I took a few steps off the road and suddenly, silently all around me was a place I remembered, or half remembered — the brown broad flaking trunks and pale green ferns and the mossed and mushroom-barnacled logs of the original Forest that for an eternity covered most of Europe. The green caressing welcoming ominous Otherworld that Hansel and Gretel were lost in, and Puck the mischievous fairy taunted young love in, and black-cowled Death would wait in for the next footsore traveller with his scythe and his smirk and his mortal bargainings. It was all still there, it seemed, in south-west Tasmania, just off the dirt road out of Maydena, the Woods, the dark seductive habitat of childhood’s bedtime stories and old men’s waking dreams where Tolkien’s elvin creatures scuttered and Merlin slept.
And in it, suddenly, silently, there was what I had come to see: a big tree, pale, and straggling bark, tall and straight, tall as three railway carriages stood on end, old as Will Shakespeare would be now if he were still alive, wide as a city tenement, deep in its roots as Town Hall station 6; then another near it and a little way off, through undergrowth, a third, in shadows deepened by their own immensity. Eucalyptus regnans. The tallest flowering plants on earth. The highest hardwoods, and the second largest living things after, yes, California’s redwoods — though one of them felled a century ago in Victoria had measured 150 metres (lacking trigonometry, the admiring axemen could measure it only by cutting it down), and so was the biggest living thing on earth, till they cut it down.
Toadstools and lichens and butterflies around them, moss and mouldering peace. A clinging, attentive buzzing silence all around. We took our photographs: Ellis arms outstretched in crucifix mode against the trunk’s grey freckled enormity, Ellis and friends communing with sprouting pre-Cambric toadstools. And then we walked on, through the Woods, the ever-hypnotic and soothing dappled panoply, crunching the undergrowth, towards…what? I both knew and didn’t want to know.
And soon, too soon, we saw it, the next thing on the map. The Desolation. Clear-felling they call it, but no words are big enough for this vast and tedious panorama of splintered nothingness, this mile on mile of stricken and shattered mountainside that used to be green embracing Arthurian forest — how recently? a year? a month? a week? — and was now like Dresden the morning after, carpet-bombed, burnt out, lifeless, no birdsong, no skirring insects, no animals, the bushland equivalent of what the Biblical prophet Ezekiel called ‘a valley of dry bones’. Oblivion. Holocaust. Extinction. In a region wondrously, tellingly named the Valley of the Styx.
‘And after they chop them down of course,’ Charles Wooley of Sixty Minutes volubly noted as we posed together on a stump as wide as a Manly ferry, ‘they have to poison what life remains — what a good old forester mate of mine once called “the vermin.” And I said vermin, you mean, rats, mice? And he said, “No, Charlie, possums and wombats and wallabies and potoroos.”‘ Maybe half a million animals a year, Wooley estimated, a slow and painful death from a deciduous monofluoroacetate mix that was known as 1080 and quickly vanished from the ecosystem leaving no trace, like a neutron bomb. After which the new-planted corporation forests could grow untroubled by pesky animal life in healthy, thrusting, skyward silence.
I thought of the phrase then, and told it to Wooley: ecological totalitarianism. He liked it, because it contained within the sweep of its ugly meaning all the information people weren’t told. How you couldn’t, for instance, discover through Freedom of Information what money Tasmania made, and Riotinto made, from woodchipping; what, in dollars and cents, this ongoing unceasing willed catastrophe was finally worth. That information was ‘reclassified,’ unknowable, not fit to know.
‘This year they’ve produced more chips than in any other years,’ he said. ‘We’re up to somewhere between 5 and 6 million tonnes per year. And yet they’ll never crow about that, no way. Now if we were selling apples again — which we can’t give away — the Minister for Apples would say, “We’ve sold 5 million tonnes. This is fantastic.” When we do so well in woodchipping, they don’t mention it.’
Charles Wooley was angrier lately than in the twenty-odd years I’d known him. A prospering jocular media personality, he’d lately halved his television commitments and moved back to his island home in search of that dream of his Huckleberry childhood — fly-fishing, bushwalking, rock-climbing, rafting, catamaranning — that he now might relive with his new young family. And he saw what he called the ‘Stalinist economics’ of the Tasmanian quangos in their thick-witted bureaucratic sluggishness wrecking, uprooting, smashing his dreamtime hour by hour. World War Tree, some called it. The industry that dare not speak its name. Trees taller than the Opera House, tall enough to reach from the water high up into the arch of the Harbour Bridge, each of them a wonder of the world, being turned into garden furniture and office desks and woodchips. It made no sense.
I spent Christmas with him, in his Federation house in Battery Point, Hobart, and had an engorged and roisterous good time with his wife Red the chef and all of his children and certain bibulous, revelling, mildewed male companions. But the anger, though cloaked in bawdy stories and a journo’s acid-drop ridicule, did not cease.
‘The dog that starred in Babe retired to Tasmania,’ he said with feeling, ‘with his New Zealand-born owner. He was on a long leash in the backyard. And a wombat dying of 1080 came staggering out of the bush. He died. On his leash, the dog was just able to get at him, and gnawed on his leg. And he too had a long and painful death he didn’t deserve. Nothing deserves to die like that. 1080′s banned in the United States, and most of the rest of the world, and rightly so. It comes in little chopped piles of carrots, which the chemicals turn blue. You see it everywhere — by the road, in the waste ground, at the forest edge. It’s done with the same clear conscience that gave poisoned flour to the blacks. It’s done for a good economic purpose, and for the civilisation of Tasmania.’
Bob Brown, the ceaseless Green crusader and senator looked up from his breakfast coffee at Zum’s in Salamanca Place. ‘I first came to Tasmania in search of the thylacine,’ he said, ‘and if there were any alive when I came here they’re dead by now, taken out by 1080, probably round Maydena.’ It’s a particularly nasty death, he explained with his characteristic gentle dark-humoured sombre calm. ‘The animals convulse inside. They lose control of all orifices, and they just die, convulsing internally, a pain-racked death.’ Though it subsides pretty fast, it’s around for a while. He’d recently seen, for instance, three farm dogs who died of it ‘when they hopped a fence into a woodchip area and ate wallabies.’ I asked why this particular loathsome exterminant was used. ‘It’s cheap,’ he explained. ‘If they wanted to they could send out men with guns, or even build fences. But those alternatives are costly, and this is cheap.’
I looked across my copious, meat-heavy breakfast at this interesting, gently-spoken, possibly saintly man. He sometimes looked, I decided, like a medieval woodcut, carved from the same tough eucalyptine material he was tirelessly, patiently trying to save, an iconic familiar presence, a man of earnest constancy, all of a piece — the lean Abe Lincolnish frame, the angular Pilgrim face, the classless baritone voice, the sound-bite eloquence, the fundamentalist tenacity. I asked him how he got up each morning, to go on with the fight. ‘I think of the suffragettes,’ he said. ‘They had it harder than me. And the anti-slavery campaigners. They had it harder still. I’ve got it pretty easy. I get to use a Commonwealth car.’
The tiny Margaret Scott, the writer and comedy star, had emphysema that had worsened since I’d seen her last, and though she was down to four cigarettes a day she could not walk the length of her farmhouse corridor without staggering. It was true she had lately stood on a giant stump, she breathlessly admitted over a large antipasto lunch, like a poignant orating munchkin begging in her measured, sardonic, scholarly way for the life of the trees of the Styx. ‘It’s the straight tall trees that are made into woodchips,’ she said, and ‘the rubbish’, the limbs and the smaller trees, that are burned on the forest floor. ‘So in fact the cream of the old growth forests is going off to make woodchips. And it’s dreadful, dreadful that this is happening. It’s happening faster and faster, I think, because plantation wood from other countries — and one eucalyptus plantation, growing fast, in China is as big, I am told, as all of Tasmania — will very soon flood the market and they won’t get anything for what’s grown here. So they’re destroying the old growth forests as quickly as possible, while they’re still worth a few cents.’
She mourned, she added, lighting up a cigarette, not only the Forest of Europe that was part of her dreamtime too (she was born in Bristol and schooled in Cambridge and married for a time, implausibly and perilously, to the vast Falstaffian playwright Michael Boddy before she became in her witty sixties a youth cult figure on Good News Week and the ABC’s Great Debates), but also the two billion trees, or was it three billion trees, ‘and what’s a billion more or less?’, struck down since white settlement in continental Australia. ‘And as a result of course here the earth is striking back because salinity — not only the poisoning of the atmosphere but the poisoning of the earth itself — is on its vengeful, apocalyptic rampage.’
Like many forest campaigners of the over fifties generation of her adopted island she was both steadfast and despairing. What was happening was wrong and win or lose must be fought, to the last syllable of recorded time. Quickly bored by her own emphatic earnestness, she changed the subject and talked of other things. Her new book on ageing. Her ominously titled Collected Poems. Her garden. Her seven children and step-children. Her love of the Peninsula, that other Eden. I hoped I would see her again. She was one of the special people.
It was not beyond the wit of humankind, proposed Tim Morris, the lean persuasive ex-mayor of Maydena, whom I visited with Wooley before Christmas, to imagine a profitable tourist resort called The Valley of the Giants, with a steam train that came, as it used to, chuffing up the valleys to Maydena and a restaurant car on the train and a trad jazz band in the club car, and eco-tourists enjoying fine food and a boisterous left wing cabaret in the dining room of his crumbly weatherboard chalet on the night before they went out on their walk in the Forest with him as guide, or another. It would create forty jobs, at least. ‘With those forty jobs, we’d have a sustainable community. We’re about forty jobs short at the moment.’
What wrecked Maydena, he said, was the newsprint mills closing down at two weeks notice in the late eighties, when jackal rationalism at last remembered Tasmania and 1500 workers were sacked in about four years. Before then we had a paper industry, a paper industry that took some trees but preserved the ecosystem, and it made a profit. Now with clear-felling everywhere our one paper mill, in Burnie, unbelievably imports its woodchips from Indonesia, while we send ours more cheaply to Japan. Madness. Madness.
Only seven percent of Australia’s foreign tourism comes to Tasmania, he emphasised, and there was, apart from the distance, a reason for that. ‘We have this enormous civil war going on in this state, and the oppression of ten percent of the population who are out there saying, we don’t want this happening. And the government says, “Oh we’re clean and green, we like this image.” And vroom, down the road comes a big truck with a four-hundred-year-old tree on the back. And the people who are visiting the state, cruising round, really hate this. You go round a bend, just quietly looking at the scenery, and a sixty ton truck loaded with forest giants comes round the corner on your side of the road.’
And the trucks do not swerve of course, to avoid native animals dawdling across the highway. ‘In the dry weather after Christmas they come down to the rivers for water and they cross the roads because the roads are largely parallel to the rivers. And the stink of the dead animals is tremendous, and the tourists don’t like that either. And Forestry Tasmania has to send out a truck every morning in summer to pick up the carcases off the road.’
I asked him why so many people like him — literate, middle-aged, thoughtful, thong-wearing, opinionated, artistic, politically implacable — fetched up at last in Tasmania. ‘Well, it’s where people unthrilled by the money economy come,’ he said. ‘Here you can be broke in passable comfort, in a beautiful, clean, inspiring, special, still special place.’
And Tasmania, maddeningly, unstintingly, was beautiful still. The regrown trees on Mount Wellington where I stood in falling snow on December 27th looked okay to me. The museum towns of Georgian sandstone, so perfectly what they should be, and the tumbling clouds above hillsides green as Devon where horses browsed and sheep cascaded in perfect compositions, the sparkling waters of the pebbled streams and the salmon farms and the weatherboard teashops bespoke that better country the Past where they do things differently, as the man said, and more kindly and communally. Surely, trees or not, with some trees gone and others growing back, Tasmania would abide and be a better example to the distorted, polluted world of mindless numbers withering and choking elsewhere. Surely there was a time for giving over, and copping sweet and sad and stoic what was politically pragmatic and economically inevitable and giving up the fight for Tasmania’s sake, what was left of it, when what was left was pretty good.
At our second breakfast at Zum’s Bob Brown professed amusement at the deft Orwellian phrasing from Forestry Tasmania. ‘Wood production zones, which means total destruction. Tall tree management zones, which means total destruction. Harvesting, which means total destruction. I do like harvesting. It brings up images of maidens flitting through the crop with garlands in their hair.
‘And they take out trees like the regnans because they’re, quote, “post-mature and senescent” — which means they’re old, and might have only five hundred years to live. Post-mature and senescent: this description, Ellis, fits you and me. By dawn’s early light I see the chainsaws coming for us too.’
Best, he said, were their stated reasons for cutting down one section of old growth forest, then leaving one, then cutting down the next one, and so on. ‘It’s “addressing the problem of the dreary landscape,” they say, “by creating a patchwork quilt effect.”‘ His expression grew melancholy, and he said, ‘You’ve got to laugh.’
I stood among the snowdrifts on Mount Wellington on December 27th looking out over bunched clouds and sun shafts and cliffs and shores and rainstorms and patches of blissful, green-meadowed summer as if I were seeing, somehow, the whole world all at once, and I pondered as further snow began to fall the upside-downness of Tasmania. How though 39 percent of it was national park or protected zones, the largest such entities so classified in the known world, the war of the trees, more trees, more trees, went on. How, though 72 percent of its people disliked woodchipping, woodchipping went on. How its woodchips mostly went to Japan, but Japan preserved all its own trees and used the trees of the rest of the world for its famous, delicate paper and dividable virgin chopsticks. How the bitter history of Labor and the Greens in Tasmania, and the coalition between them that Bob Brown ended by bringing down the Field government after a breach of trust, or what he said was a breach of trust, and the historic links between Labor and the timberworkers’ unions (John Curtin was for years the chief representative of the Victorian branch) meant thankless, carping rancour unceasingly envenomed the discussions of two humanistic parties with a good deal in common – Labor and the Greens – here in Tasmania as nowhere else. How a pledge of a hundred dollars each from each Green voter in the Commonwealth might buy the Valley of the Styx, but what was preferred instead was the politics of whinge, and crusading kerbside slogans, and poignant song. How nonetheless the valley was beautiful, and each tree if left as a tourist wonder would over time make hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands more dollars than its component fibres turned to veneer and chopsticks and paper and kitchen tables. How the trees already in fact had made half a million dollars for Channel Nine from the commercials screened round Wooley’s Sixty Minutes story on the night, however, when the nation was watching instead the final SeaChange. How Tasmanians lacked, and most sorely lacked, a Richard Branson-style tourism entrepreneur who would bottle its mineral springs and sell world-wide its beers and cheese and take high-rolling fly-fishermen to its clear mountain waters and eco-tourists down its thrilling mountain tracks and publicise with Imax movies and popular songs this land of the day before yesterday, this wonder of the world.
I learned too that day that the three big trees I saw in the Styx had been since the fifties declared preserved, along with a fifteen hectare patch around them of token, temperate rain forest. But without the vast surrounding eco-system, the Greens, the whingeing Greens then argued, a hundred thousand more acres of it, the high winds would kill them soon and that would be that.
It wasn’t easy. None of it was easy. And time, the enemy time, was fleeting.
I got on the bus disconsolate to be leaving a place so like my childhood round Murwillumbah, remembering what I could. I remembered especially Christmas afternoon, when Wooley’s mischievous boyhood rekindled in his eyes, and he described with daunted relish the triumph he had felt as a boy when he cut down at last a bloody big tree. ‘And there it comes, and it comes all the way down. But then, then in that awful crash, and in the terrible silence that accompanies a crashing tree in the forest, a huge and awful silence after the last bit of litter comes down, it abruptly seems to us all nature, all awareness in us is saying,’ and he dropped his voice to a whisper, ‘”What the fuck did we just do?”
‘It’s like the death of God.’