Living with giants: the beauty of Victoria’s ash forests

31 August 2021

Ancient rainforests that sustained our First Nations peoples, trees the height of 25-storey buildings and gliding marsupials larger than any other -- these are just some of the wonders found in Victoria's mountain ash forests. A new book tells their incredible stories through stunning photography, writes Phoebe Humphreys.

From the devastation of Ash Wednesday in 1983 to the Black Saturday of 2009 and the Black summer of 2019-20, our backyard has had it tough.

One of the areas consistently on the frontlines of these disasters has been the mountain ash forests found in Victoria's central highlands. The unique, life-sustaining natural beauty of these great forests has been further threatened by logging and species nearing extinction.

Yet, instead of a tale of gloom and doom about the threat to our forests, Professor David Lindenmayer from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society has created a story of hope in his new book, The Great Forest.

"One of the things that inspired me is that like many Australians I've had a pretty rugged time this past year," Lindenmayer says.

"If we think about all the horrible things going on at the moment; fires, flood, disease. All these awful things. Yet, when you look at this book you can see the world is still a beautiful place. These images convey an extraordinary place.

"I want to inspire people to think about why we want to protect the natural environment."

Given the forests provide water to the five million residents of Melbourne, their protection is paramount. But Lindenmayer highlights it is also a place of beauty and should be a "playground" for people to visit and reconnect.

"I think it's really important that we give people hope about what an amazing place Australia and other parts of the world can be," he says.

The Great Forest also takes its extraordinary photography to new heights. Using drone technology, photographer Sarah Rees has captured the forest through a new lens with incredible canopy-sweeping views.

"The photography is stunning; it portrays the forest in a way I've never seen before.

"If you look at some of the classic photography that came from the 1970s and 1980s in Tasmania, drones weren't invented then,"  Lindenmayer says.

While the new book highlights the natural beauty of these forests, Lindenmayer's work is also coloured by the major bushfires that have occurred in his career. He first started working in the ash forests after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. 

"Most people who are working in forests like I am, have one major fire in their career. In my career of nearly 40 years, I've been through three massive fires."

However,  Lindenmayer manages to find the beauty in these devastating bushfires.

"The exciting thing about this book is that it is really 'fire meets art'."

His personal experiences and the high-quality photography allow for an emotional story.

"The stunning photography creates this artistic background against which my own life experiences in the same forest are set."

The book also thoughtfully incorporates the sovereignty of the three Indigenous nations whose land include the forests; the Gunaikurnai, Taungurung and Wurundjeri peoples.

After connecting with the elders of the mountain ash forest lands, and collecting statements from them, Lindenmayer ensured their inclusion in the book.

"We created the first map of the boundaries of their lands, and then for every image in the book there's a nations name, like the waterfall on the Wurundjeri nation. Every photograph has a locator for whose nation it is on."

Lindenmayer also highlights some of the unique fauna that call the forests home.

"One of the most remarkable creatures that live in that forest is the Greater Glider. It is the largest gliding marsupial and it has a diet only of eucalyptus leaves."

"Other researchers at ANU have shown that the Greater Glider is actually at least three, or more, different species. So, one of our ultimate objectives is to reconvene with the indigenous nation and find the name that would be appropriate for the new species."

The magnificent mountain ash forests are not only a source of sustenance and beauty for ourselves but also the home of these incredible and unique Australian animals.

The Great Forest is published by Allen and Unwin and available now.