different mammals to its heart. Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, tends to prefer shorter, dead trees, possibly because the ongoing decay generates warmth. Greater gliders and yellow-bellied gliders, on the other hand, use living, hollow-bearing trees as their home base. Among its branches is the rich birdlife of the montane ash forest, from satin bowerbirds to fairy-wrens, flame robins and fantails. The voice of the superb lyrebird resounds among the trees. Innumerable species of beetles, spiders and other invertebrates live in its bark, its litter, its soil. This is more than a tree; it’s an entire world.
The area surrounding the Kalatha Giant is now a Special Protected Zone. Whatever is next in this tree’s epic life story, this giant won’t be brought down at the hands of humans. It has already reached an extraordinary age; will we live to see it pass into its next phase, the nourishment of other species in its death and decay? This inevitability isn’t something we should try to prevent; instead, we must ensure that its children and grandchildren – the young trees of this forest – have the opportunity to grow ancient in their turn.
Cover photo by Alex Mullarky
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.