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

Review: Land of Sweeping Plains

The Book: Land of Sweeping Plains
Edited By: Nicholas Williams, Adrian Marshall, John Morgan

Australia’s sweeping grasslands are perhaps one of the most overlooked native habitats in our nation’s history. Despite their humble beauty and the wealth of species reliant on them for survival, the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia continue to be underappreciated in various ways. 

The detailed and beautifully presented Land of Sweeping Plains is a step forward in raising awareness of an underappreciated environment that also happens to be Australia's most threatened ecosystem. Accompanied by stunning photography of plants, animals and landscapes, this book achieves the seemingly impossible task of comprehensively and accurately portraying the history, ecology, social context and management of temperate grasslands in one volume. Interspersed with artwork and evocative descriptions of this habitat, the text also evokes a sense of wonderment in response to the importance of this ecosystem for both the human and the non-human.

To begin with, the authors cite the strong significance of grassland environments in the livelihood and culture of Australia's indigenous people. In regards to food, this ecosystem provided indigenous groups with an abundance of underground non-grass species, such as various tubers and bulbs, as well as a wide range of herbivorous animals, such as kangaroos, that provided meat. Grasslands remain a place for traditional owners to participate in cultural practices that emerged from their reliance on this important ecosystem. Following the introduction of pastoralism by the Europeans, however, such food sources all but disappeared due to the effects of grazing livestock, in turn affecting these traditional practices. 

Despite this tragedy, it has also been said that our nation as we now know it is indebted to this grassland environment for its wide and clear spaces that first allowed European agricultural practices to thrive. However, it can also be said that these practices, as well as urbanisation, weed invasion and the potential effects of climate change, have led to the degradation and destruction of a unique Australian habitat that was once incredibly widespread. Through research, we now know that grasslands are an extremely dynamic ecosystem that harbour a wide array of unique faunal and floral species, such as fat-tailed dunnarts, brolgas, black kites, eastern grey kangaroos, tesselated geckos, tiger snakes, chocolate-lilies, nodding greenhoods and red darling peas, to name but a few. Additionally, we also know that grasslands require active management in order to enhance plant recruitment, remove introduced plant species, and to effectively control their role in productive industries. As is appropriately stated in the introduction, ‘to not act is to fail.’ 

The authors proclaim that the aim of this detailed yet accessible text is ‘to communicate to as broad an audience as possible the knowledge essential to valuing, enhancing and managing south-eastern Australia’s native grasslands.’ I believe that it does just this, whilst also instilling a more universal sense of respect and appreciation for this habitat that extends beyond the purely scientific. 

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you work in a research or management industry relating to temperate grasslands or you are simply fascinated by one of our nation’s most underrated habitats. 

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human-other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

George Monbiot: The enchantment of rewilding

In the opening few chapters of British journalist George Monbiot’s Feral, a somewhat foreign, yet completely sensible view of the state of humanity is offered – we are ecologically bored. We’re disconnected from nature, he argues, and it’s hurting both us and our environment. What we need is a new, positive form of environmentalism.

Bring back the wonder of existence.

As such, Feral is a foray into, what Monbiot believes, is the best way to reconnect the populous with nature. That solution is both amazingly simple and daring – bring nature to us. Allow nature to wrench back control from humanity to progress and change on its own in a self-regulating fashion. By giving the power of decision to nature, we ensure that nature gets to choose the right balance, rather than humans artificially producing what we think is ‘right.’

Feral also acts as somewhat of a memoir for Monbiot, detailing the times at which he has felt closest to our biosphere. In his search for the exhilaration not felt since he explored rainforest when younger, Monbiot brings us on his journey to explore the British coast and the remnant Welsh forests. It’s on this journey that Monbiot details his growing realisation that modern day environments need reinvigorating, with the aim of restoring them to their former glory.

Enter rewilding...  

Rewilding, according to Monbiot, can have a number of definitions. First, it is the restoration of environments to their naturally occurring state. Secondly, it is returning the thrill of nature to human existence – something that is gravely missing in the technological age. Most importantly rewilding puts the natural world into focus on a number of levels.

As Monbiot stated in his recent Ted Talk, “Rewilding offers us hope. In motivating people to love and defend the natural world, an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair.” This point rings true on a number of levels, as a lack of knowledge or education is currently seen as the cause of human apathy towards the environment.

George Monbiot helps us visualise the concept of rewilding, describing the amazing things our world is capable of doing (if we let it.) (Video: TED)

Furthermore, there is genuine empirical evidence that rewilding is already occurring across much of mainland Europe. Wolves are returning to places in which they’ve not been seen for decades, and it’s having amazing affects on community assemblages, both in Europe and America. It’s here that the greatest scope for ecosystem restoration lies, with the reintroduction of top predators. The wide-ranging effects of large carnivores are well documented in a number of systems. As such, the case for returning wolves and lynx to their former ranges has strong scientific backing.

While Monbiot’s idealised vision of Wales teeming with everything from wolves to lynx and bison is ambitious, there’s a part of the brain that longs for it. By flirting with the idea of having nature on your doorstep (something that Monbiot attempted in his move to Wales), the reader is already imagining exactly that. It is a testament to just how well Feral is written.

Feral is a success not just because of its combination of well-delivered facts and personal experiences, but also in the way it ignites desire in the reader to reconnect with nature and become wild. In only a few hundred pages, Monbiot gives the reader a glimmer of what the term ‘wild’ really means, both from an anthropogenic and an ecological viewpoint.

Yes, Feral does think big in terms of its message. However, the world needs thinking such as this right now. Hope for the preservation of nature needs to be instilled, and the public need to be engaged with nature on a more personal level. Importantly, Feral does both incredibly well.

This positive outlook that Monbiot has taken is perhaps best surmised with one line that offers both hope and wonder: that just maybe "our Silent Spring could be replaced by a raucous summer."