Conference Review: 2007: Australian Forest History Conference: ‘Trans-Tasman Forest History’

The seemingly straightforward rubric, ‘Trans-Tasman Forest History’ belied the variety and complexity of the landscapes and ideas explored at the Australian Forest History Society conference held in early 2007. The Society’s conferences, of which this was the seventh, have always attracted delegates from New Zealand, so in the spirit of reciprocity, this year’s was held in Christchurch from 29 January to 2 February and was followed by a three-day study tour of the West Coast of the South Island.

It is difficult to distil the essence of a conversation, let alone a conference, particularly one with delegates from such diverse walks of life. For more than a week, historians, foresters, sociologists, geographers, ecologists and conservationists all rubbed shoulders and exchanged ideas, with genial collegiality. The great value of such a gathering is obvious, but boiling it down into a few hundred works is far from easy.

Perhaps the best way to draw together some of the many threads woven, unpicked and chased over the course of the week is to consider how they all relate to one interest indubitably held in common by all present: the life of the forest, understood in the broadest sense. Seen in this light, the conference can be read as a kind of biography of the forest.

Forest ecologists have uncovered a great deal about the life cycles of forests. Environmental historians, amongst others, have complemented this work, revealing much of the cycles – and discontinuities – of human life within the forest, but also extending our understandings of the life of the forest. With Paul Star we were present at the birth of exotic forests, on the Canterbury Plains. With Stephen Legg we witnessed the widespread creation of private forests in nineteenth century Victoria, while as Kirstie Ross showed in her paper on the origins of Arbor Day in New Zealand, the birth of a single tree can be an event freighted with much moral baggage.

Others set about the task of reconstructing the lives of those who lived, worked and fought in the forests. Paul Mahoney and Jo Wylie focussed on the relics of those lives, the material culture of timber working, and showed how it is possible to make old forest tram lines and rusted tools give up their stories. Tessa Mahony challenged forest historians to deal with the rich testimony of timber workers’ themselves in their telling and re-telling of forest history, a field in which it is all too easy to cast some as the ‘heroes’ and others as ‘villains’. Sue Feary, on the other hand, in her paper on social justice in the forest, reminded us that, sometimes, it is important not to forget which are which.

A number of speakers introduced us to the lives of special forests. Max Bourke guided us through the history of arboreta in Australia, while Jeremy Thin turned the spotlight onto one particular arboretum, the conference site itself (the University of Canterbury) where the brutal contours of modernist architecture have been “softened” by the planting of an extensive arboretum. Guest speaker Brian Molloy then offered a fascinating insider’s account of the history of a very special little piece of urban forest in Christchurch, Riccarton Bush. James Beattie discussed trees in urban space too, positioning them not only in space, but also in the attitudes of New Zealand settlers towards geography, conservation, and health. While the health of people is certainly related to the health of forests, it is a relationship that has, sadly, been all too infrequently recognised, and many forests have been lost as a result. The ‘death’ of forests was discussed by a number of speakers. Timothy Jetson documented the “desecration” of the native forests of Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in Tasmania, while Mark Butz presented dramatic photographic evidence of the havoc wreaked by wildfire on the Uriarra Forest, near Canberra.

Trees and forests, however, do enjoy an ‘afterlife’ of a sort. A number of speakers, including Brett Stubbs and Jane Lennon, teased out the reincarnation of forests, their transformation into timber products and the movements of these products around Australasia and the world. These movements tell their own stories; for instance, taking the papers of Stubbs and Geoff Park together, it is possible to link butter boxes in the New South Wales dairy trade with imperial demands for naval timber and Mäori demands for British muskets to explain the demise of New Zealand’s beautiful kahikatea forests.

Finally, just as these timber products were, and are, embedded in an international market, so too was, and is, there an intellectual economy of ideas about forests. Michael Roche and John Dargavel, in their joint paper on forestry education in Australia and New Zealand, challenged the conventional assumption that these ideas only radiated out from the imperial metropolises, and traced a number of surprising connections between the forest elites of the so-called peripheries. Matthew Hatvanny, on the other hand, drew on history, geography and ecology in an intriguing paper to demonstrate the transnational movements of ‘folk’ environmental knowledge.

Understanding the lives, or biographies, of forests is a difficult business. Much of the problem comes down to representations of past forests, and many papers tackled these problems of methodology. This task is particularly challenging in post-colonial societies such as Australia and New Zealand, where environmental disturbance has been so rapid and intense. In such places, as Geoff Park pointed out in his stimulating key-note address, “bench-marks” in time are often used by conservationists in order to understand the dramatic changes in biota in the past, following colonisation and in the present, to define conservation goals. These benchmarks can be misleading, however, as Park showed; by the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, the customary benchmark in many areas of northern New Zealand – its coastal kahiketea forests – had been logged.

The problems of reconstructed landscape were picked up again later in the conference, and the question of methods was particularly scrutinised. Lawrence Niewojt furthered illustrated the complexities of this problem in his paper on the pre-colonial firestick farming of the forests of the Otway ranges in Victoria. Tim Long and Glenn Mitchell approached the problem from a different angle, and discussed the advantages and challenges of using art history in the reconstruction of a landscape. Jenny Mills explored forests on canvass, too, in her paper on Western Australian artist, Elizabeth Blair Barber. Maps, also, can be a problematic source of information, as Sybil Jack pointed out in her paper early Australasian surveying. Despite these problems with individual approaches, taken together, these papers showed the increasing sophistication of work in this area.

Some of the best aspects of the conference were the many opportunities to experience the life of the forest first-hand. In addition to the trip to Riccarton Bush, the conference was treated to an excursion to Banks Peninsula, while many delegates stayed on for the study tour following the conference. The latter expeditions were ably led by Eric Pawson, a geographer professor from the University of Canterbury. Eric’s expertise gave participants a wonderful opportunity to read, up-close, the biographies, not just of the forests of the West Coast, but indeed of many of the South Island’s beautiful environments. This journey through such memorable landscape was a fitting conclusion to a memorable conference.