Nothofagus, the southern beech, has always held a certain mystique for me. As a child I was an avid reader, and lived in an imaginary world. I was always searching for the forests of Middle Earth, Narnia and Sherwood. Stands of Nothofagus came much closer to this ideal than the grey-blue-green haphazardly-shaped eucalypts that are much more common in the Australian landscape, with their vertically-hanging leaves, and sparse shade. I’m talking here about the two Australian Nothofagus species that form Cool Temperate Rainforests – the myrtle beech Nothofagus cunninghamii and the Antarctic beech N. moorei. These trees hold their branches and leaves horizontally, their limbs and trunks are often covered in verdant green moss, and their neat, rounded leaves turn golden when they drop. Nothofagus trees that grow in warmer climes look quite different, as I was to find out.
Once I had my own set of wheels I would go exploring the forests of Victoria’s central highlands. The tall mountain ash trees were magnificent, but the real prize was finding patches of Nothofagus. Myrtle beech trees are killed by fire, and in Victoria they persist in only small scattered patches, due to logging and frequent, widespread fires.
This was an exciting time. I was studying zoology, botany and ecology at university, and loving it. I wanted to do an Honours year, which required academic supervision and a research project. Gordon Sanson was my favorite lecturer and an obvious choice of supervisor – if he would have me. I wanted to combine botany and zoology as I was fascinated with plant-animal interactions. Gordon is quite famous for his work on how the form and function of animal teeth is related to their diet. But I wanted to do something different. When I rather nervously went to talk to Gordon about Honours, we first talked about my interest in birds, which led to talk of Nothofagus, which led to mention of the new lecturer in the department – Jennifer Read, who was a Nothofagus expert. Gordon would consider taking on a plant-animal project including Nothofagus if Jenny agreed to be a co-supervisor.
My uni friends and I were amused by this, as we had seen Gordon and Jenny together more than once, and speculation had started about a possible match. So I went to talk to Jenny, who I hardly knew at all, with Gordon’s idea, feeling a bit like cupid. The result was an Honours project on Nothofagus leaf decomposition. It doesn’t sound flashy, but it was interesting, and laid the groundwork for a PhD scholarship. Gordon and Jenny were my supervisors, and it all worked out so well that I ended up doing my PhD under their supervision too.
During this time I had the great good fortune to work in the Nothofagus forests of New Caledonia. Jenny asked me to be a field assistant, and this started a series of annual field trips, I have lost count of how many, I think it ended up as 10 or 11.
New Caledonia is a botanist’s wonderland. I am not going to say much here, there is far too much to tell. Amazing, diverse rainforests and wet heath (maquis). Delicious patisserie products. Many hours of hard work, often in rain, and bookended by long walks into field sites over slippery red clay tracks. Crows that make and use tools, and yap like small dogs. Large notou pigeons with ghostly booming calls. Mournful yellow robins that perch quietly near you in the forest, like the eastern yellow robins of Australia. And Jenny’s incredible determination, tenacity, questing mind and inexhaustible work ethic. And Gordon was often there too, assisting with the research.
Fast forward to now, and I’m living in south east Queensland, and painting a series of forest portraits. I can’t wait to have a go at the Nothofagus moorei forest which has its most northern occurrence near the border of Queensland and New South Wales. I walk to Bithongabel from O’Reilly’s and take lots of photos and do some sketches. Then I go up to Best of All lookout at Springbrook. The Nothofagus trees are just as beautiful as ever, and I relish my work.
Here’s a preliminary sketch:
And here’s the final forest portrait:
Jenny and Gordon have been inseparable since way back when I did my Honours project, and who better to include in this forest portrait? With them in the forest is their granddaughter Minka Christie.
I could write so much more about Nothofagus – its fossil record, the way that it helped to reveal the story of Gondwana, the way that some Nothofagus forests have few birds, and the little skink that lives only in Antarctic beech forests. But I’m afraid all that will have to wait. I needed to explain to you why these forests are special to me, and about two remarkable biologists who started off as my teachers and have become my dear friends.
Jennifer Read has produced numerous publications about Nothofagus and New Caledonian rainforest ecology (among other things), and there’s more to come. Here’s one of her most recent papers:
You can also read a post I co-authored with Gordon Sanson, which contemplates whether the woomeras used by aboriginals were originally inspired by the hunting action of herons.