Sunday 20 October 2013

When a Tree Falls in the Forest …

It is visually shocking, for sure. But that is lessened by anticipation. After all, I have come looking for a massive fallen tree in a tall forest. Something that has stood 60 metres on the vertical axis, and weighs thousands of tonnes, is always going to make a mess heading to the horizontal.

[The splintered ruin of a forest giant]
It’s the smell that surprises me most. Alongside the strong florist shop notes, and the fresh sawdust tang, there’s an odd smell, one I can’t quite place. Raw earth meets hospital perhaps? Some say you can smell death. Does botanical catastrophe also carry its own odour?

The scene is calamitous. Myriad torn leaves, still green, intermingle with masses of other twisted vegetation, frayed limbs, shredded bark, flowers, twigs, whole trees. We scramble up and over the mess, squelching, slipping on muddy earth or freshly-exposed tree cambium, scratching and smirching ourselves.

It was Wednesday of last week, after soaking rains and gale force winds, that a swamp gum (Eucalyptus regnans) lost its grip on the slopes of a hillside in Tasmania’s Mount Field National Park. It happens all the time, in the larger scheme of things. Fast growing, shallow rooted and enormously heavy, these tall trees all eventually succumb to the push of the Roaring Forties and the pull of gravity. We may not even have known about this one, but for the fact that it fell across the Lake Dobson Road.

[An intact section of wet forest, Mt Field National Park] 

Park rangers and road crew, with heavy machinery and chain saws, had worked for hours in heavy rain to clear the road. With their permission we’ve come to see for ourselves; to photograph and to tell a little of this giant’s story.

As we clamber up slope towards the base of the stricken tree, a pair of sulphur-crested cockatoos gossip in the tree-tops. Occasionally they wheel around, as though to catch the scene from a better angle. Is this rift in the forest news to them, even calamity, if their nest hollow was in one of these trees?

After a few minutes we reach the crater that used to be the tree’s roothold. It is vast, perhaps 12 metres across, and deeper than a standing human. It is half-filled with water, the same water that probably lubricated the tree’s former hold on rock and earth, that made this uprooting possible.

[Inside the crater (photo Lynne Grant)] 
As I stand on the crater’s edge, the fallen tree’s root base towers above me. Slabs of rock, some far larger than me, have been torn out of the earth with the tree roots. They give off a percussed whiff that mingles with a moist earthy aroma. The resulting smell is quite distinct from that of a dug garden.

Yet the upshot of this massive tree fall may not be that far from a thoroughly dug garden. Soil has been bared that was formerly covered; seeds have tumbled down along with all the other herbage; some formerly struggling saplings have narrowly escaped the crush. With light now flooding the space that was once shaded by the dead giant, new growth will soon flourish here.

[Among the still-standing giants, Mt Field NP] 
And the giant itself? It will continue to play horizontal host and home to all manner of fungi and mosses; vertebrates and invertebrates. Its long-gathered nutrients will gradually leak back into the soil: a slow, thorough recycling.

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