Big Trees: The Aire Valley Redwoods

Here are some stats of mine: I’m 170cm tall with no shoes on and last February I turned thirty-five. I had my growth spurt in the 90s and I have a few marks – stretch marks, a scar on my knuckle, craters left from chicken pox – showing the ins and outs of life as I’ve lived it. I’m looking forward to being old and when I say old I mean eighty. They’re average numbers for an Australian woman I suppose. They’re nothing compared to those of the California redwood.

Inland from the Great Ocean Road, between Apollo Bay and Skenes Creek, is a patch of young California redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). By ‘young’ I mean eighty years-old and sixty metres tall. But even this is relatively juvenile in the vast, possible lifetime of a redwood tree. They can live for 1,200–1,800 years or more and reach 115 metres tall and 9 metres in diameter. Those are statistics that astonish. And they locate us as a tiny, ephemeral dot in the expanding, concentric circles of a redwood’s growth… itself quite a privileged place to be.

The young redwood stand located in the Aire Valley of western Victoria was originally planted by the state Forests Commission in 1936, an experimental softwood cluster. Around the same time other trial plantations were established: Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), radiata pines (Pinus radiata) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) among them. The redwoods were never put to commercial use and since have been claimed as part of the Great Otway National Park, which means they’re there, still growing, for us to glimpse.

Redwoods are the world’s tallest trees and they’re also one of the most ancient living things we’re likely to come across on earth. Being in the presence of big old trees, whether they’re red tingle trees (Eucalyptus jacksonii), mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), Douglas fir or redwoods, is to feel the real majesty of existence. To try translating that majesty into statistics is almost unnecessary, but it does provide way of looking at life and where we sit, relative to the trees.

John Steinbeck was struck by the redwoods, when he toured their native habitat in coastal California in the early 1960s. He spoke of them as “ambassadors from another time” in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, written while he drove the American highways in a camper truck accompanied by his standard poodle, Charley. “They carry their own light and shade,” said Steinbeck.

The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect… One feels the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns. There’s a cathedral hush here. Perhaps the thick soft bark absorbs sound and creates a silence. The trees rise straight up to zenith; there is no horizon… The green fernlike foliage so far up strains the sunlight to a green gold and distributes it in shafts or rather in stripes of light and shade. To me there’s a remote and cloistered feeling here. One holds back speech for fear of disturbing something…”

Even in annual reports, writers have been driven to speak of the trees in terms that seem out of step with bureaucracy. “Having made these noble trees a special study during the past year, I approach them always, I may say, with reverence,” said F.H. Clark in his 1891 report to California’s Board of Horticulture. “As giants and patriarchs of the forest they stand alone. Nowhere throughout the world can be found living trees that are more majestic and inspiring… It is a pleasure to linger in the redwoods to contemplate their greatness… The trees are grand without being oppressive; noble but not arrogant; lords of the soil that do not impoverish the land.”

In Aire Valley the evergreen redwoods were planted on land that had been cleared of native forests of mountain ash from the late 1880s. Mountain ash is another of the world’s tall trees – second to the redwood – and many giant examples fell to the axes and cross-cut saws of Victoria’s settlers. “Under the lease system then operating a settler was permitted to destroy scrub and crooked or useless timber, but Lands Officers instructed settlers to remove the timber on their blocks and set down ring-barking as an improvement valued at 3 shillings per acre,” historian Norm Houghton writes. “As was to be expected the settlers attacked the timber with gusto, and the ring-barkers axe gouged its death-dealing incision on tens of thousands of trees.”

Around the same time Macedon State Nursery was created to grow trees for replanting within the cleared forests. Many of the propagated species were exotics, including the redwoods. When the Aire Valley plantings went in in the mid 1930s the cleared land had been abandoned by the settlers, reclaimed by nature and converted to state forest. It was a landscape made up of “dense small trees and shrubby vegetation including blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), satin box (Phebalium squameum), musk daisy bush (Olearia argophylla) and hazel (Pomaderris aspera), along with dense thickets of bracken and blackberries,” Roger Smith explains in his book, The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges (2015).

Only a small parcel of land was designated for the redwoods, perhaps because they’re a slow-growing species. “Redwood time moves at a more stately pace than human time,” American author Richard Preston has said. “To us, when we look at a redwood tree, it seems to be motionless and still, and yet redwoods are constantly in motion, moving upward in space, articulating themselves and filling redwood space over redwood time, over thousands of years.” It’s telling how vast expanses of the ancient, native redwood forests in Oregon and California have been cleared, making way for humans and industry, while the exotic, and now protected, redwoods of Aire Valley replaced forests of native mountain ash.

Some remnant mountain ash trees now neighbour the redwoods in the Great Otway National Park. Walking this country, with its redwoods, mountain ash, tree ferns and waterfalls, is like stumbling upon a hushed, natural cathedral. The redwoods contribute columns of red-brown tree trunks, wrinkled bark and rooftops of soft, dark leaves. Underfoot the forest floor is a carpet of fallen leaves, seed cones and evergreen silence. The redwoods have towered to sixty metres in their short lifetime and yet have the potential to double in size.

“A lumberman will look at a forest and see so many board feet of lumber. I see a living city,” says American explorer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle. Aire Valley’s redwoods only exist because of forest clearing and may have been destined to become lumber at one stage themselves. But now we have the opportunity to live alongside them for awhile, watching on as they grow.