Recently, a friend told me that she was going to transition. From being a she to becoming a he. It’s something she’d wanted since puberty. I could hear the relief in her voice, and a happy anticipation of a new, precious and exciting life ahead.

But many people find transitions confronting. My friend knew this, and was braced for it. Many people are more comfortable with categories, dichotomies, the status quo. Solid ground (or so it seems). Things that last forever – those that ‘last the test of time’ – are somehow better than things that change. Why?

A few days ago I visited Binna Burra, in Lamington National Park, for the first time since the September 2019 fires. The large trees around the visitor’s centre were still standing, but the forest understorey had been opened up by the fires. The layer of rainforest shrubs, vines and ferns had been thinned, and in places completely removed by the fire. I could now peer into the Coomera Valley, and glimpse the distant hills.

The ground was covered in a lush diversity of plants – herbs quickly growing and flourishing into flower and fruit, new trees and shrubs springing up from seed or burnt stump, and vines scrambling up and over all. One of my favourites is the Native Bleeding Heart, Homalanthus populifolius. In some areas, a new forest of Homalanthus seedlings covered the charred ground with a sea of heart-shaped leaves.

This forest that greets the visitor around the visitor’s centre, at the start of the Caves Circuit walk, is wet sclerophyll forest. Those canopy trees are species of Eucalyptus, and their relatives (Corymbia the bloodwood and Lophostemon, the brush box).

Structural features of wet sclerophyll forest (Peeters and Butler 2014).

Before the 2019 fire, this forest was on its way to becoming a rainforest. Those tallest trees need plenty of light to germinate and grow. They would have sprung from their seeds when the forest was open, perhaps after a fire like the one we just had, perhaps after another disturbance. But over time, rainforest trees and shrubs had also grown up under the light-lovers. Generally, rainforest trees and shrubs can tolerate much lower light levels than Eucalyptus and friends. So these rainforest plants play the slow game of gradually growing taller and taller, creating deeper and darker shade below.

When the old eucalypts and bloodwoods and brush boxes fall over, the rainforest trees and shrubs will remain, and only other shade-lovers will be able to grow beneath them. The light-lovers will be excluded until a fire or a tree fall or a landslide removes some of the canopy and the light streams in again. Then the light-lovers will return, provided there is seed, of course. What I’m talking about here is the interchange between states 1, 3 and 4, pictured in the ecological model for wet sclerophyll forest below:

Ecological model for wet sclerophyll forest in Queensland (redrawn from Peeters and Butler 2014).

Now the forest has been reset, the rainforest species removed by the fire. In what direction will the forest go now? Will another fire keep it open? Or will the rainforest species slowly invade and grow, blocking out the light, and forming new rainforest?

The forest is always in transition. We may perceive it as static, maybe because our lifetimes are so short, compared to that of a forest. Or maybe that’s our preferred way of seeing the world.

Around me, in the forest, flowers bloom, birds dart and sing, insects buzz. Up on the hill is the place where Binna Burra lodge used to stand. I haven’t been there yet, but I know I will probably shed tears when I do. Grief grips us unawares, sneaks up on us when we think we’re fine, jumps on us when we wake at 3 am, and the world seems at its darkest.

The razing of Binna Burra lodge was not just the loss of a place cherished, it was also the loss of innocence: a green, lush rainforest sanctuary that we all thought was unlikely to burn. That feeling of sanctuary defiled, safe space lost. Binna Burra has been catapulted into the climate change world like everyone else.

And then COVID this year, bringing more changes, altering our world view, a thousand little losses, and also some large awful ones for lives lost, jobs lost, businesses bankrupt, freedoms abruptly curtailed, dreams for the future derailed and gone. We are so sick of the words ‘unprecendented’ and ‘pivot’. We crave for certainty, for solid ground.

But this vibrant and welcoming forest, that embraces me again with its green, with its life force. These massive towering trees, that seem so solid and strong. They are in flux too. They are always in transition. Nothing stays the same, and in that way new life, new opportunities, the new dreams of a tiny bird or even a lowly caterpillar arise, unfold, bloom and then fade again. Does the rainforest resent the fire? Do the eucalypts curse the shade? Maybe they do. But it seems that they do not, they just prevail if they can, with grace, and slowly surrender back into the earth when their time has come.

Can we embrace transition with such grace? Can we even find new joys, new precious things, despite the losses? Perhaps the only constant in life is that everything changes, all the time. Change can be crushing, and loss can seem too hard to bear. But change can also be a source of wonder and new dreams arising. Seeds stirred into life by the touch of the sun, and seedlings sending up fresh new hearts into the world.

Peeters, P.J. and D.W. Butler (2014) Wet sclerophyll forest; Regrowth Benefits management guideline. Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, Brisbane.