The Ents of the Oregon forest

Lined up and backlit, these Sitka spruce are covered in a green, mossy glow. Small lateral branches reach out into the forest pathway.  

Lined up and backlit, these plantation trees are covered in a green, mossy glow. Small lateral branches reach out into the forest pathway.

The moss needs a damp environment, sunshine and a place to grow relatively undisturbed. The forest plantations in Pacific Northwest are ideal. Strangely, the mosses can survive dry periods where they desiccate, drying out almost entirely and then generally recovering fully when the moisture returns, as it tends to in the US’s Northwest climates.

The ents in the famous Tolkien books were curious creatures – men that have partly turned into the trees they husband. What could these things possibly look like? What does an intelligent, mobile tree do when it settles down to rest? Peter Jackson and his art directors had the same issues in his film portrayal of these hybrids in Lord of the Rings. His Treebeard was a brave if unresolved rendition.

However, something is menacing and alive about these rows of trees. They are Sitka spruce, with their stunted arms reaching out and a living skin aglow with rude health.

Entirely different from the landscapes of my childhood, in the dusty rain shadow of the Mount Lofty Ranges. Summers there were hot and dry, and winters short, mild and not very wet.

Surrounded by either cleared flat farmland or the dry-land Mallee bush, lushness and foggy moisture were unknowns. The local Mallee trees always looked like they could do with a good drink. They are stunted things, unruly in form as trees go, with multiple trunks sprouting up from an underground bulbous stump, which stores water and nutrients for the hard times.

And being in the South Australian Mallee, there were hard times aplenty for trees and people. Mallee trees are tough little blighters. You can hack at them with an axe, storms can flood them, and the southerly gales blow them over; men can try to burn them down. And do you know what, the damned things are such survivors that they’ll sprout anew given any chance at all?

It is easy for an Australian to identify with the Mallee. Tough as a “Mallee bull” is a saying where I came from. It means to be a survivor, someone who will always fight back and prevail no matter the adversities that life throws at them. A survivor because everything softer or needier has already died out under extreme conditions. So what does remain is – in character – the essence of strength, perseverance and resilience. Maybe not the best looking, but a survivor worth backing in a fight.

And take seed from some Mallee trees and plant them in favourable soil, with more nutrients and enough water, and you may be surprised.

That stunted multi-trunked habitat can become a single stem tree that grows with grace and form. So within them, the Mallee are trees every bit as proud and upstanding as any other.

In the dry, challenging environment of the Mallee, the damned things hunker down and do what it takes to survive. Put them where they have an opportunity to show their true form, and they will. Is that something worth identifying with?

I wonder if we have lost something, as life has become more comfortable, rather like this spruce forest.

Driving through that Oregon forest, though, was like returning to my true home. Go figure.