Portrait

A walk through Toolangi State Forest with scientist and academic David Lindenmayer. By Romy Ash.

Professor David Lindenmayer

There’s no path. Professor David Lindenmayer pushes through the Toolangi State Forest understorey: bracken, wire grass, Tasmanian pepperberry, rough tree fern. There’s soft tree fern, too, and as we pass them Lindenmayer tells me their scientific names: Cyathea australis (rough), Dicksonia antarctica (soft). He knows this forest. He’s been working in it for close to 36 years. I touch the trunk of a towering mountain ash. Its bark is rough, distinctly different from the mountain blue gum, the other species of tree that predominantly makes up this forest. This old tree stands by the edge of the logging road we’ve been bumping along in Lindenmayer’s dusty truck. We’re deep in the forest, which forms part of the proposed Great Forest National Park in Victoria, a park Lindenmayer has been working to establish. The proposed park stretches from Kinglake through to the Baw Baws and north-east to Eildon. Lindenmayer pauses to let a tiny tiger snake slither through the leaves ahead of us. We step out into searing sunshine.

“So this is a logging coupe called Rusty, and it’s a shocker. Because when you look out across…” – he gestures towards the trees to the left, which is one of Lindenmayer’s long-term Leadbeater’s possum monitoring sites – “…you can see a whole lot of very large, big old trees. Some of them are mountain ash, almost all of them are mountain grey gum, but they’ve all got hollows in them.”

There are about 170 monitoring sites scattered throughout the forest. They monitor not just Leadbeater’s but greater gliders, birds, the trees themselves. Leadbeater’s need hollows, and they don’t need just one hollow. He tells me how the critically endangered possums change hollows every night, so that owls don’t learn where they’re nesting. His data shows the number of sites occupied by Leadbeater’s has halved since 1997.

In contrast to the monitoring site, which is protected, ahead of us the forest has been logged. It’s bare, hot and punctuated by the occasional, giant, dying tree. It’s also silent.

“This was logged about three or four years ago, and what you can see are piles of logging slash, so these are the tree heads, the understorey,” Lindenmayer tells me. “This logging coupe wasn’t burnt because there was such community protest about what had happened here. But normally a lot of this is burnt.

“When the forest was first cut this monitoring site had quite a number of greater gliders on it, but there were greater gliders all up through this logging coupe as well. The first survey night after the logging was done, there were about a dozen greater gliders all through this part of the forest and now they’re all dead, they’re gone. And so one of the things that people need to understand is that the vast majority of these animals die on site, they don’t bail out – they’re marooned here and then they die. So we’d come back and do another survey on this site and there would be one or two gliders and then there were none. There are none in the surrounding landscape either.”

He explains that we are surrounded by quite young forest, that we can tell by the pyramid shape of the mountain ash growing over the tops of the hills that the trees are young. He says we’ll struggle for the rest of the day to find many old trees in the whole system. This was a rare patch of old growth forest that’s now gone.

“This is hard,” he says, “to come back and see this.” His face is shaded by a holey Akubra, soft with wear. It’s stamped down over a thick cap of silver hair. He looks out over of the coupe, but he doesn’t pause for long.

He explains why young forest is so fire prone – dangerously so. How logged forest was a contributing factor in the devastation that was Black Saturday. He explains how important old growth is for Melbourne’s water supply, how young forests suck up a tremendous amount of water, diverting it from creeks, rivers and ultimately dams. He gives me the number on how few jobs the native forest industry employs. He says ash forests are among the most carbon dense of any forest measured on the planet. He passionately references scientific reports, statistics there at the tip of his tongue.

“Policy is out of step with the science,” he says. “It’s madness.”

We drive further into the forest. He points out the logged coupes, those just cut and burnt, those thick with new forest, five-year growth, 10-year growth, 25-year growth. Skinny eucalypts so close together you could barely squeeze between trees. We crisscross our way through the logged forest and stop at an area that looks and feels different.

“So this is one of our old growth patches, you can see it’s not very large, we’ve got about a hectare. There’s about 30 big trees that we watch. People come in at dusk, sit under the trees and count possums as they jump out into the surrounding forest,” he says gesturing towards the canopy. Here the trees are widely spaced. It feels like parkland. The undergrowth is low and mossy.

“When we do our bird plots, I like it the most. I can stand here and I can just work through the sound system: golden whistler, crimson rosella, pink robin, flame robin, rose robin, Australian pardalote. It’s all by ear. It’s just like another language – fan-tailed cuckoo, white-throated treecreeper, tree martin, pilotbird – it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s a completely different forest. It’s almost unrecognisable, compared with where we were before.” He speaks softly, he’s still, listening, concentrating. The forest is cool and loud. I listen to the birds, too.

“It is beautiful,” he says. And it is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Coupe disgrace". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.