Confessions of a Tree Hugger

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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.

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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.

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