Wednesday 5 September 2007

Touch Wood: The Ecology of a Woodpile

I cannot drive past a firewood truck without scrutinising the load. It is my winter sport. As the surfer seeks the ultimate wave, so I search for the perfect load of wood. In my mind I see it - grey and dry, smooth-grained and barrel shaped, bearded with the pale lichen of its highland home. It splits with the merest caress of the block-splitter, yet resounds with a decent thwack. And it ignites with blushing haste at the first touch of an ember, then burns clean, lean and slow all night. It is the dream of the wood-gatherer. But with the firewood comes an unseen host, a whole ecosystem of which I am ignorant, until a bird shows me.

The grey shrike-thrush, so ignobly named, is one of our most inquisitive birds. And a peerless singer, as its full name Colluricincla harmonica implies. We know it simply as `Jo Witee', after its most frequent call. To `Jo Witee' two tonnes of firewood is a smorgasbord. The unassuming grey bird lands on the wood heap less than a metre away. It works at the wood, probing, hopping, stopping, tilting its head, then jabbing again. Though I call it grey, it is a grey as varied as clouds. On its back is the olive-grey of a coming storm. The beak is stormier still, but the under parts are the off-white of a gentle cumulus. It shows no fear of me, so I return to the mindless work of stacking the wood, accompanied by Jo Witee's rich whipping flute. It is much later, in splitting the stacked wood that I begin to find the bird's quarry.

Taken from their high-altitude home at near enough to freezing, the denizens of the wood find a ten degree winter's day summer-like. Some are triggered into immediate activity, rising to the surface of their cellulose ocean in search of mate or food: ants, moths, beetles, woodlice. Others remain secreted in impossible places. To my astonishment I split a solid log and find a spider web clamped to the freshly-split surface. Where there was surely no gap, a small jumping spider emerges from a web, or a young huntsman from a crack.

Each type of spider has its own personality, its own capacity to evoke fear or favour. But surely even the most hardened arachnophobe couldn't fear the jumping spider family (Salticidae). Small and harmless, one enthusiast describes them as possessing "charm . . . unbounded vitality . . . confident fearlessness". Their family name comes from the Latin salto, and refers to their ability to dance with pantomimic gestures. It is supposed to be possible to stand at an appropriate distance and wave arms in such a way that these little spiders will signal back.
One particular huntsman - Delena cancerides - is rare among spiders. It is one of only 33 species of spider world-wide that exhibit social behaviour (as against `spider eat spider'.) If a woodpile is disturbed too often, there are plenty of other places to hide a huntsman or twenty. But it is still a shock to move a sheet of board or corrugated iron and find a horde of tiny huntsmen socially scuttling about. The big ones seek out the backs of car sun-visors, but thankfully they are solitary.

Not all of the species in a woodpile arrive alive. Some are killed in the crush, or lose Russian roulette with the chain-saw. Others are dead before the cut, victims of a burn-off. (The merchants call blackened firewood `Chinaman's wood'.) Both cutter and insect look for standing dead wood. It is a race to see which can reduce the tree to nothing first. One cutter tells me that wood needs to stand dead for seven years before it is dry enough to burn. Another says a dead tree can stay green for over ten years, giving the insects a head start.

So if the cutters don't get to a tree, the longicorn beetle might. This beetle seeks out trees that are stressed, damaged or recently dead. It lays eggs on the trunk, preferably in cracks or wounds. The larvae bore long tunnels into the trunk, secreting an enzyme that helps them to directly digest the cellulose. If you press an ear to the trunk you might hear them munching.

They are often mistaken for witchetty grubs, which they resemble except for the marked broadening of the `head and shoulder' region that gives them a body-builder shape. Longicorn grubs spend up to two years in the wood before pupating, leaving the wood filled with dark brown frass. They finally emerge from the pupa as blackish beetles with long antennae, almost wasp-like in appearance. The wood they leave behind is usually less than the highest quality for burning, let alone for timber, though this doesn't stop some wood merchants selling it as good firewood.

My great-grandfather, Alexander Grant, left accounts of his woodcarting in the 1860's. He worked the woodlands to the west of Sydney. Cutters would fell trees with axes and handsaws, drag them out by horse and chain, then carry off the sawn-up logs by horse and dray. It was at least a four hour trip to Oxford Street Sydney, where they would sell the wood. He writes:

"A pump used to be on the triangular piece of ground up Oxford Street for water carts to fill up. At this place would be sometimes 25 to 30 loads of wood, and people used to come there to buy."

These were rough times. Each night these same merchants would travel back along the Parramatta Road in convoy. It was some protection against both robbery and fatigue.

"To think that I was expected to keep awake after staying in Sydney till about 10 o'clock trying to sell out the wood, and then this brute (of a horse) would take 3 hours to walk home as he would not walk one bit quicker with an empty dray than a full one, and to sleep I would go in spite of all I could do."

To add injury to indolence, the `brute' also kicked Alexander in the face, shattering his jaw and disfiguring him for life. The woodcutter later spent a fortnight in gaol for cutting wood on the wrong side of an unmarked boundary. Nearly 50 years later (in 1907) he still rails

"We should not have gone to gaol. The wood was left where cut and we were sentenced for stealing - stealing what then to be tried by a personal friend of the plaintiff, and in his private room after court hours, does it look justice?"

Things were no better around Hobart, where wood and water rights were strongly disputed on the slopes of Mount Wellington. Here the blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) were prized for cladding the whaleboats that worked southern waters in the mid-19th century. But they, along with stringy barks (Eucalyptus obliqua), were also used to make water races for the many mills that lined the Hobart Rivulet near what is now the Cascade Brewery. More than once the races were sabotaged, or the timbers stolen by woodsmen employed by rival merchants or millers.

The wood carters of today still dance with the law. By dint of their work, they have to fly by night. Short winter days of cutting, stacking, loading, unloading, repairing trucks and chainsaws; twilights and nights of delivering, handling the same wood for the fourth or fifth time, enduring complaints about how wet and cold their pampered clients are - the very clients who write them dud cheques. Suffering the snow, the mud, the impossible driveway, the irate customer, the predictably unpredictable weather. To survive, the species has developed its own canny instincts.

The taxman is the arm of the law most often capered with. My request to pay by cheque is met with a guffaw at the other end of the phone. The deal is strictly cash. And when I ask his name there is an eloquent pause. "Pete . . ." is all I'm told. (Say no more.) A few short years and he'll probably go the way of my last reliable supplier. Pat was as wide as he was tall - lived on ice-cream and coke, and used to complain about his health problems. If they cut him open they'd probably find longicorn grubs. At least he was honest.

The other kind are almost as abundant as the wood-dwellers they inadvertently deliver. I ask one where he gets his wood. "Up the bush" he says with a wry grin. His load is full of wattle and stringy bark. Stringy bark is a favoured food of Swift moth larvae (aenetus species). In turn these witchetties are an irresistible delicacy for the yellow-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus). These can kill a young stringy bark by stripping and weakening it in search of grubs. In other species of eucalypt it has been seen tearing large panels of live wood down the tree, then using the attached end as a platform on which to stand and munch the grubs exposed by its tear. The rollicking squawking birds can also make a mess of mature stringy barks, leaving mounds of the ropy bark littering the forest. Though the wood burns well enough, the mess made by its bark is nothing in its favour as firewood. When it's hollowed out by grubs it's even less attractive. Still some cutters can't resist finishing what moth larvae and cockatoos have begun.

Swift moths are not the only candidates for the name "witchetty". In different parts of Australia it has been given to the larvae of many different species, both beetle and moth. All have in common a large larva that is part of traditional Aboriginal food. They can be eaten cooked or raw, and are supposed to taste quite nutty.

But not all large moth larvae are edible. One of the largest, the giant wood moth (Xyleutes boisduvali) has a wing span of up to 250 mm. Though its abdomen is the size of a small sausage, its larva is prized as fishing bait rather than human fare. In Tasmania the larva of the wattle goat moth (Xyleutes durvillei) is also prized for fishing. The female moth lays masses of creamy yellow eggs in a blob of sticky fluid, onto the bark of wattle trees - hence its popular name wattle grub. The larvae burrow into the soft sapwood, where they can fatten up for several years. The prized grubs are commonly sold for $1.00 each, which fact is responsible for the mutilation of many young wattles. Between bait hunters, fire, cockatoos and larvae infestations, most wattles are short-lived. Their wood is not totally despised as firewood, but it generally burns too quickly and too hot.

Just as not all wood types are right for burning, so not all wood-dwellers are welcome in the home. One that can't be tolerated is the silverfish. A member of the thysanura order, there are 23 different species of silverfish in Australia. The most successful are the imported ones, whose ancestors existed for millions of years before the advent of paper. As with longicorn larvae, many species of silverfish secrete cellulase, which helps them to digest cellulose. But though they can eat wood the hard way, it can't be doubted that Herr Gutenberg's printing press did thysanura a great favour by encouraging the proliferation of paper made from easily-digestible wood fibre.

Our small black cat has developed a liking for silverfish. Whether indoors or out, she cannot resist chasing these piscatorial pretenders. I can't believe she actually digests the things - but usually the merest touch is enough to end their book-munching career. In the woodshed the assassin is more likely to be a spider.

A frequenter of the woodshed with even fewer friends than the silverfish is the scorpion. Ancient members of the arachnida, scorpions are thus related to spiders and mites. Ancient too is our fear of them, stemming first from their poison, but also from their symbolic power. In the bible scorpions rank with snakes as symbols of pain and desolation. "And their torment was as the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man." (Revelation 9:5).

The venom of some scorpions has been found to contain toxins that can directly damage heart tissues. But the majority are no more venomous than those in my woodshed, they are simply larger. Cercophonius squama, the only variety in Tasmania, is rarely as big as a pen top; those in Palestine can be bigger than a penknife, and are thus able to inject more of their venom. So although fatal scorpion stings have been recorded, including in Australia, the majority have a sting about as painful as that of a european wasp (which has caused many more fatalities, and is far more aggressive.)

Scorpions are in fact shy of publicity, seeking dark, dry spots to go about their business. They can be found beneath piles of bark and leaves, or under rocks, though a nicely stacked load of firewood will do very well. As their eyesight is only up to distinguishing light from dark, they hunt by feel, using their large front claws, which bristle with sensitive hairs, to provide instant information about their prey. These can then be immobilised with the tail-mounted sting.
I split open a log and find one inside a cavity created by beetle larvae. The scorpion has gone there to hunt, and judging by the pile of shells, legs and other detritus, it has had a successful time. Not a fussy eater, it will consume beetles, spiders, larvae, even other scorpions, with the female often devouring the male after mating. It is said a male will never sting a female - a strange chivalry, if it is true.

The widowed female is a careful mother. She digs a semi-spiral burrow, and eventually gives birth to perhaps forty tiny white scorpions, which she will carry for weeks on her back, while they feed, grow and moult. When they are large enough to fend for themselves, they stay clear of their former home for fear of becoming mother's next meal. In more than 25 years of handling firewood, I have only ever encountered a dozen scorpions. And I have never been stung by one, "touch wood".

Nature Writing Prize - Award Speech

[excerpt from the presentation speech for the 2007 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize]

Nature is something worth celebrating in Tasmania, even if some of us tend to take it for granted, believing we have “an awful lot of it”. In thinking about how we don’t always appreciate the wonders around us, I thought an analogy might be the dolerite that is so evident here in Hobart. Many of us look out on the columnar dolerite cliffs of Kunanyi/Mt Wellington – the so-called Organ Pipes – every morning over our Weeties … or looking around perhaps gluten-free muesli might be closer to the mark. At any rate, dolerite is just part of the backdrop to our days.

Yet in global terms it is a rare igneous rock. It was first formed during the tearing apart of Pangaea some 200 million years ago. Without resorting to volcanic eruptions or other glowing flows of molten material, a staggering 15 000 cubic kilometres of dolerite welled up below the surface. Once the surface rock was worn away, dolerite would leave its mark on nearly half of Tasmania.

Do we ever stop to ask what dolerite is really like? What kind of neighbour it makes? To walkers and climbers it is friendly and reliable. Feet and hands find it answers their needs with a sureness that can be comforting, at least on casual acquaintance. Our dog might have told a different story after a long day on the Western Tiers. His regular habit of covering the ground three times – out, back to check, out again – combined poorly with the shark-skin roughness of the rock. Towards the end of the day the pads of his paws were abraded so badly that they bled, and he limped wretchedly. Even so he would neither slow his pace nor alter his rule. We finally had to pick him up and carry him the last kilometre back to the car.

So I should have learned. Yet many years later I found myself learning afresh the lessons of dolerite on a high level traverse of the Du Cane Range. The navigational difficulties presented by its enormous boulders forced us to clamber up, over, around and down countless dolerite faces. As I slid face, feet and fingers down my umpteenth rock wall, pressed hard against it by my heavy pack, I gained the kind of intimate acquaintance with this rock that had me feeling like a failed rock-whisperer. If only I could have commanded the rocks to throw themselves into the sea, I might not have ended the walk with raw and bleeding fingertips. Or perhaps I could have worn gloves!

Still such close and painful acquaintance can have its compensations. Who, for instance, could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of lichen on dolerite? The rock’s often finely pitted surface, its native acidity, the clean air of its favoured haunts all help it to contrive myriad niches for lichen. And who could remain unmoved by the lichen’s amazing variety of colours and textures? What from a few metres away appears a flat grey turns, on closer inspection, into a symphony of subtle tones. There are unnamed shades of grey, green, black, red, orange, yellow, brown and white.

And that is just the clothes the dolerite wears. Let your walking boot dislodge a small boulder and you may literally scratch the surface of this impressive rock. Beneath its surface – providing you and your walking companions survive to inspect it – you will see a hidden masterpiece in grey and blue, with accents supplied by the sparkling faces of crystals coming to the light for the first time in perhaps 150 million years. If you also detect the flinty whiff of freshly concussed rock, you may be thankful that bleeding fingertips is the worst you have.

So next time you look up at the mountain, pause and think your own grateful thoughts toward this foundational part of this beautiful place. Asking us to stop and think such thoughts is one of the key roles of nature writing.

Monday 3 September 2007

More Than You Can Chew

There is no such fish as a sardine. There is no knowledge of tide or current; no skill with bait or lure that will land you a single species called a sardine, even if there existed a sardine large enough for an angler to want to boast of catching one. The fish more famous for being entombed en masse in oil inside an odd rectangular can, belongs to any of dozens of fish species so treated. The important factor is the small size and palatability. We may choose not to think about it, but sardines have to be eaten whole: head, eyeballs, bones, scales, fins, tail and all.

What we feed to our cat as pilchards might just as easily turn up on our plate labelled sardines. But whether cat or human, the whole fish has to slip down without a snag. Chewing is fine, but a recognizable and resistant bone will have either diner gagging. So sardinability is about being young, plentiful, small and soft-boned. But just in case, there’s always the oil and the heating involved in the canning process to help soften any recalcitrant bones.

The rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri) is usually another meal deal altogether. It too may be cooked whole, although knife and fork skill is required if you’re to reach the end of a whole trout meal with equanimity. And the head and bones are definitely not part of the meal. That is unless you’re a Tasmanian tiger snake.

New Zealand must once have been visited by St Patrick. Either that or its relative youth geologically-speaking, and its islanded isolation, have meant that few reptiles – and no snakes – have become established on the shaky isles. So Richard promises our kiwi guest the sight of a snake during our visit to Lake St Clair. But it is still unexpected that we should find one on the beach at Platypus Bay. A small adult tiger snake, probably only 150cm long, lies draped around the edge of a wrecked barge in the shallows of the bay. Only 5 metres away, in clear bright sunshine, we have a clear view of its sleek black tessellated form. Unusually it makes no move to flee from our obvious presence. A closer look explains why. On the rotting deck of the old barge lies a rainbow trout, its intense blue spots showing that it has lately been alive. (These spots fade not long after a trout dies.)

We have not witnessed it, but it seems obvious that the snake has just caught and killed the trout. As we stand piecing the puzzle together, some of the pieces begin moving. The small snake appears to be biting the 20cm long fish on its flank. The dining geometry looks impossible, as though a famished Frenchman were attacking a vast baguette side-on using only his mouth.
But a tiger snake has the advantage of a dislocatable jaw, which this one now mobilizes in trying to grip the whole fish in its gape. With slow precision we see the snake manoeuvre the wider fish into line with its greater length. And length is winning out, as the snake’s head, through a process of ratcheted rotations, finally lines up with the fish’s head. In a process that takes a few minutes, the fish begins its final descent into the altogether unwelcome depths of the snake’s belly. As an obvious bulge appears in the snake’s upper neck, a forked fish tail slips out of sight between the reptilian lips. Over the following minutes the snake’s head returns to normal size, its jaw once again hinged, its lips sealed. All that is left of the feral fish is a slowly descending protuberance.

One of our party tells us that tiger snakes are not troubled by water. They will readily swim across a stream or lake, and have been seen to spend up to days lying at the bottom of shallow pools. Presumably they are cooling down, their bodily processes slowed to a minimum in some kind of mini-hibernation. Now it seems we have found out that they not only tolerate water, but that they can even hunt in water. Perhaps fresh water swimmers will be glad that they represent considerably more than a bellyful of protein to the average tiger snake.

- Peter Grant, 22/2/03

Why I’m a Christian and a Conservationist

[sermon preached by Peter Grant at Margate Christian Church, Margate, Tasmania. August 26th, 2007]

I want to make this a personal meditation rather than a sermon. I want it to be theological in the sense that the thoughts behind are reflective of the bible, and of my long grappling with how to think about God and the world. But it will not be systematic and nor will it be linear or logical. After many years of trying, I have discovered that my brain, and those of many I know, don’t always work that way. Instead I see things episodically; I flit like a bird from thought to thought; I am gripped by the drama of a story or situation; I grab what is relevant and then move on.

I want to paint a series of scenes, and then ask you to respond to them is some way: some via interaction with others, some via personal reflection.

Scene 1: Birds at my window

A male superb blue wren – that is actually its proper common name, and an uncommonly felicitous one – lands on the oak tree next to where I am writing. As usual I have music accompanying my work: a Scottish band playing a complex Balkan dance tune, as it happens. Seemingly in time with the music one, two, three, four female wrens arrive in sequence. The five wrens then flit from branch to branch in an impossibly complex dance – their form of the dance of love – and it looks to be perfectly in time with my music. I smile at this wonderful display, which lasts perhaps 90 seconds, before they fly out of sight to continue their dance elsewhere. They leave me with a feeling that mixes joy and grace. Call it coincidence, but I am grateful to both God and the wrens for this moment of wonder.
Question: Turn and share with someone near you an example of when you have been grasped by something in the natural world that has made you feel grateful or joy-filled.

Scene 2: Some Scripture

"God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" – Genesis 1:31

"The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it." – Psalm 24:1

"Everything under heaven belongs to me" – Job 41:11

"My rainbow in the clouds … will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth." – Genesis 9:13

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you." – Job 12:7-8

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father." – Matthew 10:29

Question: What do you take from these verses? Are there other verses that you would use to reflect on how Christians might view the environment?

Scene 3: The Bishop and It

A learned and respected bishop is speaking at a conference. He is just getting into his much-anticipated, deeply theological talk when a baby begins crying. Several times he pauses, hoping perhaps for the child to be removed. Each time the bishop continues, so does the crying. Eventually unable to go on, the obviously exasperated bishop stops and says" "Either it goes or I go!"

Question: What, if anything, offends you about the bishop’s words and actions?

Scene 4: Object or Subject: Desire or Love?

Martin Buber’s "I-Thou". Buber was an Austrian Jewish philosopher and theologian. He spoke about "I-Thou" as distinct from "I-It" as a way of relating to the world. He saw creation as holding ways into relationship with the ultimate "Thou", God. This distinction has been taken up by some environmental thinkers as a means of preventing us from seeing the world and objects as only there for our benefit. Even a tree, Buber argued, could be treated (mystically) as a "Thou" rather than an "It".

Zygmunt Bauman, a contemporary sociologist, has described contemporary life as "liquid modernity" (a metaphor for the never-static, always adapting nature of today’s living). It is based on the idea that our lives are fuelled by a problematic consumption.
This consumptive attitude goes beyond the obvious "consumer products" version. We also consume experiences, hobbies, even relationships. This consumption is not based on need, or even on want, but on desire. He illustrates the way in which it isn't the goods of consumption that drive us to consume; it is the experience of desiring them. Desire has an almost spiritual force – "desire desires desire".

He continues: "We shop for … the resources for doing faster the things that are to be done and for things to do in order to fill the time thus vacated; for the most mouth-watering foods and the most effective diet to dispose of the consequences of eating them; for the most powerful hi-fi amplifiers and the most effective headache pills. There is no end to this shopping list."

Apart from the obvious pollution and waste that results from this, there is another relevance to the environment. In discussing relationships, Bauman helpfully differentiates love from desire. The latter "is an impulse to strip alterity of its otherness; thereby, to disempower. . . . Love is, on the other hand, the wish to care, and to preserve the object of the care. A centrifugal impulse, unlike centripetal desire." Apart from many other applications, this applies to our attitude to the environment also. If ever the creation needed people to love it, now is the time.
Question: [individually] When you think about a specific aspect of creation, be it a bird, a tree, a mountain or a moth, what kinds of attitudes or feelings are generated within you?

Scene 5: Lessons from Alaska

Loving your own place means that you take real notice of it; you know what fits where; you know what is happening from season to season; you chuckle – and possibly grumble - at its little peculiarities. But you love it! You rejoice in what it gives to you and yours. And because your covenant is mutual, you also give back to the place. You become its advocate and its defender from outside threat.

One person who personifies this for me is an ecotourism operator named Davy Lubin. I met Davy in Sitka, Alaska while he was showing a small group of mostly elderly cruise-ship tourists the wildlife of Sitka Sound in the state’s south-east. At one point, after Davy had cut his boat’s engine to wait for whales, he began explaining his love for this beautifully wild part of Alaska – the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the whole of the USA. Oblivious to the borderline bilious boat movements, Davy praised the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had reserved the area in 1907. He then talked of his own utter dependence on the area’s natural systems. Simply but profoundly he talked us through the local food chain. To say it starts and ends with Pacific Salmon is an over-simplification, but not a gross one. The salmon come in from the Pacific Ocean every spring in unimaginable numbers to spawn in coastal streams. From northern California to high-latitude Alaska they are caught while still at sea, directly providing the likes of Davy and his family with food. The salmon also feed countless bears, orcas, sea lions, otters and birds, helping them to put on fat that will see them through the harsh winter. The fish also indirectly feed and fertilise every square inch of this place, Baranof Island, as they do thousands of similar places. Salmon DNA has been found in the pine needles of conifers high on the island’s highest mountains, percolating into the tree’s juices through bear and bird droppings deposited there.

As well as supporting the vast and rich coniferous rainforests, and the array of creatures in them – including deer that provide Davy’s family with venison – the salmon-enriched nutrients eventually flow back to sea as a powerful brew. That in turn provides food for aquatic life from protozoa and krill all the way up to the humpback and grey whales that frequent the area in large numbers. And that is yet another meal-ticket for Davy Lubin and thousands of other Alaskans who rely on tourism for a living. So much rides on the salmon’s back – and there’s plenty enough for everyone, at least for now.

While I was in Sitka it was salmon spawning season. Every estuary and stream writhed with striving salmon. For weeks they kept pouring up the rivers and creeks. There are so many salmon in this annual run that the brown bears become very choosy about what they eat. With surprisingly delicate claw movements they will slit open salmon to remove and eat such delicacies as the roe or the brain. They then discard the rest of the fish, which will join all the others that expire shortly after spawning. The streams and eventually the very air become choked with death. On one approach to Sitka township, near Indian River, the stench of dead salmon fills the air. Even driving by with air conditioning it’s impossible to avoid the stench. But it is possible to think of it positively. We once lived near a piggery, and the farmer would smile at those who commented on the smell. "The smell of money" he would say with a wry smile. In a rather less crass way the locals of coastal Alaska know that the stench of dead salmon is the smell of a healthy ecosystem as well as the smell of money. For them ecology and economy aren’t separate. Back in Australia I’ve come to love the smell of mangroves; the reek of rotting kelp; the vapours rising off wetlands. They too are the smell of a rich and healthy environment.
It was not always so in Sitka, which once had a pulp mill. Despite all the usual promises about zero emissions, stringent controls and state-of-the-art technology, the mill ended up spewing effluent and smoke into this indescribably beautiful environment. The company paid the resulting fines as a kind of licence-to-pollute fee. The mill created employment, of course, but at what cost? The town became deeply divided between pro- and anti-mill factions; families and neighbourhoods were divided; and sensitive wildlife such as seals and sea-otters voted with their flippers, and stayed away from the area. And that’s to say nothing of the forests that were turned to pulp, and the soil that was washed into the sea. In 1993 the mill closed, and when I visited in 2005 most of the rancour was long gone, and both the wildlife and the economy were doing well. At the peak of logging, about 4,000 people worked for the timber companies. Now more than 5,000 work in tourism-related fields.

At Davy’s beautiful hand-built waterside home, made from local Sitka spruce and hemlock, logged and milled by Davy and friends, we talk further about the difference between conservation and preservation. Davy is firmly of the former persuasion. He unashamedly uses some of the natural resources of the area to feed and shelter his family. But being a lover of the place, and a powerful advocate for its natural systems, he is not going to lightly allow the area to be exploited or degraded again, as it once was by the pulp mill.

I left wondering whether it need be all that different for any of us in our own local regions. Perhaps access to a wonderful natural environment is more powerfully concentrated in places like Alaska and Tasmania. But couldn’t it be similar everywhere? One of the necessities, wherever we choose to call our home place, is that we cultivate a contemptless familiarity with whichever natural processes are going on around us. If we have to pay something, the least we can do is pay attention.