April 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Rupture in Tasmania

By Nicole Gill
Solastalgia and the impact of the recent bushfires

“I have three questions for you tonight: Why are you here? What do these fires signify? And what can we do?”

Professor David Bowman, a fire ecologist from the University of Tasmania, stands at the front of a packed lecture theatre on Hobart’s waterfront. This evening’s event is titled ‘Gondwana on Fire’, a reference to the ancient lineages of alpine and rainforest plants that burned in Tasmania’s recent bushfires. Topics for discussion include the damage done and how these unprecedented blazes manifest the newly visible impacts of climate change. Bowman’s audience is a mixed-age stand of nature lovers, and the questions he is asking are purely rhetorical.

“I know why you’re here,” Bowman says. He leans forward. “There’s been a philosophical rupture.”

Many in the audience are long-time activists: those who successfully fought the damming of the Franklin River in the late 1970s and early ’80s, those whose efforts led to the creation of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 1982. Most have a strong attachment to the wild Tasmanian landscapes that were recently aflame, especially to those in the alpine regions of Tasmania’s Central Plateau and in the north-west Tarkine wilderness. Everyone present is troubled by the images of desolation they’ve just seen on the theatre’s screen.

“The belief was that all a wilderness needed was to be left alone, that now it would be safe within the confines of the park,” Bowman says. “And we’ve all just realised that this isn’t the case.”

This is the “rupture”: the realisation that all that we thought was “saved” is now threatened by something previously unimaginable.

In 2007, the Australasian Psychiatry journal published a paper on the concept of solastalgia. Professor Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher, coined this term to describe “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment”. It is a queasy mixed emotion where the comfort of the known is disfigured by the awareness that something is horribly wrong. The word itself is a portmanteau – solace spliced with the suffix -algia (pain) – with intimations of nostalgia. Solastalgia is a homesickness you can feel without leaving home.

For many, home is a relatively small area, encompassing the places in which we sleep, work and relax. For ecologists, however, home can include a much broader, grander space. Ecologists spend weeks, if not years, of their lives outdoors, becoming intimately acquainted with otherwise wild places. They arrive with notebooks, cameras, sampling kits and data recorders to take down the landscape’s vital statistics, but, sooner or later, when they leave it is with a deeper connection.

In late December, two weeks before the first lightning strike would spark flames in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Dr Steve Leonard stood in its southern reaches, holding a steaming mug of coffee. Dead pencil pines poked out of the fire scar that blighted the crest of Moonlight Ridge.

The Melbourne-based, Tasmanian-trained fire ecologist has spent years cataloguing the flora of these iconic landscapes. He and his partner, Georgia, were on a bushwalking holiday, and had set up camp in a mess of charred vegetation and mud at the headwaters of Mystery Creek.

Two years earlier, a fire had swept through this area. It stopped halfway up the unimaginatively named Hill One, leaving a scorched fringe of sub-alpine scrub skirting the hill. Some of the vegetation had come back. The landscape was brightened here and there by outbursts of flowers: an explosion of trigger plants with their purple-pink petals, primed to smack potential pollinators on the rump; clusters of yellow-petalled alpine daisies; impossibly clean clumps of white flag irises surrendering to the summer breeze.

Many of the key species of plants were the same as those in the World Heritage Area’s Central Plateau, and – in a kind of preview – it was already clear that not all of them would recover.

While the melaleucas and tea-trees were rising again as a thousand tiny red-green seedlings, the pencil pines stood as still as stones. Eucalypts can re-sprout from fire, or regenerate from seeds protected in woody capsules or soil, but once pencil pines burn, the only seeds available for regrowth are from unburnt trees nearby. Pencil pine seeds do not travel well – most fall directly beneath their parent tree – and those that might sprout are easy targets for browsing wombats and wallabies. Once they are burnt out of an area, pencil pines cannot return.

“Usually when you go up to the Central Plateau, it’s like walking on a sponge,” Leonard told me later. “It’s perpetually wet, so it’s very rare that the area is dry enough to burn.”

But in December, Tasmania had just come out of its driest spring on record, and was starting to sweat through its hottest summer. The land was tinder dry.

By mid January, the unprecedented number of dry lightning strikes had sparked dozens of fires that lit up the state like candles on a heart-shaped birthday cake. The emergency services and the media focused on threats to human life and property, and it took a while for the impact of the fires in the World Heritage Area to reach public consciousness.

When photographers Rob Blakers and Dan Broun released images from the still-smouldering wreckage, people started to get the message. These weren’t regular summer forest fires. This was the incineration of something ancient and irreplaceable. These King Billy pines, eastern cushion plants and pencil pines were ancient species, dinosaurs of the plant world that had survived unchanged for 150 million years in a land of ice but no fire. There is nowhere in the world with such a concentration of relictual plants, and their beauty and uniqueness have long been drawcards for bushwalkers seeking immersion in a landscape unlike anywhere else on earth.

The images of the devastation travelled across the globe. As the full extent of the damage became clear, social media users decried the destruction of landscapes considered the environmental equivalent of razing Palmyra or ransacking the Louvre. Accompanying the images was a quote from David Bowman: “I think I would be being unethical and unprofessional if I didn’t form the diagnosis and say what it is – climate change. Under the current rate of warming I think this ecosystem will be gone in 50 years.”

Tasmania’s premier, Will Hodgman, was not pleased. He declared it “damn ordinary that you’ve got environmental activists almost gleefully capitalising on images, naturally caused, which could inflict significant damage on our brand, our reputation”. In an attempt to minimise perceived damage to the Tasmanian brand, he promptly arranged for a helicopter trip to show journalists the largely untouched region of the World Heritage Area traversed by the internationally famous Overland Track.

After the most recent fires, I asked Leonard how he felt about the future of these landscapes. “I always thought of these areas as being fairly safe from fire,” he said. “But this latest fire has really made me think that maybe they will disappear. The Central Plateau is a pretty special place for me – I love it up there – so the thought of those plateau areas without pines is pretty sad.”

There may be an antidote to the pain of solastalgia. Soliphilia, also a neologism of Albrecht’s, is a love of place and “a willingness to accept, in solidarity … with others, the political responsibility” for preserving the earth . It’s an idea most ecologists are already firmly behind, and is perhaps some part of the solution to our own “philosophical ruptures”.

In the face of climate change, Bowman tells the assembled crowd, we need to change our ways, for the sake of the Gondwanan flora and for ourselves. “We are no longer talking about the other. The ‘wilderness’ is no longer out there. We are talking about us.”

Nicole Gill

Nicole Gill is a Tasmanian environmental writer.  Her nonfiction book, Animal Eco-Warriors, was released in June 2017.


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