[modestly] better news

For Bax and Deirdre. (and Myrna took a lot of the photos.)

Charles Conder, A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Melbourne. Oil on canvas. Held by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Look at it again. What IS he doing? Two lots of John Cleese in the one picture. But summer. Yes. Definitely Summer.

No one in my vicinity needs to be told it’s been a dud summer: a tragic summer, a horrible terrible summer. Coronavirus is making the running just now, but it was the bushfires that did the lasting damage. At one stage there was a report, now seared into my memory, that four percent of Australia was on fire.

This was the official estimate of areas prone to bushfire in August last year.

That is a pretty good description of exactly where they happened. Were we prepared? No WE weren’t. Scomo wasn’t. The Federal Government wasn’t. But the fire chiefs and emergency services were.

Not perhaps for the scale of what occurred, nor its intensity and the massive damage to the biota. Over 18 million hectares burned as of mid-January. Two billion animals are estimated to have been killed.

This occurred mostly in forested mountainous terrain. Just over twenty per cent of Australia’s forests burnt this summer.

This is a disaster of this type unprecedented at any other time or in any other place. Biodiversity is concentrated in forests: they are home to more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. So, when forests burn, the biodiversity on which humans depend for their long-term survival also disappears.

For some reason, that seems to be a hard idea to get across. It’s not because animals are cute that there is cause for concern. Nor should we be grateful for the relative absence of insects. And, if you should need one, it is actually a VERY good reason to cancel the duck-hunting season.

But this is intended to be a [modestly] better news story.

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We’d been spoiled by a very successful trip to Warrnambool but we still needed some eucalyptal air in our lungs. Nothing arduous, nothing too far away: just a taste of the Alps. So we decided to do the Baw Baw plateau walk or bits of it: Mt St Gwinear car park along ski trails to the top of St Gwinear, down through some boggy flats up to join the Alps walking trail, a climb to Mt St Phillack, lunch at Freeman’s Flat, then another kilometre or two to The Tors, and back to where we came from. On a most beautiful day.

The cairn marking the top of Mt St Gwinear, 1505m ASL from memory. St Phillack 1585.

Saint Gwinear? Celtic martyr, possibly apocryphal, probably named Fingar. Saint Phillack then? Irish (or British) martyr, not well enough established even to be apocryphal. Could have been named Felec or Felicitas. File naming process under ‘Mysteries’.

So, a climb up to the ridge in the background and following it for eight or so km. That’s the story. (But look at the form of the mountain ash in the foreground. Premier League material.)

I wasn’t sure whether or not we might run into large burnt patches. I had a vague recollection that Erica, close at hand, had been evacuated in a fire emergency.

But look what we could see on this lovely day.

In this photo the horizon would be 80-100km away and it was thickly forested all that way. The fires had been further east and north and, tragic though they had been, there are still mountain forests left in Victoria and we were in the middle of one at its very best, with plenty of radiant heat in the atmosphere and water under foot to sustain and encourage more growth.

We had begun the day at Peterson’s Lookout leaning over a pulpit of grey conglomerate to peer down at the Tyers River which looked like it had plenty of water in it. Hoorah.

It wasn’t Early early, but as the shadow indicates, about the time you might expect bird song. But the cacophony of bird noise as soon as we got out of the car was an encouraging surprise. They were all there. Kookas announced our presence and soon they were all joining in: yellow-tailed black cockatoos creaking away, magpies chortling and gurgling, Major Mitchells and Sulphur-crested cockies squarking, a lyre bird or two chiming in with copies and a chain saw on the other bank, flights of crimson rosellas careening through the undergrowth, tree creepers creeping on trees, finches foraging, grey shrike-thrushes just being their modestly glamorous selves. The point is that they were all there, all correct and in glorious disorder. They might have been migrants from the carnage elsewhere. But at least they were there.

As well as the remarkable fungus, this photo has got a fly and an ant in it. The March flies were tiresome, as they can be, but after I got into stride I couldn’t begrudge them their place and their role in it and if they were going to survive by nipping at my legs, then … just get on with it I guess.

Over St Gwinear (which has its own Facebook page!) you come to Gwinear Flat. It mightn’t look like it, but this is a wonderland of vegetation. You might be looking at 50 or 60 different species of vegetation.

Myrna is bending over looking at these: snowy white mountain gentians.

They are snow gums in the background, and these ones, so eminently photogenic, haven’t been burnt. (Scoparia after flowering in the foreground.)

They are ‘young’ (maybe 60-70 yo) and briskly healthy. Muscular in fact.

And this is one of these precious places that I have written about a number of times: an alpine mossy bog.

This one is full of all sorts of bits and pieces: mint bush, members of the Bossiaea family (pea bushes), Scoparia, sedges, heaths, but under all that there will be mosses and bogs holding water and allowing it to ooze into trickles which become creeklets constantly aggregating to find their way eventually into a river. What you are looking at is an example of the source of 30 per cent of all the water that flows into the Murray. And exposure to serial fires will kill them. But not this one. It seemed luxuriously healthy.

The flowers were not at their peak but they were out: trigger plants (below), Billy Buttons, alpine daisys, Everlastings in several colours.

But perhaps the best news. Regularly along the track, as usual almost always on some prominent feature, a protruding rock or root, a firmly embedded branch, we would come across these — fresh wombat scats.

All is well in parts of the world.