Great lockdown reading 1: Castlemaine in the ‘golden’ age

Looking for something to sharpen up a dull day? Try Marjorie Theobald’s recently released The accidental town: Castlemaine 1851-61.

The business of this book is to show how a town and a community emerged from the mad scramble for gold in the 1850s. The book covers early efforts to put order into the chaos of the rush, to lay out a town in a shamble of tents, to set up institutions, deal with health problems, provide entertainment and culture, and satisfy the spiritual aspirations of the people.

This may seem a prosaic list, but in fact it’s an inspiring tale told with exhilarating style, in part because of the protagonists involved, but mainly because of the author’s incisive and frequently humorous insights into what appears at times to be complete mayhem. Present day residents worried that debate on municipal matters gets a bit out of hand will be interested to find that things were pretty willing 170 years ago. Councillor William Hitchcock features prominently, for example:

‘In late October (1857) Hitchcock was sentenced to three days in prison for a drunken assault on William Holl, messenger to the Municipal Council, who attempted to stop him kicking in the door of the Town Clerk’s office…’ A year later Hitchcock ‘attempted to present a testimonial to Thomas Andrews for his services as first chairman of the Council and the first chief magistrate of the Municipality. It was a handsome production…framed with cedar and enclosed behind glass. Andrews stunned those present by pointedly refusing to accept the memorial if it were coming to him from the council rather than the ratepayers…Chaos ensued, during which Councillor Chapman held the testimonial aloft and smashed it to the ground…’ Oh dear…

On a more civilised note, it’s interesting to find that the first performances in the old Theatre Royal in 1855 were three plays by Shakespeare. The town’s interest in the arts is long standing…

The book can be had from Australian Scholarly Publishing here . It seems it’s already a best seller at Stonemans in Castlemaine, and is sold out there—but you can pre order at 5470 5134.

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Great lockdown reading 2: the dark side of the golden age

The accidental town doesn’t deal directly with the environmental consequences of the gold rush, but the context of environmental destruction is made clear, and the consequences soberly summed up in a sentence like this:

‘The Pennyweight Flat cemetery is a silent testament to the children sacrificed to the search for gold.’

Pennyweight Flat: ‘a silent testament to the children sacrificed to the search for gold.’

Water was the problem. A five minute excursion into our bushlands today will show that virtually every waterway has been trashed by miners. In the 1850s safe drinking water was hard to find, and dysentery a disastrous result, especially for children. Residents close to Forest Creek feared ‘the insidious creeping sludge discharged from mining operations upstream which was far worse than the occasional flood of water…’  ‘There was general agreement that Forest Creek was little more than a sewer by the time it reached the town…The public water supply … was still from holes in the vicinity of the respective creeks; water the colour of pea soup was purified with ashes, lime or alum…’

Although material like this is covered in Sludge: disaster on Victoria’s goldfields [Peter Davies and Susan Lawrence, 2019] we’re still waiting for an environmental history of this region. It would make great reading, and bring us closer to understanding the true price of gold.

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Great lockdown reading 3: Castlemaine’s first environmental conflict

One of the heroes in Marjorie Theobald’s narrative is Gold Commissioner Captain John Bull. The author builds on her previous research on one of the problems he faced:

Decaying puddler, Cobblers Gully: it’s picturesque now, but in its day it was a menace to the health of people and the environment.

‘As concern for the environment as we understand it today did not exist on the goldfields, it comes as a surprise that  in early 1855 Captain Bull took a stand on precisely these grounds. He sent to each puddling machine proprietor an edict that from the 31 March 1855 these machines would be banned from the main creeks in his district. This was necessary, he said, to safeguard the water supply of Castlemaine, the operations of miners using conventional methods, and the health of the creeks and flats generally. The problem was that the end product of the puddling machine process was a murky treacle-like sludge which had begun to pollute the creeks and choke the flats…

‘The reaction of the puddling machine men was swift. They (argued) that they had invested large sums of money in the erection of machinery, that puddling was important to the economy of the goldfields…and that such an edict would effectively shut down all future technological development in the industry…’

In this face off of environmental and community health on the one hand, and the economy on the other, guess who won? Of course, the alleged conflict between the economy and the environment and health is a false one, but it’s tenacious all the same, as we are seeing at this very time…

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Oceans of blossom, thousands of questions

The photo below shows fields of Woolly Wattle south of the Wewak Track, east of Porcupine Ridge. The wattle is interesting (and beautiful, of course) for the fact that its blossom can vary from pale yellow to dense lemon colour, often on the same plant.

Also interesting, in this case, are the blackened tree trunks, the result of a management burn in 2010. Before this fire, the burn zone was open woodland, with an understorey of tussock grass and shrubs. Now it’s virtually impenetrable, a dense thicket of Hedge Wattle, Woolly Wattle, eucalypt saplings and other growth.

Oceans of Woolly Wattle (Acacia lanigera) framed by the blackened trunks of eucalypts burned by DELWP in 2010. The message is: fire has a complex biological role in our bushland, and reduction burns sometimes produce rampant regrowth in the medium term.

Compare the above with the photo below taken in the same zone after the 2010 burn. At the time FOBIF was shocked at the severity of the fire, which killed many large trees.

The same zone, November 2010: the intense fire has produced dense regrowth, probably the most impenetrable in the region

The lesson to be drawn from these two photos: fire can regenerate as well as destroy. We don’t know what effect this management exercise has had on the zone, biologically, because we haven’t seen the before/after monitoring…if there is any. From the point of view of fuel reduction, however, it seems to have been counter productive.

This is not an argument against fuel reduction burns. But it is an argument for exercises which are better resourced, better researched and, perhaps, better managed.

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New find in Muckleford Forest!

A small population of a daisy-bush never found in Mount Alexander Shire before (as far as we know) has been discovered in bushland to the north of Newstead. Found growing under Grey Box and Yellow Gum trees, the erect daisy-bush stands 30cm tall with lilac flower-heads approx 10mm diameter. Experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium in Melbourne identified it as Olearia floribunda Heath Daisy-bush.

Heath Daisy Bush in the Muckleford Forest near Newstead, photographed by Frances Cincotta

Perhaps why it hasn’t been noticed before is that when the Heath Daisy-bush is not bearing flowers, at a distance you could easily mistake it for two other local species
which are abundant in the same area – Cassinia sifton Coffee Bush/Drooping Cassinia, or Ozothamnus obcordatus Grey Everlasting. These 3 species are all in the daisy family (Asteraceae), but they each have very different flowers so you would never get them mixed up if they were flowering.

Heath Daisy-bush close-up, photographed by Frances Cincotta

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OK, it’s not a cascade, but it’s the best we can do…

The gouged and eroded gullies of our region are a heritage of the gold rushes, a time when an unknown quantity of topsoil was lost through deforestation and creeks were scoured for gold. There are a few reminders, however, of how creeks might have looked in former times: rock walls and formations suggestive of flowing creeks and permanent pools. One such is pictured below, after last week’s rain: chain of ponds in the Railway Dam catchment. It’s not Niagara, but for the moment it’s the best we can do–and right now it’s rich in mosses, lichens and fungi.

Rock wall with water, Tunnel Hill, April 26: ‘waterfalls’ like this rarely flow, but they are reminders of a time when our waterways were more reliable and abundant.

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FOBIF goes around, again

FOBIF has made a submission to the inquiry by the Inspector General for Emergency Management [IGEM] into the 2019-20 Victorian fire season. The inquiry is broad, ranging over topics like education, operational responses, evacuation planning, the use of the Australian Defence Forces, and many others. Our brief submission focused on two of terms of reference: resourcing of land management, and the biodiversity implications of fuel reduction. The substance of the submission is below:

We wish to offer a brief submission to the enquiry under two categories:

1 In the context of bushfire preparedness, assess the readiness and responsibilities of statutory agencies, Local Government and State Government bodies.

In our view land management in Victoria is seriously underfunded. A quick check of the budgets of Parks Victoria over the last ten years, for example, will show an effective decline in funding, even though the responsibilities of Parks staff are wider—there are a nearly a million more people in the state than there were ten years ago.

Large Yellow Box hollowed out by DELWP fire, Railway Dam Road, April 2020. It’s not Department policy to destroy large trees, but it inevitably happens in reduction burns…

One of the consequences of this funding inadequacy is that fuel reduction exercises tend to be crude and unnecessarily damaging. We note the following, from the Carter enquiry into the disastrous Cobaw fire of 2015, a reduction burn escape:

‘Interviews [with DELWP staff] also revealed that there is a resignation by staff that district resources and budgets are tight and this may result in resources at a burn being “thin”. The Investigation Team noted that many of the staff interviewed commented that the resourcing for the  Lancefield-­‐Cobaw  burn  was not optimal however “we do what we can with what we have” or “we are just used to managing with what we have”.’

We have heard this story from fire managers many times. For example, we have yet to see a fuel reduction burn which does not unintentionally destroy large trees [contrary to Department policy]: this is because managers don’t have the person power to survey the zone in question and institute measures to protect such valuable assets.

We urge IGEM to strongly recommend adequate resourcing to both DELWP and Parks Victoria.

2 Review … all opportunities and approaches to bushfire preparedness, including different methods of fuel and land management (for example ‘cool burning’, mechanical slashing, integrated forest management, traditional fire approaches) to protect life and property as well as ecological and cultural values.

All of the above approaches have their merits. Our concern is that in recent years, especially during the time of the five per cent burning target, most fuel reduction efforts have been directed at ‘cool burning’ .

This is the tree pictured above. It’s almost certain to fall. The biodiversity implications of reduction burns are largely unknown. Although managers are increasingly aware of this, a disturbing number are overconfident that the bush ‘always comes back.’

All too often ‘cool burns’ have been very hot, with resultant dense regrowth of flammable bush]. Fuel in such cases has not in fact been reduced. We could point out many cases where one side of a track, recently burned, is dense with wattle and eucalypt regrowth; while the other, unburned, is open grassy woodland.

We urge that where fuel reduction burns take place, they should be done in small area lots, allowing careful assessment of both fuel loads and environmental values. Too often in the past the Department has drawn lines on a map and lit a fire without too much concern about the biodiversity impacts of the exercise. The result is suggested in the 2019 State of the Environment report:

‘Biodiversity impacts from planned fires and bushfires at regional and statewide scales are currently unclear. An approach to monitor biodiversity responses (flora and fauna) to fire at multiple scales (regional and statewide) is missing.’

We realise that reduction burns in small patches could be an expensive exercise. Our question is, how valuable is public safety and the environment we live in?

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Engaged, again…enraged, again?

Engage Victoria is running another community survey, this time on Loddon Mallee biodiversity. As we’ve suggested before, these ‘public engagement’ exercises can be seen either as praiseworthy efforts to get the public onside, or time wasting exercises whose only result is to tell us what we know already.

The survey can be found here.

Do the questions engage, or just enrage? Are the results going to be stunning revelations? You be the judge. Here are the questions:

‘What areas of Loddon Mallee are of biodiversity value to you?

‘Why are these areas important?

‘Are you aware of any priority species in these areas?

‘Are you aware of any threats to these species or biodiversity areas?

‘Please list your top 5 areas in order of priority

‘Is your organisation or group carrying out works in any of these areas?


‘Are you aware of other groups in the region that are carrying out works in these areas?

‘Are there any challenges in relation to volunteering in your region?

‘How can the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning support groups volunteering in the region?’

The consultation closes on June 1.

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Mushroom identfication workshops now online

Although the world is in lockdown, the fungi are running riot out there in the forest! The recent rains could mean we are in for a bumper fungus season.

Why do fungi matter in our forests and gardens. What makes Australian fungi so special? And how do we differentiate the desirable from the deadly

These online workshops introduce participants to the diversity, ecology and curiosities of the Kingdom Fungi. Participants will learn to recognise the major fungus morphogroups; the various parts of different types of fungi; and the features used to make identifications. During an interactive session we will then work through participants’ specimens and identify and discuss them together.

While it would have been great to be out in the forest, at least we won’t be wrangling with leeches!

Alison Pouliot © Valerie Chetelat

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The collapse of civilisation–a progress report

Signs: what do they mean? And, especially, what does it mean that a lot of the signs around our parks are pretty decrepit?

We posed this question a couple of years ago when we published this photo of a sign on Poverty Gully:

Poverty Gully sign, July 2018: on its way out…

We’re still not sure of the answer to the question, but we can offer a progress report on the sign:

The same sign, April 2020: going, going…

The detached bit has completely disappeared. In short, the sign’s on its way to total oblivion, replaced, for the moment, by a beer bottle.

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