The tallest tree

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - PA­TRICK WIT­TON

In 2015, Brett Mif­sud re­ceived some cu­ri­ous in­for­ma­tion from a con­tact at VicForests: a map of a heav­ily forested area 80 kilo­me­tres east of Melbourne that showed some un­ex­pected al­ti­tude read­ings. Mif­sud knew this re­gion well – any spare mo­ment he would head there in his late-model Subaru, which was scat­tered with GPS de­vices, rangefind­ers, tape mea­sures and a dog-eared spi­ral-bound note­book thick with scrib­bles. His main aim on such ex­cur­sions was to find, and reg­is­ter, large spec­i­mens of Eu­ca­lyp­tus reg­nans. These trees, more com­monly known as moun­tain ash, are im­pres­sive when they reach typ­i­cal heights, but when they grow even taller they can evoke the kind of gasp usu­ally saved for Gothic cathe­drals. Over the years Mif­sud had found nu­mer­ous mas­sive moun­tain ash trees, and by reg­is­ter­ing their pres­ence with VicForests he af­fected what log­gers could and could not touch in the vicin­ity. His re­search con­trib­uted to VicForests’ de­vel­op­ment of a pro­tec­tion plan, which ex­cludes core ar­eas of large trees from har­vest and re­gen­er­a­tion burns. But, “if any­thing,” Mif­sud says, “let­ting peo­ple know about these trees is like say­ing, ‘Stop. Look! If these trees ex­ist, then so does a rich ecosys­tem down to the mi­cro level.’”

The map that Mif­sud had ob­tained fea­tured in­for­ma­tion that was im­pos­si­ble to ac­quire from the for­est floor, and wasn’t ev­i­dent on any other car­tog­ra­phy. It had been cre­ated us­ing Light De­tec­tion and Rang­ing (Li­DAR) tech­nol­ogy, whereby a low-fly­ing plane sent out laser pulses across the ter­rain be­low to cap­ture in­fin­i­tes­i­mal changes in al­ti­tude, from the mulchcaked ground to the fresh green shoots atop the canopy.

Some of the height vari­a­tions shown on the map made Mif­sud pretty frisky, but frisky for him is an un­sur­pris­ing state. The 49-year-old is bone lean, and can be as jit­tery as the teenagers he teaches at a sub­ur­ban high school. Over the past two decades he has climbed trees in Bor­neo and the Pa­cific North­west, co-writ­ten pa­pers with such snappy ti­tles as ‘Ob­ser­va­tions of Spencer’s Skink Pseude­moia spenceri From Within the High Canopy of an Over­ma­ture Moun­tain Ash Eu­ca­lyp­tus reg­nans’, and “roped up” sci­ence celebrity Brian Cox so that the fop­pish Man­cu­nian could swing high from a tree and get that in situ hero shot.

Mif­sud has also led nu­mer­ous ex­cur­sions into the pro­posed Great For­est Na­tional Park, which would add more than 350,000 hectares to the 170,000-hectare patch­work of forested ar­eas scat­tered in an arc from the north-east to the south-east of Melbourne. Those who have ac­com­pa­nied Mif­sud to the park-in-progress in­clude the then fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Mark But­ler, who was driven down a rut­ted road in a Com­car so that he could make an on-the-stump speech, and Jeff Shapiro, a fa­mous (in cer­tain cir­cles) global ad­ven­ture ath­lete who plans to pro­mote the park, as he stated in his Mon­tanan drawl, “by wing­suit­ing out of a hot air bal­loon and land­ing in a moun­tain ash like a sugar glider”.

Mif­sud’s trip into the for­est would be more se­date. With the Li­DAR map on the back seat, he drove to the re­gion with the win­dows down, the smell of Eu­ca­lyp­tus cypel­locarpa over­rid­ing the car’s usual whiff of damp polyester fleece. The map took him to a log­ging coupe. All was quiet on a Sun­day, no one in hi-vis eye­balling him as he skirted the clear­ing. Kub­ota ex­ca­va­tors stood idle, re­sem­bling mu­seum-dis­play di­nosaurs.

From the clear­ing, Mif­sud dropped, as the Li­DAR map sug­gested, into a val­ley. Stands of grey gum gave way to black­wood, myr­tle beech and un­spool­ing bracken fid­dle­heads. A crop of wire grass not only slowed his progress but also left an­gry grazes. Mif­sud de­scribed the ter­rain at a mi­crob­otan­i­cal level. “Oh, Per­soo­nia ar­borea! How cool is that!” He crossed a clear­wa­ter stream framed by “a for­est of epi­phytes” and scram­bled up the other side. Mif­sud’s mono­logue gath­ered pace, but he fell silent when he looked up to the canopy. He then lurched from side to side as a go­rilla might. To most peo­ple, a tall tree is a tall tree, but by eye alone – and some lurch­ing – Mif­sud could tell that the top of one par­tic­u­lar tree was that much higher.

“Oh, oh, oh,” he mut­tered in a rare mo­ment of be­ing lost for words, while he rum­maged in his back­pack for a TruPulse 200L laser rangefinder and a but­ton-laden cal­cu­la­tor. The moun­tain ash in his sights had a trunk that, 20 me­tres from the base, di­vided into two branches. The one on the right bowed slightly, but the one on the left was pen­cil straight.

“That’s gotta be clock­ing 80, easy,” Mif­sud said, al­most to him­self, as he set the rangefinder. And then, “Oh, oh … 87 me­tres, 87 me­tres!”

There was a time when one could find moun­tain ash trees that topped 100 me­tres. In Thor­p­dale, Gippsland, a sign di­rects tourists to the “site of world’s tallest tree”. Any­one tak­ing the de­tour will be met with a view to rolling dairy coun­try – the “site” – as the tree was felled in 1884 by lo­cal farmer Bill Corn­th­waite, and then mea­sured to be 114.3 me­tres by Bill’s brother, Ge­orge, a gov­ern­ment sur­veyor. Due to the 2009 bush­fires and more than a cen­tury of log­ging, the pos­si­bil­ity of a moun­tain ash reach­ing be­yond 85 me­tres

un­de­tected has be­come ex­tremely rare. Mif­sud was cer­tain that, in the val­ley east of Melbourne that day, at 87.6 me­tres, he had just found the tallest tree on the Aus­tralian main­land.

After mak­ing a few note­book scrib­bles Mif­sud headed back to the car, again skirt­ing the cor­ral of ba­nana-yel­low ma­chin­ery. The prox­im­ity of the log­ging coupe was wor­ri­some, and this wasn’t the only dan­ger for the tree: the point where its trunk forked was start­ing to split, and then there was al­ways the threat of bush­fire. Even if a fire didn’t bash through the re­gion like it had eight years ago, it wouldn’t take much for this moun­tain ash to burn. Call it nom­i­na­tive de­ter­min­ism. But that day, back at the car, Mif­sud chose to for­get the threats. He savoured the fact that he’d lo­cated a still-stand­ing gi­ant, and then spent a quar­ter hour ex­tract­ing leeches from his Ex­plorer socks.

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