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The Secret of Methuselah Grove

Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions

by Ashley Hay
Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 275 pp., AU$25.00 (paper)

1.

Deep in the recesses of our imaginations, trees can turn into gnomes and giants—even trapped souls. It’s as if at some hidden level trees are imbued with meaning for us, yet because they are so much a part of our lives, we filter out the emotions they can evoke. The full force that trees can have on an unprepared human mind is in fact profound, as British explorers of the Outer Hebrides discovered in 1692.

When the expedition arrived at St. Kilda’s Isle, the most remote and desolate of the Outer Hebrides, some 150 miles from the Scottish coast, they found a treeless land of simplicity and innocence, where neither money nor the English language were known and where, the islanders claimed, there had not been one instance of fornication or adultery “for many ages before this time.”* The women of this holy isle fastened their clothes with the bones of seabirds and fashioned shoes from the necks of geese, a déshabillé, perhaps, that contributed to their remarkable record of chastity.

When it departed, the expedition’s vessel carried some of these humble people to the Isle of Skye, where they made a remarkable discovery of their own—trees. “How they grew to such a height above plants, was far above their conception,” remarked Mr. Smith, the expedition’s leader, who also wrote of seeing an islander awestruck when branches held him back as he tried to pass through a tangle of young growth. Smitten with the beauty of leaves and branches yet ignorant of seeds, the islanders tried to carry an entire specimen back to their boat, but were defeated by the weight of the wood and distance to the shore.

It is almost impossible for the contemporary reader to imagine the astonishment felt by those isolated islanders at seeing their first tree; yet one gets an echo of it when opening Thomas Pakenham’s Remarkable Trees of the World. Pakenham’s photographs of sixty truly remarkable trees include some of the largest, oldest, and arguably the strangest living entities on our planet. Pakenham classifies them variously as giants, dwarfs, methuselahs, dreams, and imperiled—hardly a scientific scheme—but one that endows individual trees with a character that Pakenham captures expertly in his text and photographs.

In a world where the sound of the axe has been heard for millennia, Pakenham has had to travel far to locate the specimens that make up his collection, but it is soon clear that one region, the American West, has the world’s tallest, largest, and oldest living things. The world’s tallest tree is a 368.6-foot-high California coast redwood known as the Stratosphere Giant. Yet, as Pakenham informs us, by the time this information was printed it was probably already out of date. This is because some coast redwoods grow literally as fast as beanstalks, and there are twenty-six trees exceeding 360 feet in height.

The title of largest is also contested. The giant sequoia known as General Sherman, which grows in California’s Sequoia National Park and weighs an estimated 1,500 tons, is usually said to be the largest living thing on earth. But Pakenham argues that its rival, General Grant of King’s Canyon National Park, exceeds Sherman in height and girth if not volume. Pakenham’s photographs can’t convey the experience of seeing these titanic pink columns of living matter. One must go to see them.

The oldest living thing on the planet is a little easier to identify. It is a bristlecone pine, over 4,600 years old, growing at an altitude of ten thousand feet in the White Mountains of California. Edmund Schulman, the tree specialist who found it, died tragically young at forty-nine, having lived around one hundredth as long as his discovery. The precise identity of the tree, which grows in Methuselah Grove alongside many other superannuated specimens, is a closely guarded secret; vulnerable to disturbance, it has been slowly dying for the past two thousand years.

The age of a tree is established by counting its annual growth rings, and Schulman’s discovery sparked a flurry of tree-dating activity. A geography student from Utah was determined to find an older specimen, so he borrowed a tree corer, which is used to take a pencil-sized core of wood from a living trunk, and set to work among venerable-looking specimens in Utah’s Snake Mountains. The corer snapped off during the work, and a local ranger gave the young man permission to cut the tree down to rescue the valuable piece of equipment. When the growth rings on the stump were counted, the specimen proved to be 4,900 years old. Pakenham assures us that if you doubt this tragic story you can count the rings yourself on a slice of the trunk installed in a Nevada gambling saloon. It is apparently all that remains of what was the oldest living thing on earth.

A large number of Pakenham’s wondrous trees are conifers from the tropics or temperate regions. These are giants of another age, for many of the species illustrated in the book last flourished in geological times past. The story of their retreat can be found, in miniature, in the fate of the Monterey cypress. When discovered by European explorers these trees were restricted to a tiny area around Monterey on the coast of California. Yet fossils reveal that before the Ice Age they grew alongside redwood and giant sequoia all along the west coast. With each of the advances of the ice during the past two and a half million years (there have been seventeen in all) the great trees were driven south and found refuge in southern California and Mexico, each time spreading north as the earth warmed. But when the ice melted for the last time 12,000 years ago, the Monterey cypress was unable to expand its range. Instead it clung to its rocky headlands, where its gnarled and stunted form bespeaks its struggle for survival. Perhaps fires set by Native Americans restricted its movements, but whatever the case, it has not limited the tree’s ability to flourish wherever it has been transplanted. Indeed, the largest tree you’re likely to see in places like New Zealand and Ireland is this native Californian.

Among the most striking trees to grace Pakenham’s book are the baobabs, of which there are just eight species—one each in Africa and northwest Australia’s remote Kimberley region, and six in Madagascar. There seems to be little doubt that Madagascar is the natal home of these stupendous, bottle-shaped trees, and how they arrived in faraway Australia is still disputed. A clue was chanced upon around a decade ago, when children playing in coastal sand dunes north of Perth found a football-sized egg. After considerable head-scratching by scientists it was identified as the egg of the Madagascan elephant bird, a creature that has been extinct for over one thousand years. The egg must have floated across the Indian Ocean before coming safely to rest on that Australian beach, and perhaps the buoyant seedpods of an ancient baobab did likewise. The baobabs and their near relatives the elephant’s foot trees are included in the “imperiled” section of Pakenham’s book, and for all their astonishing beauty and bizarreness of form they may well vanish under the axe as completely as the primeval forests of Europe.

It is those ancient European forests that concern Franciscus Wilhelmus Maria Vera in Grazing Ecology and Forest History. In our childhood, we all heard fairy tales about the European wild wood, which is portrayed as a gloomy wilderness where column-like trunks soar above the dank, entangled forest floor. But Vera argues that, except on some mountains, such forests never existed in Europe. Instead they are the invention of the foresters and ecologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who both created the first such forests by excluding grazing animals from forestry reserves, and spread the myth that the forests were somehow natural. This remarkable claim at first seems outlandish, but Grazing Ecology and Forest History is a closely argued work that painstakingly establishes the author’s case.

If Europe’s primeval forests are a fantasy, there is much to explain. Not least are the ancient Roman accounts like Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul and Tacitus’ The Agricola and the Germania, which many have taken to be eyewitness descriptions of the primeval forests. The dilemma lies in how to understand passages such as this from Tacitus:

Terra, etsi aliquanto specie differt, in universum tamen aut silvis horrida aut paludibus foeda.

Usually the sentence is translated as “In general, that land [Germany] is terrible because of the forests and horrible marshes.” Vera contends that a more accurate reading is “The land looks very different in many places, but in general, it is covered with thorny forests…and unhealthy marshes.”

For Vera, the translation of horrida as “thorny” provides a vital clue for understanding the vegetation of ancient Europe. In Roman times, Vera points out, northern Europe abounded with great mammals such as aurochs, bison, tarpan, and elk, whose grazing prevented the forest from becoming dense and continuous. Many plants in the underbrush had evolved spines and thorns to protect themselves from the browsers and grazers, and it was these thorny plants that acted as protective nurseries for trees such as oaks. Outside their defensive palisades the forest was reduced to meadow, and so a woodland mosaic resulted. It was, Vera argues, a vegetation pattern that survived well into medieval times, for domesticated cattle, horses, and wild pigs continued to act as their wild ancestors did, both in creating meadows and in perpetuating the oak woodlands.

It has long been argued that Europe’s greatest biodiversity is found not in its forests but in environments modified by human beings. Richest of all is the oak forest, a woodland environment that has long been thought of as resulting from the introduction of grazing herds into the primeval forests in medieval times. Vera argues instead that the oak forest is a relic of a pre-agricultural Europe, and thus it is the true primeval European environment. The only change, he contends, was that the herds of grazing animals that maintained it became domesticated, a development which did not substantially affect its structure.

Vera thinks that belief in the existence of the illusory primeval European forest is leading to environmental catastrophe. The last remnants of oak forests are being choked to death by trees because, in an effort to return them to what the environmentalists see as “nature,” grazing by domestic stock has recently been prohibited in them. Even the last herds of European bison are being driven from their ancestral haunts by this mistaken policy. They had survived in the Bial/owieza forest on the border of Poland and Belorussia for thousands of years, yet today the forest has become so dense that the bison are virtually excluded from the park. Providing the bison with hay in winter stops them from stripping bark from the trees as they once did, which limited the spread and concentration of trees. Today the few meadows they still inhabit must be kept open by mowing.

So far-reaching is the transformation in understanding that Vera provides that, if it is accepted, it would have an effect on European Union agricultural policy and thus world trade. European farmers have long argued that, because the main source of Europe’s biodiversity is found outside dense forest, European farmers play a vital part in enriching nature and stabilizing the environment. But Vera draws on an analogy between European forests and the threatened tropical rain forests:

I have often been amazed by the prevailing concept…that agriculture in Europe is the most suitable framework for maintaining biodiversity, since I have never heard them say that the tropical rainforests of Africa, Asia and South America should be reclaimed for agriculture because—[as] in Europe—it enriches nature…. Why should the opinion of the European nature conservationists [about] the rest of the world not be true for Europe?

Grazing Ecology and Forest History is an important and fascinating book and it has been published not a moment too soon, for the last vestiges of “natural” Europe are currently slipping away unrecognized. Technical in nature, it is likely to be read by relatively few, yet so explosive are its implications that it may well set off a revolution.

2.

Among the giants Thomas Pakenham illustrates in Remarkable Trees of the World is Te Matua Ngahere—the Father of the Forest—a great New Zealand kauri, an evergreen tree whose silvered trunk rises above the tree-fern forest like the sinewy arm of a giant. No one knows with certainty how old it or its brother giant kauris are, yet evidently they were already venerable trees when the first Maori stepped ashore in New Zealand around 1300 AD.

As Trevor Worthy and Richard Holdaway make clear in The Lost World of the Moa, the ecosystem that nurtured those giant kauri in their youth was wildly different from the one they preside over today, for then New Zealand was a land of birds. Foremost among the feathered tribes of Aotearoa—as the Maori people have called the New Zealand archipelago—were the moa. Eleven species of these huge, flightless creatures roamed the islands. Some were tall and elegant, exceeding the ostrich in height and weight; while others resembled feathered forty-four-gallon drums atop stumpy legs, their necks ending in absurdly tiny heads. We know in considerable detail what these birds looked like, for around a dozen moa mummies have been found, some of them still sporting feathers. We even know of their reproductive habits, for nests have been found, as well as skeletons containing eggs.

At the time William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel, the moa reigned supreme in Aotearoa. Indeed, almost until Chaucer’s time New Zealand remained their undisputed realm. But then the Maori arrived from Polynesia, perhaps drawn across the vastness of the Pacific by the movements of the billions of seabirds that once bred on the archipelago. Within three centuries the moa were all but extinct. A few, perhaps, roamed rugged Fiordland until just before James Cook visited in 1769, but no European ever saw one of the great birds in the flesh. The first they knew of them was from the Maori themselves, who had traditions about the “movies” (moa is a later term meaning “chicken”) that were hunted by their ancestors.

When the moa roamed Aotearoa the archipelago was home to Haast’s eagle. Over thirty-two pounds in weight, it was the largest raptor ever known—half as large again as South America’s harpy eagle. Moa pelvises have been found bearing punctures made by the great bird’s talons, leaving no doubt that Haast’s eagle preyed on creatures many times its size. In this bizarre environment, gigantic flightless parrots called kakapo emerged at night to graze the grasslands, while the kiwi probed the forest floor for food. Tiny flightless wrens and weta—crickets the size of American robins—filled the niche of rats and mice; while the tuatara, a lizard-like reptile belonging to a tribe that flourished before even the dinosaurs, lorded it over the forest floor by day, its third eye (buried in its forehead) helping regulate its activities.

On January 17, 1770, as the Endeavour lay at anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound, the naturalist Joseph Banks heard a last echo of this marvelous world:

This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemed to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.

For all its exuberance and beauty, the dawn chorus heard by Banks was a mere echo of what could have been heard four hundred years before, for by 1770 around half of New Zealand’s bird species were already extinct. Gone were the great booming calls of the moa (which we know about from their convoluted, bony tracheas), the screaming, mewing, and cawing of a billion seabirds (which even in Banks’s day were banished from the main islands), and the unknowable sounds of the native ducks, giant geese, and yard-high flightless rails, native crows, and giant harriers. Some years ago, I found that walking through the Te Matua Ngahere forest was a saddening experience, for in all that wondrous vegetation I heard nothing but the sound of the wind in the branches high above. The great orchestra that once nurtured and animated the most wondrous forest in the world is now gone.

The forces that destroyed New Zealand’s ecosystems were varied. Hunting by Maori was enough to kill off the moa, waterfowl, and most flightless birds. The kiore—a small rat introduced by the Maori—eliminated the giant weta, the reptiles, frogs, and smaller birds, and much of what remained fell victim to the stoats, rats, possums, and other predators and competitors that the Europeans brought with them. Yet the world came very close to preserving a tiny example of that forest, for a single forested island—Stephens Island in Cook Strait—survived in an undisturbed state right up to the end of the nineteenth century. Somehow the Maori had overlooked it, and even the Maori rat had not reached it. It brimmed with giant weta, tuatara, the world’s most primitive frogs, and of course birds, including the liquid-voiced piopio, the blue kokako, and the tiny flightless Stephens Island wren.

This last bird was wondrous. Mouse-sized and beautifully mottled, it hopped about among the undergrowth. It and a few of its relatives were the world’s most primitive songbirds, yet paradoxically they were incapable of uttering a note. For ninety million years evolution had forged them on their archipelago at the bottom of the world, but now ecological changes had seen them restricted to a single islet.

In 1893 work began on a lighthouse on Stephens Island. Much of the forest was cleared and when the lighthouse keeper arrived, he brought company—a cat called Tibbles. By the end of the year the New Zealand government had realized that Stephens Island was a special place and proclaimed it a reserve. But all too late, for Tibbles had already accounted for the last of the wrens, and the piopio and other birds were all gone. Less than a year of contact with the outside world had destroyed the fruits of ninety million years of evolution.

The Lost World of the Moa is in many respects a technical work, laden with scientific illustrations and graphs, and it is by far the most comprehensive treatment of New Zealand’s prehistory ever produced. Yet the story of the evolution and destruction of the world’s most distinctive fauna is a saga of monumental proportions. Thankfully, despite their professed scientific and technical objectives, Worthy and Holdaway reveal glimpses of this irresistible story, and for that their book deserves a wide readership.

3.

In Gum Ashley Hay reveals a very different natural history—the story of colonial Australia through the lens of its most ubiquitous tree—the eucalypt. Around 850 species inhabit the continent and they are found in most of its environments. Some are the tallest flowering plants on earth, while others barely reach past the knee. Hay’s story consists essentially of a series of biographies, beginning with Sir Joseph Banks, who as botanist on Cook’s first expedition left us the earliest written account of a gum tree, and ending with the environmentalist Geoff Law, who continues to struggle to preserve the last of Tasmania’s magnificent old-growth forest.

Hay’s scheme at first seems a peculiar one, but because of the ubiquity of the gum tree and its significance for the landscape, she can bring Australia’s explorers, surveyors, botanists, artists, authors, and environmentalists into one continuous dialogue with nature. Indeed the book’s great strength comes from the unfolding sense of Australian national identity that somehow crystallizes around the eucalyptus tree.

In her story of the battle to save Australia’s tallest trees, which grow in the valley of the Styx River in Tasmania, Hay reveals an unexpected parallel with Pakenham’s book of great trees. Neither scientific evidence of the trees’ significance nor political agitation by conservationists was sufficient to save the great mountain ash trees that towered more than three hundred feet above the valley floor. It was only when conservationists gave specimens individual names and identities that they were respected and ultimately conserved. This, of course, is just how Pakenham captures our interest. It is as if the trees are magically infused with power when they are individually named and described, and their deep links with our imaginations are once more stirred to action.

  1. *

    Quoted from the account of the expedition published as follows: M. Martin (gent.), A Late Voyage to St. Kilda, the Remotest of All of the Hebrides, or Western Isles of Scotland. With a History of the Island, Natural, Moral and Topographical. Wherein is an Account of their Customs, Religion, Fish, Fowl etc. As Also a Relation of a Late IMPOSTOR There, Pretended to be Sent by St. John Baptist (London: D. Brown and T. Goodwin, at the Black Swan and Bible, without Temple Bar, 1698).

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