(Gippsland Red Gum Plains1)
I. Yeerung Bush Reserve
A grey downy bird hops down the yertchuk to look at me as I climb through the wire fence on the boundary of the badlands into Yeerung Reserve. She hops up and down the tree as if tapping on my heart, lightly. A female golden whistler. I’m here, she says, despite the eroded gulch of Fiddlers Creek as it re-enters dry farmland. Yertchuk and red gums shelter the shady interior of the tiny reserve. I could walk from one side to the other through patches of kangaroo grass and wallaby grass in ten minutes if I moved swiftly but I don’t. The chain-of-ponds creek slows down in the reserve allowing creatures to sit and rest, to hide out from the heat, or to stay if they are able to live in small places. A peregrine falcon lifts off from the bank of a shadowy water hole, its strong yellow legs hanging straight down as it crosses the pool and rises through overhanging branches back out into the dissolving sun.
II. Stratford 113 Bush Reserve
Definition of remnant2? Grassy woodland: 250 metres deep and 150metres wide. The conservation officer had been enthusiastic: quality plains grassland divided in three for ecological fire management. I stop on the roadside verge looking into the small patch. Am I in the same place? On either side, sheep paddocks. In the southwest corner an old wooden gate falls half open. Under the regrowth red gums there’s a single clustered everlasting plant with dry flower heads and nearby a clump of noxious St John’s wort .The long grasses are tinged by an orange glow from the 85,000 Ha Aberfeldy bushfire.
III. Briagalong Cemetery
A newly gravelled car park been pushed in to the grassland. Plastic flowers pile up in the dense long grass. A sign at the front gate announces that the grassland is rare and threatened. Lines of blue and white agapanthus demarcate the graveyard boundary. A deep wheel rut cuts the earth at an angle, towards graves of a lesser faith underneath a blackwood tree, bisecting the hardened memory of rain.
IV. Briagalong Forest Reserve
In Angus McMillan’s ‘top paddock’ all the red gums are the same age: regrown from sleeper cutter days. The absence of large tree hollows makes the forest almost uninhabitable. The forest block is divided in two – allow 35 minutes for a walk around the north block and 40 minutes for a walk around the south block – each section may also be traversed diagonally. There was a Braiakaulung campsite in the gully in the northern block. The Scots did away with that. Someone has built a stick ‘mia mia’ below the clay bank of a dam. Late afternoon sunlight falls on the floor of the shelter. I crouch down to look at the pattern of leaves. Throughout the forest the sameness of trees is disturbing.
V. Boundary Rd
I pull up on the track to look north across the plains beyond Emu Creek. A thousand sheep run down the slope towards me, swarming over the dam wall. Encircling the brown water they stand on their reflections. La Niña left East Gippsland six months ago.
VI. Tom’s Creek Reserve
I cut across the flat to the eroded cliffs and follow the ruined creek upstream. On a big bend the trampled sandbar is scattered with dry cow pats. African lovegrass has invaded the narrow strip of land between the reserve fence and the edge of the gulch. I try to avoid brushing the insidious fine seed heads. A few low trees planted by the Red Gum Plains Recovery Project have survived the rabbits. I look down into a still pool. A white intermediate egret stalks the reeds. At the junction of Tom’s Creek and Emu Creek dark green trees of heaven have spread to the edge of the bank above a cumbungi waterhole. Further west over the curve of bare paddocks, two white headstones from colonial times catch the afternoon light. The sign at Emu Creek ford acknowledges Good Neighbours.
V. Meerlieu – Lindenow South Rd
From December 2010 to August 2012 it rained. Waterholes, lagoons and creeks re-appeared across the Gippsland Plains. Like the gradual revelation of an image from the dark water of a photographer’s tank. Old routes and campsites along streamlines could be seen. Isolated ancient red gums stood at the edge of waterholes again. Crakes and rails crossed the road to wetlands. The sky was re-inhabited by birds. Thousands of ibis flew in formations over the Lindenow flats. Flocks of seed eating finches moved through the grasses and brightly coloured rosellas searched roadside trees for nesting hollows. Then it stopped raining.
VI. Bengworden Church Hill Reserve
Three young kangaroos search for grass on the burnt out hill, an isolated patch of woodland beside Deighton Creek, surrounded by over-grazed farmland. The ‘ecological’ burn undertaken by DSE at the behest of residents along Swindell’s Track occupying a Braiakaulung campsite. From the large sand ‘blow’ it was an easy walk south across the plains to Backwater Morass and Lake Wellington.
VI. Blond Bay Wildlife Reserve
Hog deer hunting season hasn’t yet begun. Four-wheel drive tracks cut deep into the steep dunes. Romawi Run taken up for black wattle bark and burnt continually until moving sands shifted inland in the late 1950’s. At the northern end of the reserve a few red gums wait together under the wide slope of cleared land running all the way down to Lake Victoria. At Waddy Point, waves lap mussel shells, beer cans and a discarded nappy under old saw banksias.
VII. Meerlieu 115 Bush Reserve
Last of the locals: big old red gums lean over the unused road leading into the bush reserve. I dance north over the old dunes through strappy lomandra, bracken and white stringybarks catching the Pleistocene wind as it blows down into a dune swale and up over the next sandhill: no red gums. Stands of grey-blue mealy stringybarks float in blue pools above the bracken. On the northern boundary, three red gums look out over cleared land moving with kangaroos. At dusk the unspoken knowledge is the thump of a swamp wallaby hit by a car in the gully as it crosses the road to the only adjacent bush.
VIII. Stratford Highway Park
So rare to see an un-trampled waterhole on the plains! Grassy woodland comes down to the shore. An island of white waterlilies floats in the lagoon dammed in the 19th century to refill steam locomotives: ‘the usefulness of the useless3.’ A black fronted dotterel drops in for a visit. Throughout the old railway reserve young red gums are re-claiming the gravel pit.
IX. Billabong Flora and Fauna Reserve
In sand dune country the dry billabong has shrunk inside a circumference of encroaching burgan. The track in is overgrown and steel posts mark the rapid progress of burgan towards the prostrate strawberry leaves of endangered dwarf kerrawang trailing branches in spring bearing pink hairy star-shaped flowers by the edge of the lagoon where ‘cattle once wallowed like water buffalo’ colonies of rabbits now graze.
X. Billabong West Reserve TFN
Plume grass, wallaby grass and black she-oaks: the land is so much happier here under the spacious red gums. What remains alludes to the unseen: tree shadows, white fluff of cockatoo feathers suspended in long grass, and the ghost of a vast red gum forest.
XI. Maffra Cemetery
Where: the ‘unmown grass between two tombstones’4? Neatly partitioned into quadrates belonging to their church, the dead take precedence over the living. The rare grassland that had survived 170 years of European settlement in a narrow strip beyond the protected native vegetation signs has been slashed down to dirt and the earth scraped smooth as a granite tomb.
XII. Bush Family Reserve, Meerlieu, TFN
We Spring into Nature expecting to find the old forest: instead a sandy track winds through 80 year- old re-generating red gums. We cast about for a few huge stumps among the thousands of slender trees. Further off in the bush a group of people are gathered around the conservation officer listening to a talk on thinning trials being conducted by Trust for Nature in an attempt to re-create the original grassy woodland. Bracken from a history of hot burns covers the reserve. Burgan, signal of the land’s ill-treatment, is massing in an adjoining block. Along a sand ridge, milkmaids and bulbine lilies flower inside small fenced plots beyond the reach of wallabies. Beginning from so little5, is the determination for elation honourable or naive?
XIII. Friars Reserve, TFN
The heart of the block has been ripped out: white stringybarks logged and saw banksias burnt: broken limbs and black nobbly cones against the sky. I follow kangaroo tracks through thick burgan into the glare of the late afternoon sun. To the south and west in the distance a boundary fringe of trees. Over the sandy rise an isolated grove of tall peppermints and apple box creates a refuge not to be disregarded for the raucous flight home by eight gentle gang gangs.
XIV. Perry River
From Boney Point –
Name born of violence –
Down the green Avon
To Lake Wellington we paddle
A hog deer huntress
Comes down to the Perry
To threaten us away from her land
And Americans hunting from hides
In another world my friend asks:
What would we be poaching?
Paddling to look for a fern forest
In the last of the freshwater swamps
Out by Boney Point –
How unsafe the land has become:
Poor, poor Perry
And the land we have undone.
Burgan (Kunzea ericoides) is a native species which grows rampantly following fire and soil disturbance caused by clearing or over-grazing by stock.
Trust for Nature (TFN) was established in Victoria in 1972 as a not-for-profit organisation to protect native flora and fauna on private land through conservation covenants. The Trust has also purchased and protected properties through its Revolving Fund, as well as owning and managing properties.
- Gippsland Red Gum Grassy Woodlands and Associated Native Grassland ecological community was … ↩
- “‘The end of nature’, Bill McKibbin calls the collapse of life-support systems into remnants.” Geoff Park, Ngā Uruora: the Groves of Life, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995:300. Bill McKibbin, The End of Nature, London: Penguin, 1992. ↩
- ‘People all know the usefulness of what is useful but they do not know the usefulness of the useless’ Zhuang Zi, third century. BC, quoted by Simon Leys in The Halls of Uselessness, Melbourne: Black Inc 2011:399 ↩
- ‘A patch of unmown grass between two tombstones may be the only place in all the country where the same plants grow, and in the same numbers, as grew in that place long before…’ Gerald Murnane, Inland, Melbourne: Heinemann 1988:15 ↩
- ‘Extinction is usually the end point of a long process of depletion.’ Draft Fauna and Flora Guarantee Strategy: Conservation of Victoria’s Biodiversity, DSE: Victoria 1992. Cited in Neville Scarlett, ‘The Plains Wanderer: The Metaphorical Grassland – Museum, Ark or Life-boat’. Indigenotes 6(1)1993:2 ↩