‘Life on earth is inconceivable without trees,’’ the great Russian playwright Anton Chekov wrote in a letter to a friend in the late 1880s. ‘‘Forests create climate, climate influences peoples’ character, and so on and so forth. There can be neither civilisation nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe.’‘
And in the first act of Uncle Vanya, there’s an environmental monologue, in which the country doctor Mikhail Astrov passionately rails against the destruction of Russia’s forests for firewood.
‘‘Why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever ... Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove?’‘
Only last month, the Sydney Theatre Company performed a revival of Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in the lead roles, and Hugo Weaving playing Astrov. The New York Times gave it a glowing review, describing the production as ‘‘deeply, outrageously funny [and] also heartbreaking enough to make you want to dive straight into a bottomless vodka bottle’‘.
What’s also heartbreaking enough to warrant a plunge into a bottomless bottle of booze, is that Chekov wrote his ‘‘save the forests’’ monologue in 1897, maybe even earlier. More than century later - 114 years in fact - there is no equivalent eco-outburst in contemporary theatre. And in Australia, despite logging of old-growth forests being one of our most politically contentious issues, there are no Astrov inspired eco-monologues in any of our popular contemporary plays. Lots of social drama, but nothing to make a federal environment, or forestry minister squirm uncomfortably in their theatre seats. That’s if they’re inclined to go to the theatre.
Australia’s forests have provoked more than their fair share of political drama, and protests over their destruction pre-dates demonstrations with people dressed in fluffy koala suits. It began in the very early days of colonial settlement. Australian National University cultural historian and environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady traces this concern in The Colonial Earth, shattering the myth that ‘‘the invaders wreaked havoc on their new environment both gratuitously and as an inevitable part of the process of settlement’‘. Bonyhady shows our earliest forestry conservation battles date, not from the Daintree blockade of the 1980s, but the 1790s, when colonial magistrate Richard Atkins suggested Australia’s weather was changing ‘‘in consequence of the country opening so fast’’ by land clearing for pasture and settlements. By 1804, several environmental protection and planning laws were in place, including what was ‘‘probably the world’s first prohibition of cruelty to animals’’ writes Bonyhady.
Australia’s forests had their colonial champions, including the artist John Glover who described Tasmania’s eucalypt forests as ‘‘a painter’s delight’‘. Within a month of becoming Governor of NSW in 1795, John Hunter banned the felling of native cedar trees on public land along the Hunter river.
‘‘Australia perhaps more than anywhere else began with a form of colonialism alive to the importance of environmental protection and planning,’’ writes Bonyhady.
‘‘Some species of eucalypt also acquired global significance ... The Victorian mountain ash was acclaimed as a ‘wonder of the world’ after the government botanist Ferdinand von Mueller announced in 1866 that it was probably the tallest tree on earth, eclipsing the giant sequoias of California.’‘
Earlier this week, ANU forest ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer published a scientific paper that paints a shockingly bleak future of those old-growth mountain ash forests. Less than 1.1 per cent remain, destroyed by ‘‘the interacting effects of wildfire [and] logging’’ creating a previously undocumented ecological condition called ‘‘a landscape trap’‘.
Lindenmayer describes it as ‘‘a positive feedback loop’’ between the frequency and severity of bushfires and the reduced age of trees in the mountain ash forests.
‘‘These old growth forests are being wiped out, and up to 40 per cent of old trees are dying,’’ he says.
‘‘They’re being replaced by young, fire-prone trees. that means a huge shift in the forest ecosystem. Young trees don’t have nesting hollows, they don’t have as extensive bark streamers which are essential foraging micro-habitats for wildlife ...
‘‘We’re seeing a whole lot of changes in vegetation structure that are likely to lead to irreversible losses of suitable habitat for around 40 species of animals that are dependent on big, old-growth trees with nesting hollows.’‘
Lindenmayer has called for an urgent review of all of Australia’s joint federal and state regional forestry agreements in the light of these findings. But both federal Forestry Minister Senator Joe Ludwig and Environment Minister Tony Burke have defended the 20 year agreements between the Federal Government, NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.