Baroness Bertha is a huge mountain ash tree in the Yarra Mountains of Victoria, nearly 60 meters high and 15 meters in circumference. The bottom of the tree is hollow, with an arched opening that leads to a cathedral-like space that can accommodate six people. Standing in her towering body, I smelled the scent of falling leaves on my feet, and touched the strange spongy wood that was burnt black by the bushfire. How can such an ancient and majestic tree stand on such an obviously unstable foundation?
Senior curator George Main and I came to Yarra Ranges in northeast Melbourne to meet with people living in volcanic ash and discuss our plans for the new Environmental History Gallery of the National Museum of Australia. Like many before us, we were attracted to the Yarra Mountains by the power of the landscape and the majesty of the mountain ash forest.
Mountain ash is the tallest hardwood tree in the world and is found in the humid regions of Victoria and Tasmania. In the Yarra Mountains, it has always been a source of wood, attracting tourists and settlers seeking the peace and beauty of the forest. Mountain ash depends on fire to survive and may also be a source of destruction.
We met Brett Mifsud, a tree hunter who was seeking to climb Victoria’s largest tree Measure them, record them, and work hard for their preservation. He led us to the Baroness Bertha and inspired us with his enthusiasm for these giant trees.
This Yarra Mountains Regional Museum In Lilydale, we met with Yarra Ranges Committee art, culture, heritage, emergency response and forest management staff. The museum is a thriving center of the local community and holds an exhibition on the history of the area, which is a gem.
These people know the reality of bushfires. Living in a lush forest carries the risk of summer fires. The last fire in the area occurred on Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. Regarding the affected communities.
How do we tell these stories in the gallery of the National Museum? Not only the terrible experience of bushfires, but also the various reactions of the affected communities and their resilience in preparing for the inevitable fires. How do we connect museum visitors in Canberra to the dynamic relationship between the Yarra Mountains forest and people, weather patterns, and bushfires?
Uncle David Wandin, the elder of Wurundjeri, gave us another perspective on bushfires. With the knowledge of indigenous fires shared by the elders of Cape York, Queensland, Uncle David is working with the Victorian Emergency Management Department to test fire protection measures to prepare forests for increasingly frequent and intense bushfires. His team uses targeted and controlled “cold burning” to care for the forest, which reduces the fuel load while maintaining biodiversity, limiting the intensity and impact of mega-fires, and promoting the country’s health recovery.
We hope to tell such fascinating stories in the new environmental history gallery about people responding to the challenges of environmental change in a hopeful and creative way.