Confessions of a Tree Hugger

tree-hugger
Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

tree-hugger-ooline
Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

FOMM back pages

Our gorgeous gorges bucket list

gorges-bucket-list
Cobbold Gorge, north Queensland, one of Australia’s special gorges.

Although I clearly remember rubbishing the concept of a “bucket list”, it appears we may have had one all along, namely a list of famous Australian gorges.

This week’s visit to much-lauded Cobbold Gorge, south-east of Georgetown in Savannah country, turns out to be the 10th gorge we have visited from a debatable list of 14 “must-do” destinations. Despite its remoteness, privately-owned Cobbold Gorge attracted 11,500 visitors last year and judging by our two days staying in the bush caravan park, they’re on track for another good year.

Most Australian gorges of any merit are enshrined within national parks, with Cobbold Gorge the exception, through an agreement with the Queensland Government where a tourism venture is allowed to exist within a pastoral lease. The Terry family own the 330,000ha Robin Hood station, with 4,720ha set aside as a nature reserve. The family run 4,000 head of Brahman cattle on the property, which they have owned since 1964. They are the second European owners, after the Clark family who owned it since 1900 and the Ewamian, the traditional owners.

Robin Hood station, even today, is accessible only by a partially sealed road from Georgetown to Forsayth and then 41 kms of dirt road. The land in this region is cut off in the wet season (December to March). It’s not difficult to imagine the hard life out here before electricity, before a proper road was formed from an existing bullock track.

Like most gorges, Cobbold was formed millions of years by water scouring out a channel through a basalt cap then down into the sandstone and gravel escarpment. This is a narrow gorge, 2m wide in some places, which gives rise to the theory that it is relatively young.

porcupine-gorges-bucket-list
Porcupine Gorge, one of Australia’s must-see gorges

Last week, we spent a couple of days at Porcupine Gorge, a National Park between Hughenden and The Lynd. Porcupine Gorge is sometimes referred to as Australia’s ‘mini Grand Canyon’ as its canyon walls are wide apart, eroded over millions of years by Porcupine Creek, a tributary of the Flinders River. We took the walk down into the gorge, a mere 1.2 kilometres, except for the 1,800-step uphill return walk. It cost about $25 to stay here two nights – stunning location but a bit short on facilities (hybrid dunnies). You have to come prepared, carrying your own water, food and power source.

By contrast, Cobbold Gorge tours have to be booked and paid for ahead of time and there is no alternative to a guided tour. Now that I’ve seen the infrastructure the Terry family have built there and taken the tour, I have no argument at all with the $92 fee (and $41 a night for a powered site). The facilities (the village also has motel units) and amenities are first-class.

Most of the information here was gleaned from a bit of note-taking and chatting to the guide, Graham, after the tour. The owners invested a lot of money to set up this eco-tour without any security of tenure. It was only recently that the Queensland government came to an agreement that the family would be compensated if at some future point the gorge becomes a National Park. As it stands, the nature reserve, a tract of old growth bush, can also be used for grazing and water can be taken from the Robinson River. No felling is allowed though, so the bush is allowed to regenerate.

We put this landmark on our list when last in the Savannah country circa 2007. We’d bumped into old newspaper contacts at Undara Lava Tubes. They told us they’d just come from Cobbold Gorge and said it was a special place and a must-do experience. It seems this natural gorge became a tourist attraction largely by word of mouth. The first white people to see the gorge were the Terry family’s teenage children who apparently drove a truck far enough in to carry a dinghy to the gorge and go exploring. It wasn’t long before friends and family started asking if they could visit and that led to the establishment of the tourism enterprise in 1994 (200 people visited in the first year).

The tour involves a short journey by four wheel drive bus, a walk up the sandstone escarpment to see the gorge from above then a ride on a flat bottomed boat (powered by whisper-quiet electric motor).

The walls rise up to 30m and at times the gorge is so narrow you can almost touch both sides. Spiders sit patiently waiting by their intricately spun webs. There’s Jurassic vibe about this gorge, silent and still except for a freshwater crocodile which retreated beneath a rock ledge as we approached.

Last year, Etheridge Shire Council proposed making an application to have 49,000ha of the shire listed by UNESCO as a Geopark. The ABC reported that local graziers were worried what impact this could have on pastoral activities. The proposal caused deep divisions in the shire, but at this stage the plan has not been progressed.

One could see why Etheridge Shire would want the region to become ever-more attractive to international eco-tourists. The famous Undara Lava Tubes are also within Etheridge Shire, which encompasses an area two-thirds the size of Tasmania. For all its size, the shire has only 1,500 ratepayers and has to rely on grants from State and Federal governments.

Our previous visits to well-known gorges like Carnarvon (Qld), Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge, NT), Wattarka (Kings Canyon, NT) and Karajini and Widjana (both in WA), have mostly involved independent exploration. Hiking in outback gorge country is not without its risks. You can get lost, run out of water, have a fall or be bitten by a venomous snake.

No wonder Cobbold Gorge asks hikers to sign in and out when exploring the bush tracks. They also have a ‘no-selfie’ rule when standing atop the escarpment! It makes you think how the early explorers got by on horseback carrying water in canvas dilly bags, living off damper and bully beef, perpetually in a quest for the next waterhole.

I expect this won’t be the last of our gorges visits on our six-week adventure. There’s Barron and Mossman further north and Cania Gorge on the way back home.

When you visit one of Australia’s remote National Parks, with or without gorges, it is hard not to soak up the timeless influence of the First Nations people. Cobbold Gorge was named after the famous Australian pastoralist Francis Cobbold. The Ewamian tribe were the original inhabitants of this land and there is a section on the gorge tour where guides tell visitors the Ewamian have asked them not to interpret the site or allow people to enter and take photographs.

A few months back, Aboriginal journalist Jack Latimore wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian Weekly, noting that two mountains in central Queensland were to revert to their Aboriginal names.

Jack thinks all Australian landmarks and monuments should revert to their first nation names, but he doesn’t stop there. Boring names like Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (all named after British Lords and Sirs), should also be given their native monikers. How about Mianjin instead of Brisbane?

 

 

 

The value of inner city car parks

car-parks-value
Image of car parks Palma de Mallorca by Timmy L (flickr) https://flic.kr/p/TR4DFC

As you’d know, one little statistic can send me off on an investigation – like the number tucked away in a Guardian Weekly report that, globally, cars are in car parks 95% of the time.

The statistic emerged in a report about a pilot scheme in Amsterdam to reward residents with a free green space in front of their houses if they give up their parking permits. The car parks pilot scheme being trialled in six streets in an Amsterdam suburb is yet another Dutch idea designed to encourage people to give up cars and switch to carpooling, public transport or bicycles.

Residents’ cars will be stored for free in public car parks and in return something ‘green and pleasant’ can occupy the designated car space. The Guardian reports a fair degree of friction over this idea. Two early adopters (who have been heckled), have already put flower-filled tow carts in front of their houses (a cosy outdoor spot to sit in the sun and have a morning coffee and a plate of warm poffertjes).

This is not the first time Amsterdam’s Stadsbestuurders have tried to rend asunder the city’s love affair with the car. Amsterdam is widely known as the bicycle capital of the world because it is relatively compact and the narrow streets and canal bridges make driving more difficult than in other cities. When I spent time in Amsterdam (wishing I could forget what I can’t remember), the city was then trialling Sundays as a no-car day. I looked that up yesterday and find that it is 45 years since Car Free Sunday was introduced. As this blog explains, something changed in the Dutch mindset when the measure was introduced in 1973 (to dampen oil consumption amid the 1970s Oil Shock).  Since then cycling with or without clogs has clearly become a lifestyle/clean environment movement.

The Netherlands leads other European cities, with 27% of all trips attributed to cyclists, a figure that has been stable for a decade. How could it be anything less when Amsterdammers own 22.5 million bicycles (1.3 per resident). Evidently Mum, Dad and the kids are in on the trend. Denmark is a close second in Europe’s bicycle stakes (0.8 per resident).

Australians are fairly keen on bicycles too, with 3.6 million using one every week, The Australian Cyclists Party says the average Australian household has 1.5 bicycles in working order, although if you wanted to be pendantic, you couldn’t ride half a bike very far. You could of course turn it into a unicycle, learn to juggle, sing and play the ukulele at the same time and apply for a gig at the Woodford Music Festival.

Digressions aside, Australians are as deeply committed to the combustion engine as the global leader (America). The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics motor vehicle census showed there were 18.8 million registered vehicles in Australia as of January 31, 2017, a 2% increase on 2016. The 2016 Australian Census showed there were 2.95 million one-vehicle households, 3.02 million households with two vehicles and another 1.50 million households with three or more. The same Census revealed that only 1.1% of Australians rode their bikes to work. The sole occupant car dominated work trips – from 65.6% in Sydney to 79.9% in Adelaide.

The notion that cars are parked 95% of the time is a figure largely calculated on public car parks which are utilised 85% to 95% of the time. Just dwell on that next time you are doing laps in one of Brisbane’s large shopping malls, waiting for a spot.

Last Saturday we went to a Queensland Ballet double bill (Carmen and The Firebird) which, I must say, we enjoyed more than the reviewer in The Australian did, apparently. There were three curtain calls.

Afterwards, we walked back to the multi-level car park where I realised (despite my disdain for automation), that I had no option but to pre-pay as there were no humans in the parking booths. The machine hungrily gobbled my $20 and dispensed the ticket. You should all know the routine by now – drive to boom gate 1, insert ticket and the boom (should) automatically rise to let you drive out.

Them were the good old days, mate

Not that I want to return to days of yore, but when we first started going to the ballet in 1988, you could quite often score a free car park somewhere in South Brisbane or West End. We’d leave home early and sometimes snag a space in Fish Lane. Ah, those were the days. Now we usually park in the Brisbane Entertainment and Convention Centre car park as it has 1,500 spaces, so is the place least likely to be full around South Brisbane’s entertainment and dining precinct. If I recall, when this complex first opened in 1996, parking 2-4 hours cost $8. That’s inflation for you.

A Colliers International white paper in 2015 predicted city parking would become more expensive in Australia, as no new multi-storey car parks were being approved. Some, in fact, have been demolished to make way for new apartment buildings. The other factor in parking becoming more expensive is that many cities now impose a congestion levy on property owners.

New technology is set to disrupt the parking business model though; one example being Divvy Parking, a digital start-up which hooks up motorists with under-utilised car parks within commercial office buildings. In late 2016, New South Wales car insurance company NRMA took a 40% stake in Divvy Parking.  An NRMA study found that 30% of urban traffic congestion was caused by people driving around looking for a car park. And, according to NRMA, a third of parking spots within centrally-located commercial buildings are under-used. NRMA Group chief executive Rohan Lund told the Australian Financial Review that smart technology would be as crucial to solving Australia’s mobility issues as bricks and mortar infrastructure.

All over the world, cities are introducing measures to thwart or discourage drivers from bringing their vehicles to the inner city. These range from London’s Congestion Charge to Madrid’s blanket ban on non-resident vehicles. Only locals, taxis, buses and zero-emission delivery vehicles are allowed within Madrid. This is not the first time the padres de la ciudad have tried to beat congestion and pollution within Madrid’s city centre. In 2005, a pedestrian-only zone was introduced in a densely-populated inner city neighbourhood.

Interestingly, there are no Australian cities named in Business Insider’s recent article on 13 cities planning to ban cars to one degree or another. Most of the cities are in Europe (Oslo, Berlin, Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen) but also China, Mexico and South America. Many of the plans are based on making it easier to walk and cycle. Several cities are planning to build bicycle-only super-highways.

Ah well, next time I go to the ballet maybe I’ll take my half a bicycle and wobble on down to the train station. (She Who Broke a Bone Falling on the Stone Steps) “Don’t forget your helmet, dear.” More reading:

 

An eye for an eye – sports injuries and brawls

eye-sports-injuries
Eye chart image courtesy of Community Eye Health, CC https://flic.kr/p/cenNDu

The news photo of rugby league player Dylan Walker’s fractured eye socket made me feel anxious, like I get when I have an eye infection or it’s time for the annual glaucoma test. If I cover my left eye with my hand, I can navigate my way around the house, but that’s about it. No reading, watching TV or movies; definitely no writing, although I know vision-impaired people who have found ways around reading and writing.

What the auld aunties called a ‘gleyed ee’ or lazy eye was diagnosed in the late 1940s. I don’t remember wearing an eye patch when I was two, but I’ve seen the photos. It didn’t work. I say this only as an explanation if you passed me in the street and I did not say hello, it is possible you passed by on my right side.

Yes, so a serious injury to my left eye would probably see me lining up for the blind pension, although as I understand it, the aged pension replaces the (non-means tested) blind pension when the recipient reaches retirement age. An essay for another day, perhaps.

Last week the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and Flinders University produced a report on eye injuries in Australia. The report shows 51,778 people were hospitalised due to eye injuries in the five-year period, 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2015. Two thirds of these were males. Falls (35%) and assaults (23%) were the most common causes of eye injuries. The most common type of eye injury was an open wound of the eyelid and periocular area (27%).

However, the report also showed that 86,602 people presented to an emergency department with an eye injury in the two-year period, 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2015. Only 1% of these cases (866) were admitted to hospital.

Sports-related eye injuries were seemingly uncommon by comparison, with just 3,291 males and 595 females reporting that the injury was sustained while participating in a sporting activity. However, information on what activity resulted in the injury was not reported for 69% of cases, so this is likely to be an under-estimation.

Of the known causes, more than one-third (37%) of males were participating in a form of football when they sustained an eye injury. Trail or general horseback riding (12%) was the most common sport-related activity resulting in eye injury reported by females. Over half (55%) of the sports-related cases resulted in an orbital bone fracture.

Such was the case during the Melbourne Storm-Manly rugby league game when a melee turned into a serious scrap between Manly’s Dylan Walker and the Storm’s Curtis Scott, with Scott throwing several punches, one of which broke Walker’s eye socket. Scott was sent off – red-carded as they say in soccer. Walker was given 10 minutes in the sin bin (for throwing a punch) and then had to be assessed for a head injury. Manly player Apisai Koroisau was also sent off for 10 minutes for running in and throwing a punch at Scott.

The National Rugby League (NRL) has been cracking down on such behaviour – Scott was the first person to be sent off for punching since 2015. All rugby league players know if they throw a punch they will at least be sent to the sin bin; angry flare-ups in recent years have tended to be of the push and shove variety.

But whether you follow rugby league or not, it was a bad look, for the sport and for all sports. Imagine the conversations over breakfast.

“Right, that’s it,” says Mum, whose son Billy (8) has been pestering her to play footie. “If you want to play sport you have two choices – soccer or table tennis. Those league blokes are thugs.”

Discussing the Manly/Storm fracas on the Sunday Footie Show, former Jillaroo Allana Ferguson commented: “If they did that in King’s Cross on Saturday at midnight and someone was injured they’d be off to jail.”

She makes a valid point.

A study last year by Dr Alan Pierce from La Trobe University found that repeated concussions in rugby league players have a long-term effect. He compared 25 former league players in their 50s with a control group of a similar age. The men carried out cognitive tests to measure memory and attention spans and dexterity tests to assess motor skills.

“What I’ve found is that the responses of retired rugby league players were significantly different to the healthy controls with no history of head injury,” Dr Pierce told the ABC.

The NRL took steps in 2015 to introduce mandatory head injury assessments (HIA), where players who have suffered a head knock have to leave the field for 15 minutes and be assessed by a doctor. If found to be concussed, they are not allowed to return to the field that match. An NRL injury surveillance report by Dr Donna O’Connor found that head injury assessments increased from 210 in 2015 to 276 in 2016, largely due to strengthened concussion guidelines. Sixty-six per cent of these cases were cleared to continue playing in 2016, compared to 54% in 2015.

If you have seen the excellent Will Smith movie Concussion (about brain injuries in American football), you may well ask why it took the NRL so long to act.

Cheek and eye socket fractures are common injuries in rugby league. They come about through (accidental) contact in tackles, as big bodies collide. Sometimes it happens through ‘friendly fire’ collisions with teammates.

Such was the case with Broncos forward Josh McGuire, whose injury in 2011 required surgery and he is now effectively blind in one eye.

Sports Medicine Australia says the incidence of sports-related eye injuries is low, but severity is usually quite high, as injuries to the eye can result in permanent eye damage and loss of eyesight.

“Research has shown that 30% of sports-related eye injuries in children have the potential for permanent loss of eyesight.

“A blow to the eye from sporting equipment, fingers or balls can lead to injuries ranging from lid haemorrhages or lacerations, corneal abrasions, retinal detachments and hyphaema (bleeding inside the eye) to permanent loss.”

Rugby league is rated a ‘moderate’ risk sport (in relation to sustaining eye injuries) compared to high-risk categories including baseball/softball, basketball, cricket and racquet sports. Any sport that involves small projectiles moving at speed is considered high-risk.

Our family GP once told me most serious eye injuries he had encountered were caused by squash balls and champagne corks.

If you lose an eye, the alternatives are an ocular prosthesis (a glass eye) or an eye patch, the latter having a bad press courtesy of movie bad guys. Think John Wayne’s bullying Rooster Cockburn in True Grit, Adolfo Celi’s menacing Emilio Largo in Thunderball, or John Goodman’s itinerant bible salesman Big Dan Teague (O Brother Where Art Thou).

If it came down to it, I’d opt for a good quality prosthesis, although the price (from $2,500), makes a $10 eye patch look like a bargain.

I’d make it a different colour just because I love that line in the Paul Kelly song about falling for a girl with different coloured eyes.

In the meantime, I will keep wearing Australian Standard safety glasses when I mow the lawns or use the brush cutter. You should too.