Listening to the Wise Woman’s call: healing for jarrah trees

Listening to the Wise Woman’s call: healing for jarrah trees

Book review of “Shades of Green: finding a middle path through the forest”

I’m sitting in the bush reading “Shades of Green: Finding a middle path through the forest”, the final opus of Chrissy Sharp, co-founder of Balingup’s Golden Valley Tree Park. A friend and I snuck away not long ago to a quiet campsite in the south-west of Western Australia, the very part of the world that Chrissy advocates for in her work. It feels apt to be reading this book here.



What can we learn from author Chrissy Sharp, who dedicated her life to study, and advocacy for our south west forests?

Interweaving stories from her life and career as an activist and Green’s Member of the WA Parliament, “Shades of Green” walks us through the present state of our jarrah forests, extending from near Boorloo Boodja (Perth area) across to Kincannup Kinjarling (Albany area). I’ve learnt a lot from Chrissy’s book; it’s powerfully resonant, presenting complex environmental issues in ways I easily absorbed and understood.

In this special blog for International Women’s Day, I’ll share the key concepts I picked up reading “Shades of Green: finding a middle path through the forest”, and personal reflections.

The call to action is made all the more powerful given sadly, Chrissy has now passed on. In its essence, it calls us to steward young regrowth forests. Heal our jarrah.

Chrissy’s call to heal jarrah, and steward South Western Australia’s regrowth bushlands

Chrissy dedicated her life to study and advocacy for forests. Her most pressing concern, voiced throughout her book, is for areas of bush that have already been logged. It’s the regrowth bushland that direly needs our collective care and attention.

Most of us from this part of the world have a relationship with the jarrah tree, whether we’re conscious of it, or not. And given how far jarrah travelled, many people around the world will have benefited from the gifts of this timber, too.

Where it’s been logged, the bush is growing back, yes. But it’s growing back in a very different way to how it grew prior to the disturbance of colonisation and industry.

So what’s the problem? Here’s a few key points from the book.

  1. Regrowth stands are dense – too dense, like thickets
  2. This makes growth stall – there isn’t enough light and water to go around
  3. Drier, dense bush is likely to burn hotter and faster (increased wildfire and firestorm risk)
  4. Water stress is compounded by our drying climate
  5. Bauxite mining – what I learnt deeply disturbed me. Best read in depth in the book.

Previously logged areas are growing back, but they’re so densely treed that growth is stalling. Water stress is increasing in these areas, in particular, as the young trees in the over-populated bushland compete for declining reserves.

Competing for water, and light, these dry bush thickets have greater potential to fuel wildfires, and even fire storms. A fire storm can occur when a wildfire is burning so hot that it starts to create its own weather system. Reading about this gave me the final kicker I needed to ring up my local bushfire brigade and offer to volunteer.

How can we respond to the need to steward regrowth jarrah forests?

To address regrowth density and its associated issues, in Shades of Green we learn about “ecological thinning”, which is a much more difficult challenge than one might initially think.

When cut, jarrah trunks usually regrow, “coppicing” into multiple trunks. You’ve cut the tree to thin the bushland out, but if left unmanaged, in time, you’ll have as many as four trunks where you had one.

Next time you’re walking in the bush, have a look. You’ll probably see coppicing jarrah trees. This is why follow up, long term management is needed, including the use and application of herbicide to prevent stump regrowth (DBCA).

The role of herbicide in jarrah forest ecological thinning

This is about nuance, as we learn in the book with Chrissy’s ever-evolving approach to forest advocacy, from her early days as an activist, and later, as she lived into her influential role in politics.

There’s no easy answer, and that seems to be part of this “middle path” contemplation too. With regard to herbicide use in ecological thinning the jarrah, I can’t see any alternative. It seems to be a necessary, transitory tool whilst the forest is tended and reshaped, in order to create the strongest possible foundation for its yet precarious future.

The role of fire in bushland and forest stewardship

By the time they’re about three or four years old, jarrah seedlings have developed a lignotuber that enables them to persist through both cool and hot burns.

Traditionally, the Noongar people managed the forest and the jarrah for its particular traits and tendencies, with knowledge honed over tens of thousands of years. Their regular, cool burns thinned some seedling trees before the lignotuber developed enough to assure their livelihood through fire.

As a result of this nuanced stewardship, my migrant settler ancestors arrived in Manjimup to tall, well-spaced forests featuring trees of all ages. There are still some old people around here who remember being able to gallop horses through – hard to imagine if you’ve spent much time in regrowth bushland. Of course, we don’t have that now.

What we have, Chrissy warns, resembles something in great danger of not surviving at all. So what is being done?

2024-2033 Western Australian Forest Management Plan

The 2024-2033 Western Australian Forest Management Plan closed for public comment in late 2022. I wonder how well the government will resource the need for ‘ecological thinning’ on a vast scale. Is what they propose to do going to be anywhere near enough?

Some say forests should be ‘left alone’ for conservation, but I don’t support this approach. After reading Chrissy’s book, I find myself listening, as she suggests, for the path of active stewardship. This is the mindset I bring to disturbed, ‘cultured’ land around human settlements and farms.

For our southwest forests, I’d like to see collaborative stewardship. An active management, in which all community members take responsibility, in some way or another, for the future of our trees, and the broader ecological functions of our forests.

Walking together, finding the middle path

Written in an engaging, conversational tone, this book is not for the light-hearted however. Presenting challenges hundreds of years in the making, which don’t have any readily apparent easy solutions, it presents a conundrum. And it is the clear facing of this complex issue that appears to have pushed Chrissy to change as a person, to find the capacity for holding greater tensions, while at the same time, continuing to do everything she could to help.

Chrissy’s life story affirms the need to walk together, despite our differences. In amongst all of the things that we need to do in our lives, Chrissy found her imperfect balancing act, attending to her family, her homeland farm, and to matters beyond her own immediate needs.

I invite you to consider what really matters, beyond conventional notions of immediate human family, and needs. Uncover that which is meaningful for you and the greater web of life. Let this inform a way of living into reciprocity with our place.

For Chrissy, it is the jarrah. And certainly for me, and for many of us in this bio-region. From what I’ve learnt in “Shades of Green”, her lifelong engagement with her passion projects bore fruit in ways well beyond what she might have initially conceived.

Chrissy didn’t do it alone, and we don’t have to either. Together, heeding words of guiding elders like Chrissy, we must continue on to discern a middle path toward earth regeneration.

We too can make our way through the forest, knowing giants, real and metaphoric, stand with us as we go.

Buy  “Shades of Green: finding a middle path through the forest”   (Vivid Publishing)

For more on south west Australian forests go to:

Forests For Life (South West of Western Australia)

Forest Management Plan 2024-2033 (Western Australia)

South East Region Conservation Inc. (New South Wales, Australia)


Personal reflections on my relationship with jarrah

Inspired by “Shades of Green: finding a middle path through the forest”


What do our trees need from us all now? This is a threshold, a window in time. Chrissy’s book “Shades of Green” urges us to look up right now, and listen. When we’re with bushland across the south west from Boorloo boodja (Perth area), and down through to Menang Country of Kincannup-Kinjarling (Albany), we might ask: what is this present time, and place asking of us?

Reading this book, I’m being stretched larger. I keep looking up at the remnant bushland to the west of Stellar Violets, to the trees. I reflect on how much the jarrah had given me through my life, how jarrah has kept me warm. It’s always been the fuel for our hearth fires. It’s the dining table at the house I grew up in. It’s at the heart of our lives.

I imagine the feel of jarrah in many houses I’ve lived in, all over the south west. The warmth from the woodfire, the creaking boards and smooth finish underfoot, connecting the feel of one house to another, providing a supportive foundation for many of us.

We know the feeling of a cold breeze whistling up through gappy floorboards in winter. Home smells like woodsmoke, and we can hear the rhythmic axe, we’ve been at the chopping block, swinging it back above the shoulder, bringing it down for an easy, satisfying split. Splitting, and burning dry jarrah, it’s easy. It feels good. And it’s quick, compared to how long it takes for a jarrah tree to grow. And that’s sad, when we start to feel into the timescales. It took thousands of years to become what it was, and within 200 years or so, it’s almost irreparable.

So how can we balance all this? Where is this ‘middle path’ Chrissy calls us to walk?

An old sentry jarrah tree in remnant bushland on our farm ‘made itself known’ to us for the first time last year. Others, we know by their stumps alone. Somehow this one escaped the axe, remaining hidden until an old local tipped us off about its presence. I went looking for it early one morning. After circling around for a while, I found the awesome old one. And it’s not just awe I feel, but grief too, for what’s lost. That there are so few like this one, now.

As Chrissy remarked, people tend to be seduced by the beauty and grandeur of karri forests. The jarrah and marri on the other hand, might be more easily overlooked. ‘Scrubby bushland’ is what we drive past on the way to ‘somewhere better’.

Most of my generation have barely seen an old growth jarrah tree, let alone stood in awe among a vast stand of all ages. Shifting baseline syndrome abounds: incremental change is slow enough such that it isn’t noticed as one generation changes to the next. It’s as though that ‘scrubby bushland’ was always like that. Disturbing, realising this.

My ancestors came here five generations ago, when old growth jarrah is all they would have seen. Since then, much has changed, and been taken away from this place. My people have taken, and taken, from the land in order to make lives of a certain kind here. The jarrah has been taken, sold, and sent all over the world. There’s an obvious debt to this land, and these forests. In a way, I’m living off the back of those fallen trees. All that heartwood.

What would it take to repair the over-consumption, and ecological destruction?

What would give our forests the best chance of continuing on, even if already changed irrevocably, into a drying climate?

The final paragraph of the afterword in Shades of Green had me break down in tears,

“The best she could hope for is that the words she left will foster healing for the jarrah.”

Something there was felt in the depths of my soul. “Words… foster healing for jarrah.” Chrissy has lived her life, and though I didn’t have the chance to know her, I feel how much heart she gave during this book. Her inspired life story is a gift that needs to talked about, kept alive, and carried on.

I’m not yet sure how I will carry forth this wisdom into advocacy for change but know this: Chrissy’s wisdom, and nuanced perspectives have lit a candle for the middle path in me that will be carried till my last breath.

Buy  “Shades of Green: finding a middle path through the forest”   (Vivid Publishing)

Golden Valley Tree Park, and the Balingup Small Tree Farm

Chrissy was instrumental in the creation of the Golden Valley Tree Park, an outstanding collection of trees from all over the world located in the town of Balingup, south of Perth. Her husband Andrew, and family continue to run the Balingup Small Tree Farm, from where we’ve purchased many strong young trees that are beginning to flourish at Stellar Violets.


Highlights from Girls’ Trip, helping girls connect, have fun and grow

Highlights from Girls’ Trip, helping girls connect, have fun and grow

[Girls Trip] helps encourage creativity, and a broader range of thinking for parents and daughters. It raises confidence in both as well. – Linda Russell, mother

What do you long for, for a girl you care about?  That she has confidence to speak up, and show up, in whatever way is true for her? That she discovers, expresses, and hones her special gifts? That she’ll be ‘ok’, as we live into the global ‘whole health’ crisis we’re experiencing?

On Girls’ Trip, using the fruits of five years Placemaking efforts, we brought together mentors, teachers and artists for girls as they enter that transformational time into early adolescence.

Girls Trip introduced my daughter to new ideas and positive role models. Coming together with like-minded people with … the positive intention of girls flourishing helped increase her sense of being connected, supported and cared for. – Melissa North, mother

The Weedy One: Diego’s Fantastic Foraging Feast

Bundanon’s Spring Festival – “Siteworks 2015”

On a Saturday in September we celebrated Spring with a bunch of art-lovers at Bundanon’s Siteworks 2015. The properties at Bundanon, and Riversdale were gifted to the Australian people by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd in 1993. The drive into the property winds through thick, verdant prehistoric giant fronded fern infested forest, opening out on arrival to a wide, open, green valley, which on this day was filled with volunteers, campers, stall-holders and entertainers. Three objects atop the hill caught our immediate gaze, a 15 foot high spider-like creature, that looked like a recent alien arrival from Stephen King’s nightmares, a 1970’s-styled playground rocket ship, and a wine barrel come Stone Henge Sun Dial. Two inflatable white bunnies greeted us as we descended to the rivers edge. All across the grounds, spring is singing with bounteous beauty blossoming throughout. But, the tranquility of the flowing wisteria and Illawarra flames was broken by the startling appearance of something that resembled a T-Rex’s ominous head poking around a corner. This was Erth’s Allosaurus, an incredibly life-like giant sized dinosaur that scares the life out of the kids (and some of the rest of us) with its frightening appearance, and extremely loud amplified roar.

“The Weedy One” Diego Bonetto: Our Favourite

Of all the artists at Siteworks, we were excited to see that our favourite, Diego Bonetto, would once again be taking people on a wild, edible plant foraging tour. We must admit to a kind of Diego fanaticism. Some people plan weeks in advance to watch The Eagles at The MCG. Meanwhile we’re amongst patches of Stinging Nettles hoping to catch Diego. In fact we love him so much, immediately after finishing his first Siteworks foraging tour, we turned around, and followed onto his next walk.

As a boy, growing up in the North of Italy Diego’s Nonna shared with him traditional ways of how to identify, prepare, cook, and use the edible and medicinal plants growing around them. Having been an artist in residence at Bundanon Trust, Diego knows the place well.

The journey begins with Diego reaching down, cutting a yellow flowered Dandelion out of the soil, thanking the plant, and then sharing its story. The USDA recently announced dandelion as the most nutritious plant in the world. Diego recommends all parts of the dandelion, including slow, low roasted dandelion roots for a healthy, hot drink, similar to coffee, but markedly better for you. Then onto the benefits of fleabane. Did you know that you can save about $80/month in pet flea treatments by using fleabane? Or, that if mozzies are bothering you, all you need to do is burn some fleabane and its good bye mozzies.

 Next was plantain, a very good bush bandaid, and diuretic. Then onto the next plant, Diego, snapping off a piece, and sharing it around. Its lemony taste was so appealing one guy stripped the thing bear. Mulberry – pick the berries, and eat them right there on the spot. Diego recommends eating food right there at the source. As soon as a plant is picked it begins losing nutrients, so Diego say, “Whenever you can, pick, and eat, pick, and eat.” And, then we come to, Stinging Nettles – incredibly high in all sorts of vitamins, and minerals, stinging nettles are great in a soup. Scotch Thistle – the first plant to be declared a weed in Australia because the burs got caught in sheep’s wool and were an expensive burden to the wool industry.

 Want Help? If you want to know whether a certain plant is edible, take a clear, hi-res photo, and send it to Diego. He’ll identify it for you, and let you know of its properties.

During his Wild Stories walks, Diego relays hundreds of incredible, useful plant facts. As he says, “I can talk for hours.” But the walk, and talk with Diego, is an engaging, performance to be experienced as is. There is way too much to take in, so just enjoy it, and when you want to learn more, visit his website. 



How the first train carriages came to spark placemaking

How the first train carriages came to spark placemaking

Forget travel to exotic climes. The glorious winter sun is streaming in the carriage windows, adorned with views of Stellar Violets garden, and thousands of apple trees giving over to slumber. Bright red steel baggage racks give bold architectural lines to the interiors. It’s flush with old red carpet floors, teal blue seats, and emergent dreams for a refurbishment. 

A neat little springbok decal adorns the double entry doors, and one original window in the “east carriage” – that’s the one I’m in today. Built in South Africa, in 1961, and 1964, they weigh about 20 tonnes each and sadly came sans the bogies, which weren’t even for sale, being far too valuable. I was told our carriages have been to Manjimup and Pemberton before, on the railway last time.

I often lament the lack of passenger rail in our quiet part of the world, and I hope, perhaps foolishly, to live to see it return one day. In the meantime, we’re travelling without moving at Stellar Violets, sitting in these sunny carriages. Five days on, this is still might be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. 

The great carriage moving day was months in the making, and thanks to co-ordinating a number of pretty exacting contractors, it went off without a hitch.

We knew we needed a space to hold host workshops, meetings and events. A space to work in, with room to play. I just didn’t know it was going to begin with two twenty metre long carriages built in South Africa.

A chance search on GumTree for second hand french doors earlier this year first sparked the notion to put a train carriage in the garden. The first I found was cute, with french doors. It was pretty small though, and way too expensive, we decided, for the limited purposes it could serve.

I couldn’t get the idea from my mind. Another Google search late one night unearthed two South African beauties from Hotham Valley Tourist Railway in Pinjarra. The last two for sale in a batch of fourteen they were moving on.

What are we going to do with them? Read more about Placemaking at Stellar Violets. Interested in other heritage rail vehicle acquisitions we’ve made? The next unexpected find was Trolleybus 854, that used to run on the Claremont and Wembley lines in Perth.

photo: Pete Bowdidge

Dreaming of aborous glory: Planting Trees for Mum on Mothers Day in 2015

Dreaming of aborous glory: Planting Trees for Mum on Mothers Day in 2015

Travelling and gardens don’t marry well. Maybe this is why recognising my inheritance of Mum’s passion for gardening took time to make itself known.  I wandered gardens in faraway places, even had a cry in a meadow at Kew, because it was beautiful, and she had loved it there. When I found home back here I grew up, I started a garden.  And these days, not much feels better than planting, especially on Mothers’ Day.

How fortunate that we can spend a morning on a highway verge to plant a stand of trees that I hope will be growing a hundred years from now. There is much to be grateful for. This is the third year I’ve joined a merry little crew to plant Trees for Mum​ on Mothers’ Day. A little more barren land now holds the promise of… arborous glory! I just discovered the word “arborous”, it popped into my head and I had to check whether or not it was in the dictionary. It was. Sounds like a cross between amorous and arbor – Tree Love. So that’s my piece for today, after receiving this neat little film from my friend and fellow tree enthusiast, Peter Bowdidge​.

A barren highway verge + Fifteen Scarlet Oak Trees + dedicated volunteers celebrating Mothers’ Day + incredible support from Manjimup Shire + a local business donating time digging holes (cheers Cain Contractors) = a fantastic Trees for Mum, in 2015. We’re grateful to everybody involved for helping us make Mothers’ Day meaningful with Trees for Mum.

Put your foot down | Biochar makes compost faster

Put your foot down | Biochar makes compost faster

What is Biochar?

Biochar, or biological charcoal  is an organic soil conditioner. Its a carbon rich product made by putting any kind of plant material into a slow burning, oxygen-deprived environment.


Carbon Sequestration

Viewed through a certain lens, the greatest deficiency in Australian soils is carbon. Charcoal, biochar,is the stablest, longest lasting form of carbon available. And, charcoal just happens to be a by-product of the wood gasification process. German expert Dr Jürgen Reckin was recently sharing with us how he makes rich, black, fertile soil using biochar.

The creation of biochar is a carbon-negative activity. Every time biochar is put into the ground more carbon is sequestered, thus, providing a remedy to the harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions.

Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanitys

environmental and agricultural future.  Dr Tim Flannery

While attending South West Catchment Council’s Biochar Gathering at Bridgetown, Professor Paul Blackwell of DAFWA taught us that,

Throwing a handful of charcoal in each time you add to your compost is a good idea.

It’s the simplest thing you can do, and very effective.

Charcoal is a compost “accelerator”. The charcoal actually helps the beneficial microbes and fungi to get going, and keep going in your compost, and afterwards in your soil.

So where do you get the charcoal?

Dr Reckin, the world-renowned soil scientist we met in Germany simply buys BBQing charcoal from his local hardware store, and has created a backyard paradise.

Of course, the best source is always off your own land, so non-compostable materials like eucalyptus branches, walnut shells and “diseased” materials can be good feedstocks to be turned into charcoal at home/on farm.

How do you make charcoal?

That’s what Paul Blackwell demonstrated, with his 44 gallon drum home-made charcoal maker called a “Top Lit Updraft” (TLUd) cooker. He modified the 44 gallon drum with strategic cuts to allow just the right amount of air to come into the right places, and then fills it 3/4 with very dry, rough-cut woodchips. Next, he adds 1/4 of kerosene- soaked woodchips, and lights these on the top.

A very slow burning process begins to move down through the woodchips, and once it’s going properly, on goes the lid, and the top and the bottom are sealed with builders clay. You leave it to “cook” overnight, and in the morning hose it all down, add it to your compost, allow 3 months, and “hey presto – Biochar”.

Dung beetles, feeding biochar to cows, carbon sequestration

We also heard from innovative Manjimup farmer Doug Pow, who is feeding his cows charcoal, and employing dung beetles to completely transform the fertility of his land. The beetles naturally sequester dung, along with the charcoal, deep underground. Doug barely lifts a finger, or spends much more than a cent in the process. Like to hear more?

Here’s a great vid featuring Doug Pow chatting more about how he’s improving soil for grazing without having bought fertiliser in years.