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Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

Tree Liberation – Tales of the Mighty Brush Box 

 The brush box, Lophostemon confertus, is perhaps my favourite tree, not merely because of its beauty and strength, but because of the ways we got to know each other and the experiences we had together.

Our relationship began when I moved house at the age of 4 or 5. The tree at the front gate was easy to climb, its strong, smooth trunk curving over the sandstone wall at just the right height for clambering into. My sisters and I spent many important hours occupying its branches, our minds busy with games now forgotten. Christmas beetles, cicadas, bull ants and cupmoth caterpillars also inhabited that tree. These ‘hairy caterpillars’ are one of nature’s more bizarre creations, looking like a two-headed Chinese dragon in a colourful street festival. Their brightly patterned bodies with four bunches of orange stinging hairs at each end are a temptation to children, but a warning to wiser predators. ‘Don’t touch’ is the best invitation to a curious child, and so we were stung and became wary, but kept sharing the tree.

I don't have a pic of Brush Box just now, so here is the biggest tree of them all - the Great Banyan Tree, Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, India

There was another brush box, its trunk rising straight up from an old concrete slab that seemed to merge with the grey sandstone surrounds. We could not climb this tree, but its canopy was dense and its shade deep. It was always cool under there, for picnics, water fights, hand ball, bike riding, reading. Dad had a different relationship with these trees. They both grew up into the power lines that connected to the house.

Extension ladder in position, in his working bee overalls he would disappear into its dark greenery with various hand saws and pruners. Soon the branches came tumbling down, and our job was to drag them away. I had no idea then that this was a brush box. I had no idea then that it was planted under power lines all over Sydney and other Australian cities, where it was routinely mutilated by tree lopping teams. I had no idea then that it in its natural state it was a magnificent forest giant that yielded a superb smooth, pink timber which a few years later would spark controversy in the rainforests of NSW, spawning a debate and protest that ultimately led to World Heritage status for the rainforests of NSW.

“I WAS 16 WHEN I WENT TO MY FIRST LOGGING PROTEST. IT WAS AT TERANIA CREEK, A REMOTE END-OF-THE-ROAD LOCATION IN A LUSH SUBTROPICAL VALLEY IN NORTHERN NSW.”

I was 16 when I went to my first logging protest. It was at Terania Creek, a remote end-of-the-road location in a lush subtropical valley in northern NSW. I can’t remember how I ended up there, but suddenly I was camping in a paddock with a bunch of hippies. There were guitars and vegetarian food at a camp on the forest edge. The forest was rainforest, hung with vines and soft with the swaying elegance of Bangalow palms. Stands of brush box, the result of disturbance over a thousand years ago, led to a debate over what defined rainforest. The NSW Forestry Commission said rainforest did not contain hardwoods. The brush box is a hardwood, therefore this was not a rainforest and logging it should not be an issue. I stood on the freshly severed trunk of a tree that may have been 1,500 years old, surrounded by the devastation caused by its premature crash to earth, listening sadly to the chainsaws busy on another such tree of life. I knew then that the discussion about how to define a rainforest had little to do with reality, and that politics, whatever side you were on, was only a tool.

“ON MY RETURN TO THE CITY I MADE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THESE FOREST GIANTS AND THE CREW-CUT STREET TREES WHICH I HAD BARELY NOTICED BEFORE.”

On my return to the city I made the connection between these forest giants and the crew-cut street trees which I had barely noticed before. These 35m trees were planted under power lines because they recovered well from pruning. Logical at some level I suppose, like the argument for logging them.

Some years later, as a horticulture student I made a study of rainforest regeneration. As a practical component I collected and propagated the seed of rainforest plants. The brush box was one, and as my forest of seedlings sprouted in the shade house there was no question about whether or not it was a rainforest species. It was in that year that the Wran Labour Government halted the logging of rainforests in NSW, nominating them for World Heritage listing. Terania Creek was part of that nomination, along with the surviving brush boxes, whose gorgeous timber had sparked the direct action movement that doggedly followed the log trucks and chainsaws until at last they were gone.

You can easily visit Protestor Falls in the Nightcap National Park, which includes Terania Ck. The sounds are of rushing water, bird song and the breeze in the canopy. But when I stand there, I still hear the chainsaws and the defiant songs of the activists whose courage is remembered in the naming of the waterfall, and who drew inspiration from the helplessness of the brush box, strongest of trees.

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My new favourite gardener has a wild lily garden in the back blocks of Hobart. His name is Rod and he breeds and sells lilliums and narcissus. Rod calls himself a ‘naturist’ and that seems accurate. He’s a bit of a hermit but actually loves a good natter. I had to write to him snail mail to make contact, which was in fact so refreshing. He wrote back promptly, sending me multiple copies of his bi-annual newsletter, ‘The Trumpeter’ and naming a few dates in January that I could visit him.

So when I got back from India I phoned his sister (3 doors down from Rod) and we set a date. When I drove through the gate of ‘Glenbrook’ I forgot I was in Hobart. It was as if I had suddenly been teleported into a deep, forgotten valley in a remote part of Tasmania. Rod’s little cottage nestles against the bush of this flank of the Wellington range – which is owned by Rod’s family, who keep it so that the wildlife will have a home. The cottage is barely visible – “I’m trying to get the plants to take over,” says Rod.

His sister is there, and I’m served more than I can eat by way of little sandwiches, homemade cakes and cups of tea. Everything is delightful and kind and friendly and in spite of Rod’s reputation as one who shuns society, I could not have felt more welcome. They just want to hear about India, while I am itching to do my interview. But having said that, chatting about India is something I can do without much encouragement. A chook walked across the carpet as I helped myself to more cake while describing my dip in the Ganges at Varanasi, much to their impressed astonishment.

Now that I have whetted your appetite, I’m going to show you a picture and sign off, because I have to go and pick someone up to take them to the Wielangta forest, which any locals reading this will know is a worthy excuse.

To be continued…

Rod tenderly shows me his lilies.

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The Bodhi Tree

I’m back from India again. Amidst the noise and drama of 1 billion + people, are  an infinity of sacred sites. The Bodhi Tree is one. This is the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and the current tree is a descendant of the original. It’s the centrepiece of the town of Bodh Gaya, a little place in the state of Bihar, which is renowned for deep poverty, corruption, banditry and general dodginess. I go to Bihar each year, in spite of these harsh judgments, and find amongst the darkness the most peaceful people in the world, yogis of vast wisdom. So, there’s more to Bihar than meets the eye.

The Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment

The Bodhi tree – Ficus religiosa – healthy, with spreading, generous branches, the most worshipped tree in the world. I am into tree worship – after all, they make this Earth habitable. So my pilgrimage was to the tree, more than the temple or the philosophies of Buddha in which it is now embedded. He sat under a tree, resolving not to budge until he attained the answers to the problem of human suffering.  Those answers came, and his brilliance became the most gentle major religion of the world.

I paid my respects to the Bodhi Tree. And I wondered why Buddhists of the world build temples and place statues of the Buddha in Bodh Gaya but don’t plant trees everywhere. This sacred place was so dusty that people have to breathe through face masks. Ponds of disgusting, stagnant water had no trees around them. Beggars with bodies unbelievably deformed from polio crawled about in those dusty streets. There may be answers to human suffering in philosophy and meditation, but being a practical girl, I felt that some more trees and some sabin vaccine would certainly help.

I digress. May the tree live long and be an inspiration for earth friendliness, which relieves the suffering of all sentient beings.

I’ll tell you more soon about encounters with other miraculous plants in India. Photos coming.

And I must report on my visit to a wild lily garden in Hobart, inhabited by a rare one who calls himself a ‘naturist’ and has lived his values quietly for a long life.

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Beyond Organics is all about gardens and ecology – why we need to bring nature conservation into our gardening and how to do that. I wrote it because I felt that organic gardening needed to develop a more deeply ecological set of values which recognises that gardens are part of their local ecosystem and should be managed with that in mind. I realised that some organic gardening techniques can be environmentally damaging – for example, the run off from excessive use of organic fertilisers next to waterways or natural bush can encourage weed infestations. Inappropriate planting choices require high inputs of nutrient and water and may give little back to the environment – such as growing hybrid roses in a humid climate with poor soils.

The idea behind Beyond Organics is to minimise the inputs to a garden and maximise the positive contribution it makes to the environment – this might be about local biodiversity, planting for birds and insects, avoiding plants that have been harvested from the natural environment and growing your own food to reduce food miles.

There is a short history of gardening through the ages and in different cultures, bringing us to the question of what is appropriate gardening in these times of ecological crisis? Historical horticultural sins are exposed – the mass clearing of orchid populations in South America during the Victorian orchid craze and more recently, the decimation of Turkish hillsides by the harvesting of bulbs such as cyclamen for the European bulb markets and the taking of mature cacti and succulents from delicate desert ecosystems in North America for ‘instant’ gardens.

My highly respected friend and accomplice, Peter Cundall, wrote the foreword and did me the honour of launching the book at Fullers Bookshop, Hobart in 2005.

My beautiful book, Beyond Organic

Here’s what he thought of Beyond Organics

Extracted from foreword…

Beyond Organics is the book that had to be written and Helen Cushing has done a brilliant job. She goes outside the garden, yet still links our gardening activities with the natural environment. Every organic garden, although healthy, different and seemingly quite separate, is still a vital part of a world environment which is clearly deteriorating rapidly. In short, we can’t have one without the other and there is no such thing as a garden in isolation…

‘Beyond Organics’ is a powerful call to action. The message of this book is quite clear. We can no longer ignore the fact that our gardens are part of a natural world. The spread of organic growing methods has been inspiring. Now let’s take the next vital step and start gardening ecologically too.”

Beyond Organics launch. See anyone you know?

Here are some good bits from reviews:

From: The Weekend Australian 2/7/05 Review by Christopher  Bantick

“Those looking for a book that extols the virtues of gardening organically will find something here that goes much further: it is not so much about how to garden as one that asks why many people garden with environmentally compromising habits. She offers a philosophy of the primacy of working with the environment rather than gardening for fashionable effect by taking “caring gardeners beyond organics and into a deeper ecology of gardening.” Integral to this is the awareness that the kind of gardening we may do could be unhelpful for the wellbeing of the planet.”

From: Good Reading Magazine (print and online)

http://goodreadingmagazine.com.au/index.cfm?pg=BookDetail&ISBN=0733315755

The Good Reading Magazine gave Beyond Organics a five star (outstanding) rating in its June 2005 issue.

In the reviewers words, “This is a very generous book, infused with warmth and sense of purpose – it deserves a place on every bookshelf in the country.”

From: http://www.no-dig-vegetablegarden.com/ ecological-gardening.html

‘When we begin to think of the combined size of gardens, rather than individual size, new possibilities begin to emerge in terms of their ecological role.’

This is a quote from my new favourite book “Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future” by Helen Cushing.

Cushing goes on to describe ways to do this by creating natural habitat for the birds, insects and small animals that are native to your area. Building up the soil to create a vibrant ecosystem that will naturally thrive and survive while natural habitats are being wiped out… the concepts really smacked me between the eyes. It’s worth considering gardening ecologically. (end extract)

in action giving a talk about choosing flowers that support biodiversity

So, if you want to read the whole thing, let me know! It costs AUD$25 from me ($29.95 RRP). Postage in Australia is another $5. Elsewhere it’s more. You can pay into my Helen Cushing Paypal account or ask for my banking info to pay that way. I’ll go away now and figure out how to put a paypal button on the blog…

Have tried and so far failed to put PayPal button into blog. Some technical hitch… So in the meantime, write to me if you want to buy the book and we’ll make a plan.

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