by Dr Bob Rich – Set in the mountains of Victoria, Australia
Immense. And so very well named. Oh, not the silly English ‘mountain ash’, but Eucalyptus Regnans, royalty among gums, royalty among trees, Royalty.
I am making my way down a steep slope. Rich, black, loose topsoil is covered with nature’s mulch gathered over 36 years: fallen leaves, long strips of bark, old trunks felled by termite or logger or fire. All around the forest rears. Tall, thin trunks reach high, fighting for the life-giving sun. Thin, for they were uncracked seeds until the fire of ’62. Mere youngsters they are, for a species who used to live hundreds of years before trees were timber. They wear rough brown bark on the lower quarter of their stems, then creamy smooth columns rise in pastel glory toward the high canopy. From here, to midget me, the branches are odd-shaped, gnarled little protrusions. And yet, when I was in the hot sunshine of the plateau, before I started my descent, they had formed a solid, dark green sea, cascading down into the far valley. That valley, the mountain rising on its other side, were blue with the eucalypt breath of the forest, distilled by the kiss of the sun.
Among the living trees, towering over them, stand the blackened skeletons of the forest that once was. They are spaced far apart, and I try to imagine the magnificence, the Forest who had once stood here in Her mature grandeur. From above, the canopy would have been as thick, as solid, the sunlight down here as soft. Those trunks, so distant from one another, would have had the same total weight as the crowd of trees now about me.
My way is blocked by undergrowth, and I cast about for a path down. Lesser plants live in the shade of the giants: blackwood and wattle, hazel and dogwood, though how prosaic and inappropriate these transplanted names are! Tall treeferns, prehistoric creatures of beauty, stand in the cool protection of the big trees. And among the natives are interlopers: the thorny tangle of blackberry wherever a little sunshine can reach, showy trumpets of foxglove, the alien and untouchable holly. Garden escapees all, they have become parts of the landscape.
Gray fangs of large-grained granite rear from the mountain, and I sit down on a rock for a rest, and to enjoy the air. The Forest’s perfume is strong and sweet, and if I had a cold it would cure me. Beneath the eucalypt scent, subtle but ever present, is the smell of the cycle of life: moist mulch turning into humus, humus turning into plants, plants feeding animals whose life and death feeds humus, round and round, for ever and ever, amen. I can hear one of those animals, sharp, high-pitched and beautiful over the soft sighing of the breeze in the high treetops. He is practising his song somewhere below me and to the right. A long, drawn-out whistle-and-crack is followed by the aggressively happy call of the kookaburra, though not quite right, then he clucks rhythmically, and then, amusingly, he imitates the warning cry of his own species. Smiling, I stand to continue my exploration.
I pass the great yellow earthworks of another denizen. Fresh droppings on a log show that she or he is home, in the burrow beneath my feet. The furry, solid consciousness is no doubt listening to my sliding footsteps. I pass on, looking for a likely fold in the slope where water should gather and emerge from the ground.
Further down, I come across a brown-feathered, shy beauty. She is next winter’s audience and judge for the little performer’s song and dance act. She trails her long, downwardly pointing tail with such grace that I stop to watch. She knows that I am here, but doesn’t mind as long as I keep my distance, and the peace of the forest. There is so much power in the great feet of this delicate-looking brown ballet dancer! She rakes the leaf litter with determined sweeps, then swoops to peck at some delicacy before moving on.
I move on too, softly so I don’t disturb her. The rocks are more numerous now, and larger, and here is what I have been seeking, a steep, rocky gully descending sharply, a wrinkle in the mountain’s skin.
Getting to the bottom is rockclimbing rather than walking, and now I am in a different world. This is the home of gray, coarse-featured megaliths who are neither born nor die, who fear no fire, but will slowly and gracefully wear into soil over the millennia. Quietly they contemplate the passage of time on a scale in which I am a mayfly. The ground underfoot is moist, and I am hopeful of finding that crystal-clear spring. The gully curves to the left, and then … and then there She is. The Queen of the Forest.
Compared to this living immensity, those blackened remains of the once-mature forest above died as mere babies. I am in a deep gully, might be 55 yards or so below the level where the nearest trees thrust themselves through the soil, and yet from above on the plateau this tree, this Tree, had been invisible, had blended into the canopy.
I know that the rough bark extends up for a quarter of the height. I look up, up, and by the trick of perspective and distance, my eyes betray me, and the smooth part seems far shorter than the brown texture of the lower stem. And the crown, that in truth must spread a hundred yards side to side, seems ridiculously small, as out of proportion and it is out of reach.
I approach the Queen, and now I appear to be in a room, a very special room, the Temple of the Forest. I am facing the trunk, forever rising. Not only is it in front of me, but also to the left and to the right, for I am between two buttresses, great tall wedges of brown solidity, the legs of the Tree that brace Her when the storms of winter strike. This is a sacred place. I can hardly breathe in wonder. The power and strength of this great Being enfold me. I am tiny, insignificant, but within me is the spark that allows me to pay homage.
On this eastern slope, standing in Her deep, damp gully, she has survived raging fire and battering storm. No logger hungry for timber could work here, even if he stumbled into this magical place and wished to desecrate it. Maybe, in times before mine, black sisters and brothers of my spirit knew of Her, and if they did, no doubt they revered Her as I do.
There is no freely flowing water here. I am glad. I would not wish the Queen to be disturbed by little Man’s noisy, smelly pumps. After an unmeasured stretch of peaceful eternity, I take my leave, and start the long ascent.