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.
- Regrowth stands are dense – too dense, like thickets
- This makes growth stall – there isn’t enough light and water to go around
- Drier, dense bush is likely to burn hotter and faster (increased wildfire and firestorm risk)
- Water stress is compounded by our drying climate
- 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)
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.