By Dr Kita Ashman, Threatened Species and Climate Adaptation Ecologist, WWF-Australia
I’ve never experienced anything so deafeningly silent as a forest that has been destroyed.
I’ve stood in recently logged forests, and at first, the visual shock takes my breath away.
But it’s the silence that builds in my ears, making them want to pop to relieve the pressure.
The overwhelming lack of sound is a bit like glancing at something unexpectedly bright, the glowing spots it leaves in your eyes when you look away; the forest, or a distinct lack of it, leaves a painfully vivid auditory absence in my ears.
I grew up in the Dandenong Ranges, a set of low forested mountains in southern Victoria, which are dominated by the tallest flowering plant in the world, the mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). These humbling forest giants can extend up to 100 metres into the sky and are the fulcrum of the ecological functions of the forests.
So many of my early memories are embedded in these forests — my brother and I playing Ewoks, hiding in the folds at the shadowy feet of these immense trees, my mum teaching me the names and uses of herbs that carpet the forest floor.
One of my earliest memories of my dad is of him scolding me for destroying a fern in the backyard of my childhood home. I don’t recall why I’d pulled up that frond of bracken and snapped it, but I do remember having to hold out my hand to receive a light smack.
More than the smack, I remember a shift in my perception of the world around me. ‘The bracken hurts too’, my dad had said, and up until that point, I hadn’t thought too much about the feelings of plants and how my actions might harm them.
I think about this memory while standing in that recently destroyed forest. I wonder how the people cutting down the trees felt doing it, whether they too have a memory like this. But the yawning quietness around me makes me think that’s unlikely.
I think some more about my dad, I think I should call him, hear his voice, and tell him about this memory. I sit with the silence for a bit longer.
I realise the soundlessness is actually a little like when a call drops out, like the voice of the forest has been cut off mid-sentence, and you’re left with that uncomfortable pause that follows.
If only I could call it right back and pick up the conversation where we left off. But this will take decades, if it can even be achieved at all, because, in the end, the ecological conversation will have changed. The species, the interactions, and complexities, even a hundred years from now, those exact elements will be changed by today’s destruction.
Looking out on these areas that have recently been destroyed, I see wounds. Gaping, ragged holes in the fabric of our forests.
I see scars across the landscape, and I hear the reverberating silence of loss, but what saddens me the most is what I feel deep in my bones.
The logged forest in the images was once habitat for the now ‘Endangered’ greater glider. We were out there to do forest protection surveys and that part of the forest had recently been destroyed.
There was a strange duality of emotions when I heard that the greater glider had been uplisted to Endangered. On one hand, I felt devastated. The listing, or rather what it represents, brought me to tears. It recognises that this incredible species is one step closer to being gone from this Earth forever. On the other hand, I felt relief and a very small spark of hope. Without actions to follow this decision, nothing will change for the greater glider but I am hopeful that this recognition of how in trouble the species is will be the turning point.
I know we’re doing irreparable damage, not just to the forest and the wildlife that depend on them, but also to ourselves.
Our forests play a crucial role in the very foundational and elemental resources of life; they generate and filter the water we drink and purify the air we breathe.
I’ve been thinking about this last point a lot lately.
We’re still struggling through this global pandemic, with so many people still battling with the impacts of COVID-19. Thinking back to the extended lockdowns we experienced in Melbourne, I so often sought solitude somewhere nearby amongst the trees.
I’m considering these points standing in the destroyed forest, and I wonder, how many trees exhaled so that I could inhale? How many of them are gone now?
I feel so small standing face to face with this problem.
But I remind myself, that even the towering mountain ash started as a seed.