The Dwindling Glades of Gondwana

“The glades in Gondwanan forests are the most traditionally beautiful places I have been. No great garden exceeds them in beauty. . . . They are the essence of Tasmania.”

– J.B. Kirkpatrick

In Tasmania’s Central Plateau the day has reached its hottest. An intensely blue sky is broken only by a few mares’ tails clouds. As I stoop to scoop water from a creek the air shimmers around me. Highland water satisfies, as always, but I crave shade. Spotting a small stand of pencil pines nearby, I crunch my way towards it through dry scrub, push low past the pines’ scented foliage, and crawl into the deep green sanctuary of the miniature forest.

I have taken it to be a young stand, but in the centre I find a gnarled old tree. Stooped, forked, yet thick with growth, it must be several hundred years old. To walk into a pencil pine stand is to change climate, change light levels; even to feel you have changed hemispheres. There is a cool, dimly lit quiet, aided by the thick foliage and the soft carpet of needles. Time itself seems to take on a different quality, as though picking up on the pencil pines’ slow-growing, long-lived nature. Or perhaps it’s the influence of its Gondwanan heritage; an accent from the old country never fully lost.

I breathe deeply, take in its good air, bless its shade. But there’s a tinge of melancholy to my moment of rest. I wonder how many more human generations of us will have the chance to experience these beautiful but imperilled trees? If summers like so many we have recently seen – dry, hot and full of the threat of wild fire – are the new normal, their future looks bleak.

The story of pencil pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) reads like a tale of exiled nobles. They can trace their family tree back to the time of the dinosaurs. The fossils of one old relative, Athrotaxis ungeri, from Argentina, date from the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous, around 150 million years ago. There’s a strong family resemblance to our pencil pines. But like nobles grown accustomed to better times – in this case, the wetter, colder, and icier conditions of Gondwana – pencil pines struggle to adapt to change.

As gymnosperms, pencil pines can regenerate via the shedding of seed from cones, although this is an unhurried affair, only occurring every five or six years. In peat they can also clone, spreading vegetatively via suckering. Neither method allows them to spread far from the parent tree. Given their slow growth – they average 40 years to reach just one metre in height, and can live to well over 1,000 years – they don’t appear to do anything hastily.

Their tactic for the conditions in which they find themselves – a drying part of a dry continent – is to wait out bad times and take advantage of good times. The fact that climatic good times may be in long-term decline is just one problem for them. Another issue since European invasion is the spread of herbivores such as rabbits, sheep and cattle, which find pencil pine seedlings about as palatable as our native species do. Historically, this has created further pressure.

So what do we do? We do what we would do if someone we love is facing illness or crisis: we keep loving them. And we get as much expert help as we can.

Peter Grant

But in the 21st century one threat far outweighs all others. Fire is the deadly enemy of the pencil pine. Having evolved in wet or even water-logged conditions where fire is a rarity, pencil pines have few defences against bushfire. Recovery is via slow spread from surviving trees. In a drying, fire-prone future this is a high-risk strategy.

This is starkly illustrated on the Great Pine Tier, a lake-dotted upland at the eastern edge of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. The tier was named for the prodigious stands of pencil pine that once stood there. That was until 1960. Between October 1960 and February 1961, a series of catastrophic, deliberately lit fires in the area burned through more than 30,000 hectares of alpine vegetation. Up to 20% of their total range was wiped out in that one summer. That’s around a fifth of all the pencil pines in the world.

A few years ago some friends and I walked to Great Pine Tier. As we reached the epicentre of the fire we could hardly have mistaken that we were late witnesses to an ecological catastrophe. Half a century afterwards it still looked like a war zone. For miles around us there were pencil pine stags by the thousand. Their vertical persistence in death is owed to their tightly packed, borer-resistant, resinous wood. Bleached white by the icy winds, they stand like a vast wartime graveyard, a ghostly reminder of the glory that once was.

Between 1991 and 2015 I worked for Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service (TPWS). Quite early in that period I was privy to internal discussions on climate change. What, we asked, might be the implications of a changing climate for the unique cultural and natural heritage of our island state? At the time there was certainly concern about the warming trend. One zoologist prognosticated that some species might need to “migrate into cooler zones”.

At the same time, we were reassured by the fact that the incidence of human-ignited fires in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – one of the most serious threats – had steadily decreased over the closing years of the 20th century. And the area damaged by fire was small, especially compared with the drastic fires of 1960-61. We put this down to successful education campaigns and the ‘fuel stove only’ policy for visitors to the TWWHA. That left lightning as the main wildfire ignition source, and Parks fire managers openly took comfort from the fact that dry lightning strikes, a major cause of wildfires on mainland Australia, were then quite rare in Tasmania.

As recently as 2011, the department received climatic projections for Tasmania that remained somewhat encouraging, at least for the highlands. They indicated that there would be little change for central and western Tasmania until around 2040. After that, there was likely to be a reduction in rainfall year-round for the Central Plateau. The effects of climate change were coming, certainly, but not at warp speed.

How quickly, and dramatically, things can change. As we begin the third decade of the 21st century, we find that nearly every year since 2007 has been warmer than Tasmania’s long-term average. Indeed five of the last six years have been among the hottest on record in Tasmania. The trend to a warmer and drier climate looks undeniable. And with that trend comes the biggest threat to areas like the Central Plateau, and especially to alpine conifers like pencil pines: a dramatic increase in the occurrence of dry lightning.

Quite abruptly, since the year 2000, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of fires ignited by lightning, and these have resulted in a marked increase in total areas burnt. There have been major lightning-caused fires in five summers, so far, this century.

On January 13, 2016, and again on January 27, thunderstorms crossed Tasmania from the north-west. Dry lightning ignited around 80 fires, and an estimated 2% of the entire Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was burned. Those fires also took out another 2% of our remaining pencil pines.

Sunset over the lake. Photo: Peter Grant

I was able to see first-hand the effect of these fires on pencil pines, this time only weeks after the event. A friend and I walked from Lake MacKenzie further into the Central Plateau. As we climbed the slope away from the lake, the bush was its usual muted, mottled green. Then, as we rounded a bend at the top of the slope, the ground was suddenly bare. The varied greens were replaced by basic black and brown, a 3D landscape now two dimensional.

We’d been expecting a bleak scene, but not this assault on every sense. It was awful, with blackened, twisted, bare and broken bush; barely anything was still green and growing. Even the puddles created by the too-late rains seemed singed, filled with sooty sludge and burned debris.

The bush also smelled like death. Beyond the burning of leaf and limb, there was the whiff of scorched soil and of countless incinerated living things. We even saw leeches fire-frozen in the act of stretching. But it was the sounds – or the lack of them – that haunted me the most. Although there was a breeze, there were no leaves to rustle. The wind had no voice. Not one bird called; not even a raven, or other carrion feeder. We too were silent, walking slowly, taking ghoulish photographs, deep in our own thoughts.

I’ve studied fires since university, and have been in fire zones many times. I know that much of this bush will slowly recover. It will just need time. Indeed it’s almost a cliché of reporting on Australian bushfires to note the green shoots as signs of our bush healing. But that is emphatically not the case with all of our vegetation, and especially these survivors of Gondwana. So as we walked on it was the things that would never recover that had me the most concerned.

Sure enough, around a corner we met our first forever fatalities. We had been here just two months earlier, and had paused to photograph the track’s first prominent pencil pine. An old survivor, this scarred but living pine stood next to others that had succumbed to past fires. Perhaps its sodden home, among sphagnum and cushion plants, had offered it some protection.

This time it hadn’t been so lucky. One large limb, ripped from its crown, lay ruined and brown beside it. The rest of it was greeny-brown and dying. Near its base, the normally plump green cushion plants were a sickly mustard colour: deflated, doomed. So too were the desiccated sphagnum beds.

We walked on through this strange, half-dead landscape. The chaos of fire had left some patches entirely unburned. Parts of our track were a bizarrely green ribbon through brown, burned barrens. The waterlogged scoop of many footfalls had protected it. But the saddest sights were the fatally burned pencil pines. One large stand along a sodden, sphagnum-filled creek had been almost entirely cremated. We won’t see them here again.

Here and there, stands of pines remained unburned. But beyond such patches, the slowly burgeoning new growth will be dominated by other species. Here, as has occurred on Great Pine Tier, there will be a changing of the guard. Eucalypts and other fire-tolerant flowering plants will take over. The hunger of wildfire has bitten deeply into a species that has nothing of the Magic Pudding about it. There is no “cut and come again” with pencil pines; when they are gone, they’re gone. I know that 20% one decade and 2% another may seem insignificant on a human time scale. But in terms of flora, such a decline is alarmingly rapid.

Sunbeams in pencil pines. Photo: Peter Grant

For someone who had taken pride in the extent and apparent safe protection of wilderness in Tasmania – 50% of our state reserved – this comes as a shock. By way of contrast, European and North American conservationists put considerable effort into “rewilding” natural areas, reintroducing locally extinct Eurasian beavers into parts of the UK, and wolves and bison into parts of North America. While I might applaud such human intervention on behalf of the natural world, from a Tasmanian perspective, it looks like an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. The heroic efforts of paramedics in trying to revive and preserve life after a crash are surely appreciated, but how much better to prevent falls from the cliff in the first place?

In Tasmania it seemed that we had the luxury of building a fence at the clifftop. Earlier in my work-life with TPWS, we had the sense that leaving the wilderness alone, monitoring what was there, understanding how it all fitted together, and minimising the impact of visitors to wilderness zones, created this barrier. After the recent summer fires, that’s clearly no longer the case. When it comes to species like Athrotaxis cupressoides, climate change has badly breached our defences.

That said, there are signs that these climate threats, especially wildfires ignited by dry lightning, are now being taken seriously. The shocks of those summers, and the voices of those who raged against the effects on our most vulnerable places, have combined to lead to some government action.

TPWS, for now, has an increased fire management budget. This has, for instance, allowed an enhanced lightning detection capability. When a lightning event is detected (and it’s not associated with much rain, or if the area is drier than usual) Parks is able to deploy spotter aircraft to check affected areas. It also has rapid attack ground crews ready to be deployed during such events. Some fire management staff are being trained to be winch-capable, the better to be placed with precision by helicopters near critical fires.

There are other heroic measures too, as illustrated by the response to the vast 2019 fires. During that summer, TPWS installed sprinkler systems and dropped fire retardant on fires burning in and close to vulnerable communities, such as King Billy pines at Lake Rhona, and sections of rainforest around iconic locations such as Mt Anne and Federation Peak. They are also creating protection zones around especially fire-sensitive sites, and doing fuel reduction burns there where it’s possible.

However, such highly interventionist approaches have their limitations. Spotter flights are weather dependent, and even in clear weather there is no certainty that all fires will be detected. Fires burning underground in peat, for instance, can smoulder undetected for weeks or months, ready to reignite and spread rapidly on the next hot, windy day. Moreover, most of these methods come at some cost, and government budget priorities are subject to change. TPWS’s increased firefighting budget is up for review, and there is no guarantee it will continue to receive adequate funding into the future. But when the consequences of ignitions in the wilderness are directly related to the immediacy of fire suppression efforts, a well-resourced fire response regime is vital.

We must jump on remote fires quickly, or we will lose treasures. That means the future of the dwindling glades of Gondwana comes down to our willingness to take actions that limit the damage: a kind of eternal vigilance fuelled by how strongly we value them. That presupposes broad community recognition that these forests are indeed treasures, and I’m doubtful that’s presently the case. Past actions seem to indicate that replaceable outbuildings on farms take precedence over irreplaceable pencil pines.

Camping in pencil pines. Photo: Peter Grant

Does all this make me optimistic for the future of pencil pines? I actually think that’s the wrong question. As ecologist and philosopher, Joanna Macy, asked: ‘does it matter whether I’m optimistic? In her book Coming Back to Life, Macy says that our pain for the world, ‘including the fear, anger, sorrow, and guilt we feel on behalf of life on earth, is not only pervasive. It is natural and healthy’.

She stands against the facile optimism, as well as the do-nothing, introspective pessimism, that are presented as the only choices open to us. ‘We don’t retrieve our passion for life, our wild, innate creativity, by scolding ourselves and soldiering on with a stiff upper lip.’

So what do we do? We do what we would do if someone we love is facing illness or crisis: we keep loving them. And we get as much expert help as we can. But whether we are optimistic about their recovery has little bearing on our action. In the case of the dwindling glades of Gondwana, my first act of love is to step again into the ancient shade of a pencil pine forest. I want to share the place with friends, and will spend time there. So often worthy action starts with resting and watching. I find that it deepens my love.

A gentle breeze tousles the tops of the pines beneath which we’re camped. They sway in easy syncopation, their soft whooshing a contrast to the claxon call of a pair of black currawongs. More subtle are the staccato trills and warbles of the silvereyes. They flit between branches, perhaps in search of caterpillars of the pencil pine moth; indistinguishable from the foliage of the pine, until you see one flex and move.

A weak sun sends pale shafts of light towards the soft earth, highlighting dozens of cobwebs airbrushing the upper branches. A host of arachnids have strung expectant strands there, hopeful of catching the same midges and mosquitoes that I’m keen to avoid. The longer I spend here, the longer I watch and notice, the more I learn of this grove’s deep story. I wonder if I’m even picking up a little of its Gondwanan accent. What I’d thought to be a greyish lichen on the pine trunks turns out, on closer inspection, to be an epiphytic fern: the delicately beautiful skeleton filmy fern. Found almost exclusively on pencil and King Billy pines, they’re another extraordinary part of what came across from Gondwana.

So too are the mosses, lichens and fungi here. They’re part of the family, exiled nobles all. Now I see that it’s about more than just the trees. There is an amazing, intricate, ancient set of relationships that go together to make up these glades.

I’m startled out of this reverie by an abrupt change in the weather. A thick, swirling scud of cloud has replaced the distant views. A south-west wind gusts with sudden ferocity; stinging rain and a plunging temperature drive us towards our tents. We scoop up a few loose items and scurry inside, expecting to be tent-bound for an hour while the change rushes through. Instead, all that night, and right through the next day, fierce winds and rain scour the landscape.

Although the pencil pines offer robust shelter, I am deeply unsettled by the constant roar of the tantruming wind in their foliage. I can barely think, let alone sleep. But sometime during the night, my sleep-deprived mind starts to hear the roar in the treetops as something else. Might this be the loud song of defiance that pencil pines sing to the wind? Haven’t they survived this, and worse, for millions of years: ice-ages, interglacials, droughts, dust and storms?

Perhaps a land management mentality has me feeling protective of these trees, asking how we can help them survive what’s coming. But now I see them as far from mute. Hearing their bold response to a wind that has me cowering, I wonder if the pencil pines are asking me the sharper question: how are we, fragile bags of flesh and bone, with our big brains and fickle hearts; how are we going to endure the winds that are coming?

The dwindling glades of Gondwana was first published in the Tasmanian Land Conservancy book, Breathing Space, an anthology of essays, stories and poems about Tasmanians’ changing relationships with nature – find out more here.