Flooded Forest and Desert Creek; ecology and history of the River Red Gum. By Matthew J Colloff.CSIRO Publishing. $69.95.
I’ve long been on the record as describing the River Red Gum as my favourite tree, so on the one hand I might be predisposed to like this book on principle, but it feels like a two-edged sword – I might equally well be more demanding of a book on a topic especially dear to my heart. As it is I think this book is something special indeed, a strong, well-researched and well-written scientific account of a species which has an excellent claim to iconic status, and a perceptive and fascinating history of human interactions with it.
Colloff is a CSIRO scientist (an increasingly threatened species in itself!) and polyhistor whose major research interests are the ecology of wetlands and rivers, their restoration and the impact of climate change – and the taxonomy and biology of house dust mites.
The River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis is the only eucalypt found naturally in every Australian mainland state and territory; as the title suggests it may form extensive forests along major riverways in the Murray-Darling basin, or ribbons just one tree wide along creek beds in the arid inland. A sentence in the preface grabbed my attention immediately: “River Red Gum forest, like no other ecosystem I have worked in, inspires silence, mindfulness and introspective observation.” And from then on my attention remained grabbed throughout the book. The Red Gums are El Nino’s children – Dorothea MacKellar trees if you prefer – inextricably tied to the ‘droughts and flooding rain’ cycle that drives the land.
Colloff brings invaluable perspectives and qualities to the huge task that writing this book represents. He worked as a scientist on the ecology of floodplains along the Murray – the biggest Red Gum forests in the world are here, especially the Barmah-Millewa-Gunbower forests of the Echuca area. Later he was appointed as a member of the New South Wales River Red Gums Regional Forest Assessment technical review panel, attending raucous and heated public meetings in the Riverina to hear arguments for and against changing the management of the forests from outright exploitation towards conservation and restoration. I don’t have the impression that he always enjoyed being present at these stoushes, but he is a perceptive and fair observer. Additionally he is articulate and passionate and it is unsurprising that the book is such a good read.
In Colloff’s own words this is “historical ecology… how people have affected the environment and how their actions have changed the character and function of ecosystems”. He leads us through the essential background, the variations among populations across the country, the names, the ecology and growth cycles, the fascinating concept of the tree as ‘ecosystem engineer’. I’d really only considered the term as applied to animals – bettongs and potoroos for instance constantly turn over the soils in their search for edible truffles, aerating it and allowing water penetration, as well as distributing the spores of the truffles which are crucial to the roots of so many trees. But Colloff’s case for the River Red Gum in this role is a strong one; as just one example they are responsible for forming and maintaining islands in streams. And his enumeration of the number and diversity of animals which rely on them is an eye-opener.
If your interest is really just narrowly in human history you could skip this part, but it would be a pity. Either way the rest of the book will certainly engage you. There is a chapter on fire history, including recent and apparently inevitable attempts to use fire as a “weapon for political purposes”, and one on the history of grazing the forests. There are investigations of timber harvesting and water flow management, all based on superbly detailed historical research, enriched with quotes and old photos, and all analysed to determine the impact on the forest and the trees.
The last section of the book is an examination of the place of the River Red Gum in our consciousness, with an astute examination of why this species claims the affection of so many people. Colloff concludes: “the alliance of River Red Gum and river symbolises a landscape that can be lived in… And in so doing, this fluvial confederacy creates and symbolises an idyll: peace and harmony with our environment, home and a place to belong, providing a degree of well-being and comfort beyond mere subsistence.” From here he analyses some aspects of indigenous stories and symbolism around red gums, then moves to Australian landscape art from the mid-19th century to Heysen, Namatjira and Cazneaux to modern central Australian artists, the inheritors of Namatjira.
Colloff finally traces the rise of a new ethos, of care and restoration in place of the former often brutal exploitation, with exploration of the role of Women’s Weekly in the 1950s and ’60s, themes in novels and poetry, popular images and film, political enquiries and red gum reserve creation and attitudes to old urban gums from Alice Springs to Shepparton. He ends with a short chapter on The Future of the River Red Gum, which is thoughtful and hopeful.
I hope this book requires many reprints (and that Colloff gets more credit on the cover of the next edition) and becomes the classic reference it deserves to be. Entire books as in-depth accounts of single species are rare but this one is both important and highly readable.
• Ian Fraser is a local naturalist, broadcaster, natural history blogger and author, whose most recent book is Australian Bird Names; a complete guide.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.