Mountain Ash

Walking Amongst Giants

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.

Kalatha Giant Tree Walk entrance. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Kalatha Giant Tree Walk entrance. Photo: Alex Mullarky

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.

The Toolangi Forest. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The Toolangi Forest. Photo: Alex Mullarky

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

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

Australia's Natural Carbon Banks

This is a guest post by Maggie Riddington.

Traditionally home to many Indigenous Australians, rainforests are not only beautiful, natural landscapes enjoyed by many bushwalkers - they also have a vital role to play in storing carbon at a time of growing community concern about climate change. In fact, if Australia is to honour its commitments made at the recent Paris Climate Summit, these beautiful ancient places might hold an important key.

In the peak of the Australian Summer, as temperatures soar, people often seek relief from the heat in natural spaces. They head to the beach, they go for a dip in the river, or if they are fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, they head to the rainforest. It’s a few degrees cooler in the rainforest and there they can seek relief in the lofty shade of the ancient myrtle beech and southern sassafras.

Image: Maggie Riddington

Image: Maggie Riddington

But as people seek refuge from increasingly extreme weather, so do the cool temperate rainforests of Victoria seek out, albeit very slowly, appropriate climatic niches to flourish. In fact, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Climatically restricted to areas of high rainfall and mild temperatures, such areas now exist only in southeast facing gullies where they are afforded sufficient protection from harsh conditions. 

According to the Bureau of Meteorology annual climate summary released last week, 2015 was one of Australia’s hottest years and was the hottest year on record globally. In Victoria, areas of rainforest received rainfall well below average and temperatures much higher than average. That’s particularly bad news for forests dependent on mild temperatures and high rainfall. 

Whether you’re in the Otways, far-east Gippsland, the Strzelecki Ranges or the Central Highlands, when you step out of a rainforest you step into a mountain ash forest. The adjacent forests, being the most carbon dense in the world, offer salvation to the rare and retreating rainforest in more ways than one. For instance, the mountain ash forests act as buffer zones for the rainforests, sheltering them from high temperatures, disease and fire.

Not only do the mountain ash forests protect cool temperate rainforests from harsh climatic conditions, they also store an incredible amount of carbon (1,867 tonnes per hectare), but if cut down they release a substantial amount of carbon into the atmosphere. In this way, the mountain ash forests help mitigate the effects of global warming on these rainforests. 

Protecting Victoria’s rainforests and mountain ash forests is imperative to mitigating global warming. Not only for the forests themselves, but for the people who know and love them.

These forests are important places for all Australians, but they also hold a pragmatic significance as carbon stores that might help bridge the divide between Australia’s current carbon output and the pledges we’ve made to the international community.

Cover image by Maggie Riddington.

Review: Mountain Ash

THE BOOK: Mountain Ash: Fire, Logging and the Future of Victoria’s Giant Forests
EDITED BY: David Lindenmayer, David Blair, Lachlan McBurney and Sam Banks

Less than two hours’ drive from the centre of Melbourne, the towering skyscrapers of the city are replaced by giants of a different kind: the Mountain Ash. These remarkable trees are the tallest flowering plants in the world and the forests they populate are home to Victoria’s only endemic mammal, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. Despite making up some of the most spectacular landscapes Victoria has to offer, montane ash forests are currently facing threats on two fronts: fire and logging.

The authors of Mountain Ash, professors and researchers at the Australian National University, know the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria intimately. ANU research has been conducted in the region for more than 30 years; it is the longest-running environmental study in the world. The authors’ aim to distil decades of research within a 150-page book could have resulted in a dense account of their findings, but this is not the case. Instead, the authors have created a vivid and accessible narrative describing the challenges facing Victoria’s giant forests.

This publication utilises images in abundance to create a visual reference for the reader; the accompanying captions provide just as much insight as the body of the text. These images allow the reader to see for themselves the patterns of fire across the forest, the differences between old growth and post-logging regrowth, and between areas of forest burned at varying severity. These images are an invaluable tool to understanding the text, but at all times the authors communicate their subject clearly and with enthusiasm.

Beginning with an overview of the Black Saturday fires and the flora of the forest, the book goes on to examine the responses to fire of possums, gliders, birds, invertebrates and small terrestrial mammals, as well as the impacts upon large old trees and carbon stocks. Finally, recommendations are made for the forest’s future management. In succinct descriptions broken up by ‘myth-busting boxes’, diagrams and many photos, the book spells out clearly the extent of the destruction that has already occurred in our forests and how further damage can be avoided.

Uniquely placed by their ongoing research to examine the same areas of forest in detail both before and after the Black Saturday fires, the authors are able to offer a comprehensive view of the destruction caused by fire. Intriguingly, they have discovered that the cycle of logging in montane ash forests actually enables further damage by fire, in turn degrading the habitat of the Leadbeater’s Possum, for which large old hollow-bearing trees are vital habitat.

Mountain Ash is essential reading for all Victorians. It alerts the reader to the degradation of the crucial habitat of our faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum, and an iconic tree species, the Mountain Ash. The closing chapters indicate that change is possible as well as necessary to ensure that our forests are protected; reading this book is only the first step towards joining the cause.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’ve ever felt enchanted by the forest. 

All photos taken by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky