A recent radio story broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) has changed the way I think. Information is power! You can listen to Michael Fletcher, Associate Professor from the University of Melbourne’s School of Geography being interviewed by Ryk Goddard here. The broadcast lasts less than 10 minutes and provides fascinating thought-provoking detail presented in an accessible way.
As Michael Fletcher explained the nature of his research in the Surrey Hills area on the edge of the region now known as the Tarkine on the north west of Tasmania, his work threw up what for me was an extraordinary revelation.
That is, within ten years of white settlement in the area, the rainforest began growing back over cleared land once the indigenous population had been moved on or killed. I am now thinking about the tree sitters and environmental monitoring sections of the community who currently are fighting tooth and nail to protect those and other similar forests from logging; have they made a mistake? If the original inhabitants of Tasmania were managing the land before white colonisers arrived and settled, then the notion of original wilderness forests in that area is a nonsense. Notwithstanding this, those current forests are stunningly beautiful and exceptionally restorative to walk within.
I was born and grew up in Burnie on Tasmania’s north west coast where the Australian Pulp and Paper Making company operated. Its trees came from many sites but Surrey Hills was one such location. I can remember as a Safety Engineering Officer my father used to visit logging sites; as a family we took Sunday afternoon drives through the forests along logging dirt roads. We were all oblivious to the indigenous history of that land. You can read further information here about the logging in the area.
Michael noted that Surrey in England was an open landscape and, therefore, to call this area Surrey Hills is likely to have been a reflection of that landscape ‘back at home’ for the new settlers. In a number of documents written in the first couple of decades of the 19th century, people arriving in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) described the rolling open parkland, thinly wooded grassy nature of the land. These days all those areas are ‘choked’ with rainforest and scrubby vegetation.
Michael’s tests included drilling down into the ground under the Surrey Hills forests and looking at fossilised plant remains and determining the age of the rainforest trees by counting the tree rings.
He found that none of the trees were older than 1840 which is a bit over a decade after white settlers arrived in the area. To me that is extraordinary. From within the ground the base of the soil under the rainforest was found to be full of grass or eucalypts. As soon as the cattle arrived the rainforests began encroaching. Importantly charcoal is missing from the soils indicating the area was no longer being periodically fired.
Elsewhere Michael Fletcher’s ongoing research has dug deep enough to find charcoal evidence of fires at 16000 years ago (means the original people managed the land through the last ice age) clearly indicating these people had a regular regime of firing to keep the rainforests at bay. Michael has established other sites of study across Tasmania over the last 20 or so years and has found evidence that the first peoples arrived around 43000 years ago; evidence of fires in combination with the particular plants at the times establishes the fact these people started manipulating the environment and harvesting produce millennia soon after arrival.
Thanks J for forwarding the link to me.