A Tale of Two Trees
The Nightcap National Park Bushfire
Over the past couple of months many of our readers have contacted Permaculture News to find out if the fires had impacted us and to ensure we were all ok.
To everyone who contacted us, thank you for your support.
In the recent months, two of the ethics that we adhere to in permaculture, earth care and people care, have proved to be exceptionally important in our community. If anything it is the strength of our community that has pulled us through these very testing times.
As you may, or may not be aware, Permaculture News is based in a little village called The Channon, in northern New South Wales, Australia. Just 14km away from the world-heritage listed rainforest, the Nightcap National Park. Home to the critically endangered Night-cap oak and at least 940 other recorded species, this rainforest is exceptionally precious.
After arriving in Australia a few years ago my partner and I fell in love with the Nightcap National Park. So much so, we decided to settle here. Late last year, we bought a property on Terania Creek, just 4km away from the entrance to the national park, with the intention to start our own permaculture farm and regenerate the land. We excitedly moved in to our new home in October 2019. One month later, on Friday 8th November, a fire started in the National Park. At 3pm on Saturday 9th November I received a text message from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service “Night NP – Tuntable residents leave now to Nimbin & Terania Creek residents to The Channon”
Even now a couple of months later, listening to the torrential rain outside and the thunder of the waterfall, knowing that the fires are now out, I cannot put into words what I felt at the time. Coming to terms with the fact that the rainforest (which is not supposed to burn) was in fact on fire is impossible. On that Friday morning, from my kitchen window it looked like a volcano had erupted. I evacuated in fear, not in fear for myself, but in fear for the loss of the bio-diversity, which this community fought so hard to protect back in the late 70’s. As I started the emotional drive down Terania Creek Road it seemed hard to believe that it was only a few months ago in August that our community was celebrating the 40th year anniversary of saving this wonderful place.
And so I thought it was important to share with you the Tale of Two Trees, written by Nan Nicholson in December 2019. Nan Nicholson is one of the original Terania Creek protestors and she played a pivotal role in saving Terania Creek from being logged back in the 70’s.
So whilst we are getting into the habit of thanking, I would personally like to thank Nan & Hugh Nicholson for their life’s work, to the local rural fire service, to our community defenders, to our community at large and also The Terania Creek Times for giving Permaculture News the permission to republish this article.
Editor – Permaculture News
The Tale of Two Trees
On Friday 8th November an unexpected little smoke appeared in the bottom of Terania Creek Basin, somewhere near the Circle Pool. By the evening it was a glow heading up the western side. Then it exploded as it hit the fuel it needed on a north-facing ridge. Hugh and I and our daughter Terri sat all night on a grassy hill to the south of the Basin, watching in disbelief as the sky bloomed red and the Basin blazed.
Sclerophyll forests, mainly eucalypts, burn sooner or later; they need occasional fire and they promote it. Rainforest is not supposed to burn; it needs fire-free sites to regenerate. But, as the firies say, anything will combust if it is dry enough. Now I know how rainforest burns, at least in relatively benign conditions in spring. We are yet to find out how it burns in high summer, with strong winds and more intense heat.
In a soft burn in desiccated rainforest the fire trickles along, feeding on dry leaves, fronds and sticks. Since litter collects at tree bases, particularly buttressed ones, the fire concentrates there, and eats away at the base. It doesn’t take long to start up the trunk and if it is hollow, as in a big old tree or a strangler fig, it soon becomes a roaring chimney, even when the surrounding fire is not particularly intense.
That is what happened to my favourite Brush Box (Lophostemon confertus) in Terania Creek. It was a gigantic tree not far from the Circle Pool, in warm temperate rainforest. Its diameter at ground level was 5 m, the biggest I have ever seen, and its age was something more than 1200 years. The colossal butt had unusual buttress-like roots which emerged from the trunk and re-connected lower down. Kids loved perching up high on the broad swellings below the main trunk.
When we checked it two weeks after the fire started there was nothing left of the enormous bole but a few blackened ribs. The trunk and crown had crashed into the rainforest, tearing down vines and other trees. An old and dear friend was suddenly gone and the grief for our wounded forest became specific and intense.
The day after this discovery, Hugh and I realised that another precious tree, not so ancient but very significant, was at risk.
It was a big strangling fig (Ficus obliqua) with a massive base of sprawling buttresses and roots, and a hollow core where the original host tree died. This tree is climbable and our family has used it as a coming-of-age tree for 10 year old kids. On their tenth birthday they get to climb up the inside with their mother and from the top gaze out onto the surrounding rainforest canopy. Both of our kids said it was a big day for them – they were nervous but very proud when they came through.
The fires that ran down the eastern and western ridges from Terania Creek Basin had continued to burn and threaten hand-cleared containment lines. A flare-up of one of these fires was just a few 100m from this fig and could threaten it with a slight change in wind direction.
Late at night Hugh and I discussed the risk to the tree. It was a candidate for turning into a massive candle. Its death would be utterly devastating for our kids and many others. Hugh proposed driving up to Terania and clearing the ground around it. It seemed hare-brained, I was exhausted, it was dark and I knew there were a great many vines and other entanglements around the tree which would make it a big job. But the thought of the tree being vaporised because we didn’t do anything was a powerful motivator.
So, between 9pm and mid-night, two old codgers armed with torches, loppers and rakes, worked to remove decades worth of debris from a broad area around the tree. Its footprint was much bigger and more complicated than I remembered and it took a big effort to clear but it was worth it in the end.
Was it OK to clear around this tree? Doubtless we removed some tangles that provided habitat for small creatures. Now the tree looks ridiculously neat and manicured in a naturally untidy forest. Will it even make a difference if a big fire arrives?
Well, I have to apply here my prevailing philosophy that nothing is simple and nothing is perfect. We simply tried to protect a venerable tree that is a marker of our community’s connection with country. Time will tell whether it was effective or justified.
Fighting to protect something increases its value and makes it easier to fight even harder – a virtuous circle. That is why so many people love the Terania Creek forest and why our community effort to stop the fires travelling down the ridges towards The Channon was so exceptionally organised and effective.
It gives me hope that our community, knowing that it belongs to this place, will prevail over the governments, state and federal, who have clearly abandoned us to the impacts of climate change.
This article was written by Nan Nicholson in December 2019 and published in the Terania Creek Times