If you visit Dr Cherrell Hirst AO at home in Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane’s west, you must wear sensible shoes, because you will almost certainly be taken on a tour of the gently sloping riverside acreage block where the 1995 Queenslander of the year has spent four decades planting trees. Originally the focus was sub-tropical flowering trees, which grew up with the kids, but more recently, Cherrell and a small group of neighbours, whose properties make up this unique pocket of Fig Tree Pocket, have been repairing the land.
It’s an enormous task, made larger by the 2011 floods which washed away giant figs and gums, along with river mangroves and 150 newly-planted native trees that Cherrell had spent a year carefully nurturing. There’s a patch of original rainforest, but weeds are a constant problem, from those dreadful Chinese elms that choke out our hapless eucalypts, to the lantana zombie that turns any landscape into itself. One of the best ways to combat the weeds, Cherrell has found, is to plant trees. Since the 2011 flood, with help from Land for Wildlife, she’s planted another 362 natives.
This really is land for wildlife. I worked on a review with Cherrell and one morning we couldn’t print because a tiny ringtail possum was asleep in the printer cabinet it had come to call home. There are wallabies and echidnas, along with sacred kingfishers and powerful owls, and soon Richmond birdwing butterflies as part of a research project.
The week before visiting Cherrell, I did the 22-kilometre walk from O’Reilly’s to Binna Burra in Lamington National Park with family. We chose a very hot day, as it happened, but it was cool inside the forest, with that light you don’t experience anywhere else, not even in Cherrell’s rainforest, the canopy turning our harsh sun into a friend who’s easy to wile away time with. We met two snakes, heard catbirds wailing high above us, and saw, momentarily, a fluttering wompoo pigeon. I know people question the value of national parks these days. Few of us visit them, so what are they are for? Shouldn’t nature be mainstreamed? I understand this view. I didn’t grow up in a national park family. In fact, I didn’t visit a park at all until my Year 11 biology teacher took us on a day walk from Binna Burra. I started out with my usual 16-year-old face, which was even more skeptical than most. I was changed fundamentally, and I can only think it was the forest itself, the likes of which I’d never experienced before. I went back after I finished school, on my own, and walked every trail. I have never grown tired of the place, which always leaves me better than it found me.
Our Prime Minister said recently that we have too much locked up forest, and we ought to open more to logging. You can sympathise with this view too. Timber gives as it grows, and as our qualified foresters tell us, it’s a renewable resource provided you look after the forest for the future. But profit-driven industries aren’t good at thinking of the future. Around Dubbo in New South Wales recently, where, if you’re driving from Queensland, you can visit Warrumbungle National Park, hundreds of birds have fallen out of the sky dead, poisoned by a pesticide which was likely intentionally sprayed on grain to kill the birds because they plague today’s farmers. A local woman said she’d woken every morning of her life to a chorus of cockatoos, galahs and little corellas and then one morning woke to silence. The little corellas may never recover. Other species may go with them.
I am grateful there are people like Cherrell Hirst repairing our urban landscape. I am also grateful that my son can experience the same Lamington National Park I first experienced as a teenager. When we spend time with nature – listening to birds, gardening, walking in a forest – we see that we are one part of a system, not the whole system. I could be wrong, but I suspect we may need to hold on to whatever nature we still have left, in back yards and national parks. We need land for wildlife, if for no other reason than that we’re wildlife.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 29 March 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!