The Breath of Vast Time

By | 1 December 2013

‘May the future make shift for itself.
I would know how it was before…’

I sit in Kevin Kiernan’s garden on the middle slopes of The Mountain. In the 1970s a young Kevin Kiernan was prominent in the unsuccessful struggle to save Lake Pedder from inundation within a back-up storage reservoir, a struggle that stands within Australian history as the first great nationally-scoped battle for wilderness preservation. Kiernan’s essay from those days, ‘I Saw My Temple Ransacked’, remains an Australian classic of engaged nature writing. I am here to interview him about environmental activism. Around me are many plants that are familiar to me, the trees of the Gondwana forests. Except that they are not entirely familiar. Because these trees are from South America, Gondwana cousin species to those of our own rainforests, but so similar that the differences defy recognition unless you know what to look for. In my own place-specific engagement with Gondwana, I find it easy to overlook the vast planetary amibit of the super-continent’s legacy. Kevin’s garden sends me a wake-up call. I am reminded, too, of the Wollemi Pine, only ‘discovered’ in 1994, and in a secluded Blue Mountains ravine a little over 150 kms from Sydney its very self. This may have been the greatest botanical discovery of the departed century. And it is a Gondwana plant- a member of the Araucarian conifer family, one deemed by some to be an evolutionary dead-end. And known to my island only from the pollen record. I must lift my eyes beyond the island shore – there’s a lot of Gondwana out there.

The past has always held more fascination for me than the future. The future reeks with dire portent. The past, at least, is inscribed with our evolutionary success, we who are specifically still here, all we swimmers, fliers, crawlers, wrigglers, striders, lopers and scurriers whose genotypes and phenotypes have survived both the perils of global catastrophe and the quiet, insidious competition for those niches within which life takes hold, endures. The future, furthermore, can only be guessed at, and it must be a wild and despairing guess at that … what has occurred, though, lies prone behind us, its record tricked out in an inchoate mix of the clear, the artlessly obscure and the deliberately obfuscated, a puzzlement to fascinate any curious mind.

I have gone too far. Who could not find the unpredictable mystery of the future as fascinating as the riddle-me incomprehensibility of the past? So I’ll recast my position thus: the seamless transition of past into future is the most pressing responsibility of the body politic. It is to carry forward the vast biological and cultural treasurehouses bequeathed by the past to the future; to safeguard the passage of time; to lodge it within the future, accessible in palimpsest, so we may know who we are, from where we have come, and, reflexively, how this shapes our new world. Anything other is a descent into the madness of an existence without identity, without agency, without context, without reference points around which to structure collective life and individual being. This is not a plea for an end to history and change – a plea to preserve, mindlessly, the bads of the past along with its goods. Change is a simple fact. The tectonic plates will shift. Volcanic stacks will lift their lids. Continents sink, rise. Cities fall to ruin. We will deem it just that slavery ends, that women vote, that wars cease, that the young be protected from violence and predation, that same-sex couples may marry, that arid market abstractions not take precedence over the real lives of real entities, that animals be accorded ethical standing. But to have a point of moral vantage that even makes such determinations possible we need the inheritance of the past.

How far past is the past? Listen. Turn your cheek to the wind blowing from the desert, from the seas that roll over two-thirds of the planet to wash against our western shores. On your cheek is the breath of vast time. The green decay of vanished forests. The foetid breath of terrible, dead lizards. Pangaea? That might be too big an ask. Perhaps even the great supercontinent, Gondwana, when all the lands of today’s Southern Hemisphere were one, along with the Indian subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula. But the early Jurassic saw the supercontinent begin its groaning schism and East Gondwana inched away from Africa. The breath on my cheek speaks of those times.

The forest is the sum of history:
At the eye’s edge I almost see
Looming reptiles, terrible and stark.

Rainforest covered most of the supercontinent, and this is a legacy that endures in Australia’s cool temperate forests. How should we come to these forests? On an Australian Government website I may read of ancient ferns and conifers, and ‘a concentration of primitive plant families’ that link directly to the evolution of flowering plants 100 million years ago. I may read that ‘few places on earth contain so many plants and animals which remain relatively unchanged from their ancestors in the fossil records’, and that the relic Gondwana forests are ‘the most ancient type of vegetation in Australia’. That’s a good start. That establishes the forests as dramatic, unique, afizz with portent. It leads to the illuminations of science – and I love reading the science of the forests. It may also lead to poetry.

On my island the breath of vast time blows clear, strong and charged. There is no fey mysticism contained within that observation – I write, rather, of a palpable presence; a physical fact. Gondwana concentrates here. The island is its enduring soul. Look at a map of rainforest distribution and this sense eludes – Gondwana seems a small factor on paper, strip-clinging to watercourses in Tasmania’s steep, unpeopled places. Tread the ground, though, and you know you tread Gondawana. Even here, within the weak sun on my suburban deck, a pencil pine shares my space. And a strawberry pine. And a Huon pine.

Lagarostrobos franklinii. One of two species that, for me, emblemise Gondwana. The Huon pine is a Tasmanian endemic, its range confined to lakeshores and riverbanks in the wild wet south and west. The vast sprawl of a super-continent distilled to such a precise geography. Individual Huon pines can live for 3000 years, bested only by the bristlecone of North America. Pollen records place it on the planet 135 million years ago. It is hardcore Gondwana. At a semi-secret location near Mt. Read is a stand of genetically identical male trees with a 10,000 year old basal root stock. The tree’s presence within the river systems that flow into Macquarie Harbour and Port Davey has given us stories – glorious, awful, gothically thrilling – of Sarah Island, derring-do, cannibalism, piracy. Within its resinous sap is extraordinary oil that renders the tree almost impervious to rot, even after hundreds of years of submersion in mud. It may be the best boat building material on the planet. It buffs to a beautiful sun-capturing nutty yellow, and its scent is of the arbour of the gods. Conventionally it is said to be slow to grow, , but here on my deck it springs for the sky. I once thought it unpleasing to the eye. I know better now. It sings of life’s exuberance, its haphazard panache. How can such an entity not compel poetry?

Huon pine: all scrag
Fingers from a strangler dream,
And a heart of gold.

My other iconic rainforest species is Nothofagus cuninghamii, locally known as the myrtle beech, in this case a species with a range extending into Victoria. A near cousin, Nothofagus gunnii, restricted to the high country in the island’s central and west, has the distinction of being Tasmania’s only deciduous native. Over 30 near relatives within the Nothofagus genus exist elsewhere in Australia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Zealand and South America, and even the oak and beech trees of the Northern Hemisphere are ‘family’. Huon pine stands apart and unique and is iconic to my mind on that account. The myrtle beech is iconic for the opposite reason – it is the dominant species of the Tasmanian rainforest, and if the Gondwana forests lodge within the island’s soul, this is to say that in large part it is the myrtle beech that sits within the inner chamber of the island’s beating heart. And it is beautiful. The foliage is small, heart-shaped, sculpted, and a deep, generous green. Excepting the new growth, which is of a burnished copper shading to red. I know of nothing like it. I have seen the autumn turning of the woods of maritime Canada. That is as glorious as it gets. For the leaf of the myrtle beech, though, another aesthetic category requires articulation. I cannot do it. Though it has drawn forth poetry in other ways:

The gloom wraps around, patterned in
Tiny flecks of rain: time, formless,
Seeps, slides through a mess
Of lichen.

Myrtles choke in a shroud
Of gnarled green parasite:
Cancered logs grue and twist, aloud
With cavewet anti-light.

To find poetry in the leaf of the myrtle beech requires close engagement. And it is so, I think, of the Gondawana forests generally. The myrtle and the Huon pine might iconise the Gondwana treescape, but it is the intricate, endlessly complex microworlds within the forest that most potently enchant. I became electrically aware of this on a trip down the Franklin River. As the voyage progressed, the more I became fixated on the tiny worlds of the river bank, the never-replicated assemblages of worts, lichens, mosses, fungi, tiny flowers and herbs. It is sometimes observed that the rainforest is species-poor, and it is certainly the case that other island ecosystems harbour a greater diversity of animal life. The Gondwana forests are not, after all, Aboriginal scapes; not the product of firestick farming. Their boundaries may be – because the game-rich ecosystems favoured by the native peoples, open forests and grasslands, were maintained by keeping the expansionary aspirations of the Gondwana forests in check. It is even true that there is a greater floristic diversity in some other ecosystems (we might instance coastal woodlands, or lowland wetlands). But down at the scale of the small and the infinitely intricate the proposition that the rainforests are species-poor is just not tenable. Down here with the mosses and the herbs is a window into alchemistical possibility. I come back continually to ‘enchants’, because this is the word that fits. This is why I can never forgive the brutal assault upon the very soul of the island that clearfelling the Gondwana forests represents. Trees we can grow again. It is the careless disregard for the biological genius invested in the creation of those complex, irreproducible micro-worlds that I cannot forgive.

Lichen is the forest’s ancient enlightenment,
	and the planet’s –
	and it reaches through the very fields of space
	to infuse the cosmic winds,
a swirl of principle
to spark a universe.

When it comes to the spatial dimension I may need to lift my game – but not when it comes to that other perceptual axis, the temporal one. From the start I have known that it is that breath of vast time that has been the vector that has carried me from contemplation of the Gondwana forests to poetry. I love the woodlands, and I love contemplating the haunting melancholy that must have characterised its casuarina-dominated scapes after the continent dried and before the march of those brash, upstart eucalypts. But the vast age of the rainforests trumps all this in the strange sphere of my affections. Here on this island it is a key to the construction of time, and will become more so, I think, as the years roll by.

I wasn’t always so conscious of the shaping presence of vast time. As a younger man I lamented the absence of the old in my island. I looked to Europe and its long heritage of unfolding culture. It was a perspective that was profoundly disrespectful of Aboriginal peoples, and it was misplaced in other ways, too. Then I discovered the ancient forests, and Europe seemed a mere playful pup by comparison. I knew that I lived in a country of vast age, that I had been welcomed within it, gathered up in a deep, knowing stream of time. I could feel its cool, wise breath upon me.

I look to the snippets of poetry with which I have seasoned my essay are dark. It is to the Gothic in the forests that I have responded. This is real. To be lost in the rainforest, even if you know yourself not to be permanently lost, is to confront fear, to face mortality. Some of the quoted passages were written in reflection upon precisely those circumstances. But I would want, now, to be more celebratory, in keeping with the tone of this essay. I’ll go away and give it a try.

The poetry quoted comes from the following sources, in the order it appears in the essay: ‘In Memory of William Paterson…’, Silently On The Tide, Walleah Press; ‘Lost in Rainforest, King William Range’, The View from the Non-Members’ Bar, Hazard Press; ‘On the Gordon River Cruise: Notes for a Poem’, Silently On The Tide, Walleah Press; ‘Lost in Rainforest, King William Range’ The View from the Non-Members’ Bar, Hazard Press; ‘Old Man’s Beard’, Island.

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