By Liam Briginshaw
Not far from Launceston is one of my favourite walks. It follows the course of a creek, starting on the lower slopes in cool forest of myrtle beech and eucalypt, before climbing gradually up onto the Central Plateau. In summer, the shade of the canopy in the forest of the lower slopes gives welcome respite from the sun, and in winter from the wind and rain. In this myrtle forest, it is difficult to keep your eyes from looking near your feet, where every surface is covered with a dense mosaic of liverworts, mosses, fungi and lichens. They put on quite the display in autumn and winter, a time when they come to life, thriving in the damp in all kinds of green, red, brown and even the occasional blotch of purple. If you’re a bryophyte enthusiast like me, you’ll find yourself stopping every minute or so to inspect some lurid, almost alienish capsule of spores or strange spreading growth form.
Greenhood orchids by Garth Smith
Slightly further up the path are greenhood orchids and pretty grass flags nodding their heads in the cool draughts that come along the track. The greenhoods look peculiarly sentient, with their hooded flowers and stalks always positioned as though they were shuffling about only moments prior to your arrival on the scene. My suspicions of their sentience came close to being confirmed on one occasion, when, walking through this particular forest, I came around a bend to find another walker – a grey, gruff-looking chap – kneeling beside a particularly impressive greenhood in what seemed like deep conversation. Seeing that he suddenly had additional company, he sprang up with surprising swiftness and brushed himself off in what I thought a rather guilty fashion. “Beautiful little things,” he said, by way of explanation, and gave the little orchid a rather desperate look, pleading for its silence. He was reluctant to stay for a long chat, and almost jogged off mid-sentence in the direction of the carpark with nervous backward glances. I looked down at the incriminating greenhood, who did in fact appear to find the whole situation quite comical. I suddenly began to sense that the greenhood was about to clear its vegetative equivalent of a throat and speak to me, so I too chose to hurry off, undeniably with a newfound pace. For a while afterwards, I was very careful not to look behind me or listen too carefully.
After climbing higher through the forest, there are a series of sudden changes. The ground first becomes intermittently strewn with boulders, with the canopy occasionally opening out to views up into the bluffs and boulder fields of the plateau and down over the trees to a beautiful patchwork of farm paddocks below. In the summer you’re struck by the glaring sun, and in winter, squalls can buffet down on you, forcing you to squint in a Clint Eastwoodesque fashion, and hunker into your jacket. The track often twists back into the bush, with the path becoming somewhat sunken, root-exposed and tunnel-like, almost like a holloway. And after climbing steadily for a while longer, with the rushing creek never so far away as to be out of earshot, you arrive at a river crossing between two waterfalls, and here the trees grow sparser, and king billies make way for pencil pines that twist and lean among the rocks beside the creek. Wiry bauera creeps everywhere, blooming with pleasantly pendulous white flowers in the warmer months.
Pencil pine by Brodie Emery
It is here that a stop for water becomes irresistible, and perhaps even a refreshing dip if the weather’s warm enough. The vegetation teeters somewhere between the rainforest below, and the montane heath which is just about to climb into view. King billies appear to do better as an understory tree in rainforests, whereas pencil pines better handle those frost prone sites on the plateau where cold air pools on still nights in winter. Although hardy, pencil pines grow poorly under the canopies of other trees, and so it is only in the boundaries between these two worlds that the two sister species mingle. The path here passes through that boundary, and where the two are found growing together it is common enough to find their well-known natural hybrids: laxifolia. It’s nice to sit for lunch in the shade here and look up into the crowns where the awlish leaves of the king billies and the shorter, finer ones of the pencil pines bow in the breeze.
There is something distinctly enchanting about king billies and pencil pines. They are very much central characters in their respective settings in the Tasmanian highlands, so much so that their names alone immediately evoke images of entire rainforests or montane groves. It is always a delight to see king billies dripping in the wet as you slosh along a path, or to find an old, windswept stand of pencil pines resting along the shore of a tarn. When visiting Lake Belcher near Mt. Field many decades ago, Michael Sharland observed that ‘the dark pines surrounding its rocky shore contrast pleasantly with lighter hues of gums and lesser shrubs’. There is something about these words that touches on what makes both trees so special; each of them has a distinctive shape and shade of green that works so well in balance with all of the other shapes and colours of the vegetation around them. So often the magic of Tasmania’s landscapes seems centred on striking contrasts of colour; in the mats of bryophytes and lichen of the myrtle forests we passed through earlier, in lively cushion plant communities, in the numerous colours of sphagnum bogs which range from dried gold through all kinds of reds to vivid apple greens.
King billies and pencil pines are also remarkable for being the only remaining taxa of an ancient Gondwanan group that have endured in their stubborn niche for more than a 100 million years, despite the slow but steady drift of Australia towards the equator. Fossils of a now extinct, closely related species have been found in Patagonia dating back to the Early Cretaceous; that is, just before flowering plants came to dominate almost every ecosystem on land, a time when conifers and their close relatives still ruled supreme. Back then, Patagonia and Tasmania were tethered on either side of Antarctica at latitudes very close to the South Pole, although, since the Circumantarctic ocean current had not yet formed as the continents broke away, there was no ice at these higher latitudes. The ancestors of our native pines must have experienced a very different world of nearly constantly bright, relatively warm summers, contrasted with frosty winters of complete darkness.
Sunset on the pines by Brodie Emery
Over the course of the millions of years that have passed since, Athrotaxis – the genus of cypresses that includes king billies and pencil pines – has gone extinct on every continental fragment of what was once Gondwana, apart from Tasmania. It is sad to think that, perhaps in our lifetimes, we’ll see the last of these trees disappear from the landscape. Recently, Richard Flanagan wrote an article that touched on the predicament that pencil pines and king billies face in response to our drastically changing climate. It is not the first article to raise the alarm, and it certainly won’t be the last. Both species are incredibly vulnerable to fire, and it is predicted that they will be almost entirely wiped out by the end of the century if current climate trends continue. The summer may be over now, and the autumn rains have begun to settle in, but the fires of January seem to have struck a deep nerve, and everybody I talk with seems to be thinking of the future and what it might be like for us, and how we might best negotiate the changes we will see within our lifetimes.
The end of the walk – if you don’t mind a bit of corniness – is in many ways the beginning. It is often the first day of many days spent on the plateau, and the mind races ahead to peaks and lakes and bogs that will be met in days to come. It is also on the plateau that the creek begins, and all day you have in fact been following the water to its source. The forests are behind you, and now heath sprawls over the plateau, with little gatherings of snow gum on the hills and occasional groves of pencil pines growing along the waterways. Some summers the scoparia blooms in spectacular fashion, and reds, oranges, creams and yellows pepper the heath meadows. At the end of this magical path onto the plateau is a hut, an old corrugated iron hut with four bunks, a little stove, and very little else. Out of habit, I’ll often bring up a cutting each of pencil pine, king billy and laxifolia, and place them on a shelf that someone has fashioned on one of the walls. That way I can keep them in the back of my mind as we prepare our meal and while away the evening playing cards or reading by the stove.
Liam Briginshaw is a keen bushwalker and amateur botaniser from Launceston. He is currently beavering away at his doctorate in land plant evolution in Melbourne.
This article was originally published in 2019.