Inside Story

Weekend in Gondwana

On Tasmania’s Central Plateau, a group of scientists prepares for a hotter future

Jo Chandler 17 December 2020 6094 words

David Bowman (left) and Ben French picking their way across hummocks of sphagnum peat. Jo Chandler

Refugium: A geographical region that has remained unaltered by a climatic change affecting surrounding regions and that therefore forms a haven for relict fauna and flora.
Collins English Dictionary

It’s a gloriously frigid, olde-worlde, 350 parts-per-million-or-less kind of day when I haul out my backpack, lace up my adventure boots and head south to Gondwana.

With summers cycling closer, hotter, longer — sweating dread — I’ve lately been rummaging through my closet of high Holocene winters: soup on slow combustion stoves, spencers and stockings, coal briquettes, puddles that crack underfoot, frost over paddocks and breath hanging in air, chilblains — remember those? Cold will still come, of course, in extremis, supercharged by wild shifts in the firmament. But the winters of my memory belong to a vanished epoch, and I’m bereft.

This isn’t nostalgia, but rather a condition environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has identified as “solastalgia,” derived from solace (the lack of it) and desolation: “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” A fortifying wander back through the geological continuum promises some perspective. Comfort, cold or otherwise, is surely too much to ask.

The plane from Melbourne is scarcely up and it’s down again in Launceston. A two-hour drive west and we’re pulling up on Tasmania’s Central Plateau. The southerly from the Antarctic is brutal but the plateau — the island’s highest landscape — is washed in eye-watering, pale sunlight, the kind that doesn’t warm so much as cook unprotected flesh. On a wide, wild plain not far from Lake Mackenzie, three figures are at work in the middle distance. They’re ecologists mapping environmental refugia, locations where topography, geography and climate have contrived a sweet spot within which besieged species find nurturing conditions for survival.

Even a day or two will do me, in my own search for refuge. Walking out to them, I’m lagging in the sure-footed wake of Ben French, a young ecologist who has enthused about the bush, the threats posed to it by climate change and his PhD subject — a rescue strategy for Athrotaxis cupressoides, Tasmania’s endemic pencil pine — for the length of the ride from the airport. The venerable tree’s majesty is rather lost in translation from the Latin. It dates back 150 million years, one of the oldest surviving plant lineages on Earth.

“There’s just something about them,” says French. “Something charismatic…” He’s struggling for the words, as I will, and do. Google the images of the late, legendary nature photographer Peter Dombrovskis — “Pencil pine at pool of Siloam, Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Tasmania, 1982.” You’ll see our transcendent, gnarly, haunting, humbling, portentous, gobsmacking problem.

The ground beneath my boots feels rubbery, otherworldly — and it is. Sphagnum peat can take millennia to form. It belongs to the same Gondwanan landscape as the pencil pine — the understorey and overstorey of the same primeval narrative. It deserves worship, not clumsy intrusion. It sighs and shifts as I pick a route across spiky hummocks and between clumps of vivid green, velvety cushion plants — up to 1000 years old, sorry, so sorry! — weaving around littered lumps of dolerite and basalt; occasionally stumbling into the sucking quagmire that threads the entire plain.

The bog — but really, who could call it such? — extends over an area the size of several footy grounds, enclosed by stands of snow gums (Eucalyptus coccifera) and a tumble of Jurassic cliffs. It’s a rare, precious ecosystem — a steeping sponge cake of decomposing plants and mosses that purifies and regulates water flows, nurtures biodiversity, and works heroically to cool the planet and mitigate humanity’s spiralling atmospheric crimes. Barely 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface hosts peatlands, yet they soak up and store more carbon than all the world’s other vegetation combined. Damage to these carbon sinks is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and they are being whacked by ever more severe droughts and rampaging firestorms. Which is why efforts to try to restore them, like the one under way here, are imperative.

Everywhere, this plain sprouts ghostly clumps of knee-high, ash-grey antlers — the remains of Richea scoparia, an alpine heath that ordinarily paints a sublime springtime palette of pink and red and creamy yellow across the highlands. But these specimens won’t bloom again. They were roasted in January 2016 when, after a record-breaking spell of heat and drought across the island, dry lightning strikes ignited even these historically non-combustible wetlands. Wildfires consumed almost 20,000 hectares of World Heritage–listed wilderness that summer. And that was merely the curtain-raiser. Three years later, in the summer of 2018–19, blazes sparked by massive dry lightning storms burned another 95,000-plus hectares of wilderness. Months later, these areas are still a no-go zone.

The bog is pockmarked with fire damage of various degrees. The only colours flowering in the rubble of rock, blackened trees and singed earth are fixed to tall rods planted in the ground by the field team — plastic squares of luminous orange, yellow, green, blue that will be used to plot aerial surveys. The crew, huddled in protective layers, is hard at work. Researcher Scott Nichols is doubled over, closely inspecting sphagnum mounds within the patchwork of survey squares. He calls out coordinates to Aimee Bliss, one of two research assistants, who scrawls them on a data sheet along with his diagnosis: “Healthy,” “Damaged,” “Killed.”

Sphagnum is a bryophyte — the oldest of all land plants, and likely the surviving link between aquatic and land plants. The building block for the peatlands ecology, it has no defences against wildfire. The healthy specimens clinging on here, Nichols explains, are mostly edging the puddles in the bog. Understanding in granular detail the response of peatlands to fire is critical to informing evolving efforts to try to preserve and rehabilitate them. His data sheets document vegetation and animal scats, peat depth and acidity. Drone shots will add the microtopography of slope and aspect.

In the next phase Nichols, Bliss and the last of the trio, Cameron Geeves, will peg small canopies of shade cloth over some areas — sphagnum doesn’t like ultraviolet radiation — scatter fertiliser to stimulate growth, and transplant cuttings of healthy growth to burnt areas. Then they will wait and watch and, over years to come, send in the drones to see what, if anything, works.

It’s painstaking, physically battering and psychologically bruising work — these are, after all, lovers of the natural world; scientists with an unblinkered understanding of what is unfolding. I’ve met many like them over fifteen years, on and off, reporting on climate science, and observed the tenor of their distress rising with the temperatures and the parts per million. This is, surely, a doomed endeavour?

No, declares Professor David Bowman, the storied scientist whose work has brought me here, and who is overseeing these projects, when he strides into the picture, a six-foot-something, sixty-one-year-old dervish of energy and flapping Gore-Tex, hollering questions and opinions over the wind. His forty-year scientific career has earned him recognition as one of the world’s foremost fire ecologists. This trial may not save the bog, he concedes. But that won’t constitute failure. What we may learn is that “if we lose one of these bogs, it’s basically gone forever.” Then the work would need to shift: identify unburnt bogs and “make sure they never get burnt.”

But how would this be possible? Bowman starts reeling off strategies that smack of environmental heresy. “It might be getting people with whipper-snippers and cutting a fire break around it. It might be getting solar-powered pumps and irrigating it during the summer. I have no bloody idea.” He expects many people will label such ideas as ridiculous. “But everything’s ridiculous now.”

Bowman was the lead author of a paper published by a cohort of distinguished Australian ecologists and biologists in 2018 urging a radical overhaul of conservation strategies in the Anthropocene, a shift to what they call “renewal ecology.” The noble Edenic ambitions of existing conservation efforts, of recovering ecosystems, were now futile, they argued. Environmental change was “inevitable and irrevocable.” The rate, scale and magnitude of the global crisis demanded hitherto unimaginable efforts to manage ecosystems to maximise the prospects for both biodiversity and humans. Whipper-snippering the wilderness, if that’s what it takes, to salvage what is salvageable.

Renewal ecology is about pushing back, “saying we’ve got nothing to lose,” says Bowman. “The precautionary principle made perfect sense in a non-Anthropocene environment, but once you are in the Anthropocene… it’s pointless. ‘Oh, something bad might happen.’

“No. Something bad is happening.”

As the chunk of the fragmented, fecund supercontinent of Gondwanaland we recognise today as Australia meandered northward, eucalypts and acacias capitalised on warmer, drier conditions, evolving to tolerate and even regenerate through wildfire. Gondwanan survivors like A. cupressoides clung on in damp, cool niches. Tasmania became the lifeboat for paleoendemic species, treasures that today underwrite the World Heritage status of the island’s wilderness.

When Aboriginal people wandered into the scene via a land bridge around 35,000 years ago, they brought fire to manage the landscape — a practice that has long intrigued Bowman. In all their thousands of years of occupancy, he says, Aboriginal fire regimes caused little disturbance to the Gondwanan forests. But since European colonisation, one-third of the island’s pencil pines have gone. Around half the specimens on the Central Plateau were lost in a single summer, 1960–61, when graziers set the bush alight to renew grasslands for their livestock. Until the 1990s, most wildfires were the result of deliberate or inadvertent human ignition. They still are, though these days humanity doesn’t need to strike the match.

Fire scars left on ancient trees and other paleo clues show that lightning has ignited Tasmania in deep history, but this occurred only rarely until 2000. Since then, dry lightning fires have become an almost annual event. In January 2016, after some of the driest and warmest months on record, eighty dry lightning fires ignited across western Tasmania. On 15 January 2019 — a single day — over 2000 strikes sparked more than sixty bushfires. Bowman likens what played out to “an alien spaceship coming in and just attacking the island with lightning bolts.”

While there’s been wide speculation that lightning activity is increasing, continuing work by scientists indicates that this is likely not the case. The lightning has always been there, they argue. What’s changed is that these bolts find the kindling for an incendiary new regime. As the planet heats, the rains produced by the low-pressure systems that nurtured the ecosystems of southern Australia over the aeons have been drifting south, falling into the sea, while evaporation is increasing. “Ongoing climate change is making dry spells longer and more frequent, increasing the fire prone area of Tasmania,” scientists explained in the Conversation in the wake of the 2019 fires. “Almost the whole state is becoming vulnerable to dry lightning.”

Leaving the sphagnum crew to their work, we set out across the singed landscape of Eagle Valley towards a site that the scientists unromantically identify as “Unburnt South.” First we must traverse a swathe of desolate, burnt country, dropping in on locations where French has been doing some research gardening, planting pencil pine seeds under a range of conditions he will monitor for years to come.

Bowman, a hiker since his teens, is as weather-beaten as the country, but moves across it at a cracking pace. He launches into a running, unfiltered commentary on the scene. “It was horrible,” of course, what happened here, he says, surveying scorched rocks and trees. “But it was amazing, there was so much learning and science, and then you are reframing thinking and breaking it down and building it up… Do I really believe that we can restore these systems? Well, as the world’s warming, it’s probably a 1000-year program to be planting seeds. It’s an amazing gesture.”

Lightning ignited what became the Mersey Forest Fire Complex on 13 January 2016, and over the next week blazes raged and merged, outrunning the capacity of local and interstate crews to respond. The firestorm gained such power it was spotting up to nine kilometres ahead as it exploded up Devils Gullet — a deep, narrow glacial gorge — and onto the plateau here at Lake Mackenzie. The peatlands smouldered until May.

Images shot in late January by photographer Rob Blakers, who built his reputation capturing the beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness, revealed the shattering scale of the loss — one of the world’s most treasured ecosystems reduced to a patchwork of char and toasted cushion plants. “The Central Plateau is littered by the gaunt skeletons of burnt pencil pines,” Blakers wrote in the Hobart Mercury, a tragedy that “brings grief to anyone who has a sense of what the living tree is like.” Bowman told the Age/Sydney Morning Herald that the vanishing of these trees was akin to “losing the thylacine.” He pulled no punches: “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 fifty years.”

That quote captured something of a seismic professional and personal moment, Bowman recalls. For years, he’d been tissue-wrapping his commentary with the customary caveats of science, “always sort of dancing on the spot… ‘Oh well, you know fires and the historical context, we can’t really say what’s climate change.’ And I just said, ‘This is what climate change looks like it. This is it.’ I just was over it.”

He argues for interventions like planned burnings, recognising that this looms as a “philosophical rupture” with the concept of self-sustaining wilderness, one that offends many conservationists and greens. But the vulnerability of the bush in the Anthropocene “has raised profound philosophical questions, and ongoing political discussion, about acceptable responses to the impacts of climate change on this World Heritage area.”

Ben French summons us to look at one of his sites, where he’s sown pencil pine seeds that happened — in a bit of cosmic good luck — to have been collected by the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens for their seed bank not long before the fires. “I’m trying to capture all the variability within a site,” he explains, dispersing seeds between sphagnum hummocks, some up on the top, some down on the wet edges of the bog. Half of them are protected by small teepees of galvanised mesh, the remainder are at the mercy of herbivore grazers foreign and domestic — wallabies, wombats, rabbits and possums the lead culprits.

“Jo — you’ve walked between the markers!”

“Oh shit — did I just kill it?”

French assures me not. His anxious expression says otherwise.

Athrotaxis cupressoides can take fifty years to reach just a metre in height. Individual stems have been aged at over 1000 years, though it’s suspected they may be much older. The pencil pine and the King Billy pine, A. selaginoides, are a rare pair, the only extant species of their ancient genus.

Relic Gondwana: a glade of Athrotaxis cupressoides, or pencil pine. Jo Chandler

“Let’s imagine this works,” says Bowman. “Let’s be really optimistic — say some of these seeds take, and they germinate into little seedlings, then Ben will come here when he’s my age and say, ‘I did that.’ That would be awesome.” The other possibility, he expands, is that “we learn that it is just not going to work.” We learn that to salvage the species we’re going to have to find locations where it survives “and we’re going to irrigate it, and we’re going to have bloody fire breaks, and we’re going to save these things because we love them… It would be quite possible, theoretically, to excavate a pencil pine, dig it up with a crane, put it on the back of a truck and take it somewhere and plant it.”

The idea of translocating vulnerable species — plants and animals — out of harm’s way, once the solution of last resort, has gained pace and reluctant acceptance in triaging the Anthropocene emergency. Bowman raises the prospect of moving pencil pine specimens to botanic gardens, or cultivating them somewhere like Macquarie Island, where conditions may suit them for a while yet. This is the same guy who controversially argued in a Nature article a few years ago that one option for managing remote Australia’s multiple ecological problems was to bring in elephants and rhinos to control invasive, highly combustible gamba grass. “Of course, introducing large mammals cannot solve all of Australia’s ecological-management conundrums,” he wrote. “But the usual approaches… aren’t working. The full spectrum of options needs to be canvassed in an open and honest way.”

After an hour or so marching in the footprint of the inferno, surrounded by the agonies of ashen limbs reaching into blue sky, we finally find our way into Unburnt South. Indigo pools of water are surrounded by mounds of heath and greenery and stands of pencil pines. Surveying the growth under one of them, French leans in and gently teases out a young wild-sown pencil pine shoot — barely up to his first knuckle, it requires the keenest eye to find.

There’s a dense glade of A. cupressoides gathered in the lee of a cliff, a cathedral of surviving Gondwana. Stepping inside, it’s a tangle of moss and lichen, carpets of russet and yellow under labyrinthine branches. They’ve meandered over centuries of unhurried life, bulging joints wrapped in the wrinkled flesh of grey, flaking bark. The foliage, tendrils of delicate green, utterly unlike the familiar dressings of nearby eucalypts, turns to shades of pink and burgundy where it falls into the litter of magnificent decay.

The tree trunks are crowded close, sometimes leaning in unison, then suddenly individuals turning towards… what? It’s been discovered only lately that these are clonal organisms. “They’re all connected by underground stems and root suckers,” explains Bowman. “When you get your eye in, you can see they grow in clumps, or they grow in lines, and they’re very, very, very old.” How old surviving clones like these might be is difficult to say, but as explained in a Nature paper Bowman co-authored, at least some individuals may be survivors from the first seedlings that established on freshly exposed ground following the retreat of the ice sheet after the Last Glacial Maximum. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility they’ve been in situ for 10,000 years just spreading out,” he expands.

Perhaps this glade is a single organism — communicating, socialising and supporting itself via an intricate web of hidden roots and fungal filaments, conspiracies of insects and the chemistry of scent. Science has only lately begun to crack the coded language of trees, the social network of what’s being dubbed the “wood wide web,” which enables the forest community to share resources like water, to protect and care for its members and to warn them of dangers.

Shafts of sunlight insinuate themselves through the canopy, illuminating spiderwebs and bouquets of burnished moss that look more like they belong to the seabed than the forest floor. The light is dreamy. Breathing Gondwana, this inheritance of tens of millions of years of growth and renewal and survival provides some powerful solace. Wanting nothing so much as to lie down in this faerie dell and quietly metamorphose, I recall the theory that trees pump out perfumes to protect themselves from intruders. A. cupressoides is wafting something seductive, sedative. It’s all I can do to return to my time.

Following our trio of lengthening shadows back out across the fire zone, the Anthropocene — or the Pyrocene, as Bowman’s US colleague, Stephen J. Pyne declares it — feels all the more achingly impoverished. But Bowman weighs in with an unexpected take. Ecology is complicated, he observes. Climate change adds to that complexity. “It’s shape-shifting, like those games people have with the strings between their fingers… The same stuff can be rearranged and you get different outcomes.” Many of these may seem to represent an undoing. But there are other shapes to conjure.

American environmental activist and deep ecology scholar Joanna Macy talks about the epic collision now playing out, of “The Great Unravelling, under the pressure of the destruction caused by the industrial growth society” versus “The Great Turning… the transition to a life-sustaining society” built on new and sometimes very old ways of holding the land, generating energy, producing food. “The awesome thing about the moment that you and I share is that we don’t know which is going to win out. How is the story going to end?” So she said in an interview a decade ago. I wonder if she still believes the outcome is in the balance.

“The problem with the Anthropocene is that it can be presented as an end-of-times end, whereas really what it is is a threshold,” says Bowman. “It’s going into a new state, things are reassembling.” We need to try to find a different, more optimistic lens, he argues, or to at least be striving to learn from what is unfolding, to not see everything through the prism of what we’re losing or have lost. It will take another conversation or two for it to dawn that while I am flailing about in stages three, four and five of my grieving (anger, bargaining, depression), Bowman has long since graduated through testing and acceptance and is craning his neck towards the sunlit uplands.

“Okay, I’ve got a confession to make,” he says, pulling up and gesturing to a stand of casualties of the wildfires. “Even those dead pencil pines to me have a fantastic beauty about them. It’s killed, and it’s sad, but I can’t get angry about the fire… this was nature, nature started it.”

But it’s not, I object. It’s deeply unnatural — “nature kicked in the arse by human-driven climate change.”

“Yes, there is the stupidity,” he concedes, and pushes on. “If you say, ‘Okay, we want to make war with the climate,’ then the climate is going to win. It’s just going to crush us… [But] I can look at this and I go, ‘Well, you know it’s changing. It got burnt. It’s sad, but it’s regenerating, and there is going to be life here, and it’s still a beautiful landscape’… Even if all the pines get killed, it’s still beautiful.”

French agrees to the extent that yes, “the fact that it’s copped a beating and has changed doesn’t mean it is a write-off.” But the young man is less phlegmatic about what is playing out. “I find it really tragic, personally. It’s an area where I’ve spent a lot of time. Which I’m really attached to. I love pencil pines.”

“So do I,” Bowman interjects.

“I find it hard to be optimistic about it, going forward,” says French. “I find it quite upsetting.”

We rejoin the sphagnum crew for the night in a hut on the parched shores of Lake Mackenzie, sharing a vat of spicy vegetables stewed on a wood stove by lamplight. We’re stripped to our sweaty thermals, boots and socks drying by the hearth. Outside it’s bitterly cold, and the intergalactic views stretch from horizon to horizon. Inside it’s cosy and convivial, albeit a little ripe.

As a non-scientist and serial intruder on fieldwork, I love the raw exhaustion and intimacy of this downtime, where scientific problems and camp menus are deliberated with equal weight; where clever, curious and often unconventional beings are cloistered with their histories, preoccupations and foibles away from the distractions of the workaday world. It’s in these moments I’ve often found the most revelatory morsels for my notebooks. But this evening is just the warm-up.

Next morning, we take a short drive to the lookout over Devils Gullet, a platform levitating above sheer grey cliffs “carved out by ice and water moving off the plateau,” a sign advises. It allows 180-degree views over 200 million years of history: the “intrusion of hard dolerite rocks from deep within the Earth,” the uplift of the plateau, the advance and retreat of the ice sheet half-a-dozen times over the past two million years, the most recent glaciation peaking around 20,000 years ago. And, in all directions, the scars of the inferno that tore through here three summers gone. Spectral forests stripped of their canopy.

“Doesn’t it break your heart, to see all that burnt?”

“No, not really,” Bowman shrugs. “They’re eucalypts — it will regenerate. In fact, I’m surprised how much it has regenerated.” The lesson of so many years exploring biology is that “life is spectacularly resilient… I have no concern about life.” Which isn’t to say that it will be life as we know it.

Bowman describes the intensity and pace of the fire as it powered along this gorge in 2016. The fallout could have been much worse. One small shift in the wind and we would have lost the last, large remaining refugium of A. cupressoides, a forest called Dixons Kingdom in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, hiding out somewhere south of us. Climate models have underestimated aspects of fire behaviour in the Anthropocene, he says, and are having to be recalibrated in light of the real-world fallout of just one degree of warming. “I’ve always found the whole thing vaguely hilarious,” he says. “People think that climate change is going to be staged. It’s actually punctuated by these incredible… thresholds, stresses. And then boom, it just changes.”

Our comprehension of the Anthropocene falls short on so many fronts. We broadly blame humanity, but not all humans are equal in their contributions to the mess. “Aboriginal cultures lived here pretty sustainably,” he observes, and adapted as the ice ebbed and flowed across the landscape beneath us. “There’s a cultural dimension going on here, and I think that’s the struggle that we’re involved with. What sort of society are we going to have? How are we going to adapt to the planetary constraints?”

By now we’re on the road, swerving around dead animals. Tasmania is unhappily recognised as the roadkill capital of the world, littered with bloodied carnage — possums, wallabies, pademelons, rabbits. Once these were kept in check by thylacines, and by Indigenous hunters, and then colonial trappers trading their pelts and meat. Today, the apex predators wince, ride the sickening bump and keep driving. Even in country cherished as World Heritage wilderness, so many cascading layers of disturbance. “If I was a good person, I would stop and drag that off the road,” Bowman says of the next casualty, a wallaby. He’s not being sentimental. Endangered Tasmanian devils and quolls come to feast on the dead, only to get taken out by the next vehicle. But we push on, we’re on the clock — he has a phone conference, and I have a flight to catch.

“What do the Gaians do?” asks Bowman.

I’m stumped. Who?

“The Gaians are the society that comes after the Anthropocene.”

I admit I’ve not heard of them.

“I made them up. It’s just an idea, for fun.” He’s conjured up a population for the next Earth, named for Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth, who was famously also appropriated back in the 1960s by James Lovelock to capture his theory of the planet as a living, self-regulating organism.

Bowman’s Gaians “are the people who come out the other side. And you have to ask the question… what do they do? What animates them? What is their belief? I know they are going to exist, but I don’t know what they do.” He’s workshopping some ideas. Even in humanity’s darkest moments, “art somehow survives, people still value things.” Ultimately their life’s work, their cultural work, will be about ecological restoration. “Because their survival will depend on it. Everything will be about restoration. It’s not about living with nature — it’s tending and restoring nature because the system will have been crashed so badly.”

Bowman’s not alone thinking about these next Earthlings. In her 2016 book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene, University of Melbourne geographer Lesley Head has a chapter pondering “The Anthropoceans,” and how they (we?) remake ourselves and our world. They will “have emotional work to do” in the fallout, “they will practise hope rather than feel it,” they will toil physically much harder for the basics of life, they will have to be good at sharing, they will understand the many ways we are “embedded in the processes of the earth” but not “green” as we now know it. Like Bowman, she argues that the traditions of preservationist, conservationist environmentalism “are insufficiently powerful to deal with current and projected reality.”

By now we’re off the plateau, following the instructions of our iPhone navigator to our last stop before Bowman drops me in Launceston. In between directions, he is workshopping his thesis, wondering out loud about how the Gaians will manage questions of justice, how they will organise their resources, what the family unit might look like. “I’m pretty certain that it’s going to be more a matriarchy, more female dominated.”

He’s hazy (evasive?) on what will play out between our reality and theirs. He’s firmly directing his gaze somewhere past that conceivably apocalyptic horizon. Having witnessed the growing distress and anger of scientists who understand what we have done and where we are heading, I’m inclined to diagnose this as an insulating, self-care mechanism. Psychological refugium? I’m content to join him there, for now.

“Let’s be a bit more optimistic and assume that we get through the Anthropocene. Obviously, you know, capitalism will end and everything is going to change, like it already has. What will they [humans] do?… The narrative of the utopian stream or strand in the crisis we are in is not being tended.”

What if, he says, the Gaians look back at the work of people like the ones we’ve just left behind on the plateau nurturing sphagnum and pencil pines, “and understand that humans had this capacity not only to destroy nature but to tend nature, and then the nature that we have is not about a binary — it’s wilderness or not wilderness. It’s us. It’s our expression.”

Which is not to say it isn’t going to be hellish. “These people are going to be shit-scared. The storms that are coming are just mad… The capacity of an energised climate to create mayhem well… the insurance industry’s noticing what that’s like, and it hasn’t even started yet.”

And yet, he’s feeling “weirdly optimistic,” partly because we owe that to the generations who will live with it — among them his students, working up there on the plateau. And because, as this terrifying next Earth looms, “as the shit hits the fan, now we can get on with it. We can snap out of our torpor and break out of our denial because it’s the denial that is causing an amazing amount of the anxiety. People are so anxious.”

We pull up at a bushland property in the Liffey Valley at the foot of Drys Bluff, a steep precipice at the northern edge of the Central Plateau. We’re visiting a native plant nursery where Sally and Herbert Staubmann have conjured hundreds of pencil pine seedlings, some from seeds collected by the botanic gardens team, some from seeds they have collected themselves under permit, some from cuttings they’ve cultivated. These are the stock that will be used by Ben French and Scott Nichols to expand their restoration trials up on the plateau.

Herbert Staubmann, Austrian by birth, came to Australia as an electromechanic with Siemens. “I worked in Darwin for a while on big motors and generators in a tin shed before the wet season. I met a Swiss guy who worked in a nursery and I said, ‘I’ve had this — I want to work outdoors.’” Having given up machinery to get his hands dirty in horticulture, he found his way to this piece of magic country where he fell in love with Australian eucalypts and with Tasmanian-raised Sally.

While their nursery is a substantial operation, producing bulk quantities of some 400 varieties of natives, mostly Tasmanian endemics that they sell to councils, farmers, the hydro, and parks and wildlife authorities, it sits seamlessly within the wildscape. Plants are raised on unfenced terraces; native creatures are encouraged to roam and graze beneath, birds to come in and control the pests; and stormwater drains are lush with rushes and sedges to keep the frogs happy. The couple are proud of what they have built here over twenty years. There’s a rare aura about them, a contentment and gentleness, humility. Perhaps that is the gift of tending to seasons, to nature.

The couple show us their crop of A. cupressoides — rows and rows of what look like fragile green corals set in small black pots. They fuss protectively, plucking out invisible weeds, explaining how they’ve been experimenting with different techniques to try to raise sturdy specimens sufficient to meet the needs of the scientists. Cuttings are so far proving the easier option, but Herbert suspects that, long term, plants grown from seed will do better out in an increasingly hostile world.

“I sow them in autumn, let them germinate outside, leave them out over winter,” Herbert explains. “I’ve never had them dampen off — meaning succumb to a fungal infection.” But this year, trying to hurry things along to provide seedlings to Ben French, he put them for a spell in the propagation house “and they just started keeling over — I got them out and salvaged what I could.”

Sally Staubmann chimes in: “I think the strongest ones are the ones that come up outside over winter. That’s my theory.”

Herbert spent all the previous day roaming up on the plateau looking for seeds, returning with a tiny bagful to show for his efforts. “I’m not very confident that there’s a lot of viable seed,” he explains. “They seem to be aborting early — see the small ones here? I need to put a couple of those under the dissecting lens to see if there is a viable embryo in there.”

They’re excited to be part of the research effort, the restoration trials, to play a part in efforts to preserve A. cupressoides into the future, but they’re mindful that they are in a trial-and-error race against time and more than a bit anxious about how it will all turn out. “The important thing for Ben’s project — for your project — is to get these to a good size,” Herbert says.

Bowman reassures them. One way or another the trials will yield a result — he’s not worried about that. As he’s tried to impress on his students and field crews, failure is also success in what it teaches about how to go forward. But Herbert and Sally Staubmann are plainly more sentimentally inclined, hoping to see the survival of at least some proportion of their precious progeny. Herbert pulls up a punnet to show me what a plant sown from seed a year ago now looks like, forefinger prodding the soil to find the barely-there growth. “You’re looking at a couple of seed leaves in their initial stage, that are narrow and long… so they’re slow.”

I tell him I saw some wild-sown seedlings up on the plateau with Ben French yesterday.

“You actually found some? Some germinating seeds? Wow.”

It’s time for us to go — beyond time, so it’s a hurried round of farewells. The Staubmanns wave us off, smiling broadly. They are both small in stature, wearing skin and clothes weathered by the elements. They remind me of garden gnomes.

“What did you think of that?” Bowman asks as we pull away. The couple have already vanished into the landscape that they have contrived and preserved: architects and inheritors, consumers and custodians.

“It’s them.” The realisation falls out of my mouth. “They’re them. They’re Gaians.” •

This essay appears in the new anthology, Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell, published by NewSouth.