Tell us about your early life in Beech forest, what are your fondest memories?
Your question has prompted a rich lode of very happy memories of my boyhood at Beech Forest. I was born at Colac in 1941 and attended Beech Forest State School through to Grade 7 and 8 and thereafter to Lavers Hill Consolidated School for Forms III and IV.
In those years Beech Forest was still a thriving community whose economy was based largely on agriculture – dairying and potatoes – and the timber industry although in decline, still had some sawmills operating in the district.
The town had all the facilities a young lad could wish for in the form of butcher, baker, grocer, milkbar, churches, hotel, football club, tennis courts, town hall and railway station.
Our cream painted weatherboard house with red corrugated iron roof sat resolutely on the ridge at the eastern end of Main Street, year after year withstanding the battering winter rains sweeping up from the southern ocean. Despite the cold winters and incessant rain all of our spare time was spent outside traipsing up and down the countryside. It seemed to us children that the endless and ever changing local Otway landscape was placed at our disposal to discover and enjoy and we never tired of exploring more and more of the richness and variety of the Otway flora and fauna.
My earliest memory is helping my father construct a chookhouse in our backyard, making sure that the wire netting fences were embedded deeply into the earth to keep out the marauding fox. To wake up the next morning to be confronted by a backyard strewn with bloodied feathers and carcasses was a salutary lesson that stayed with me for life.
The fondest memories of my first 15 years at Beech Forest were of exploring the bush with my six siblings in the immediate environs of our house. We spent our days climbing trees, looking for bird nests, lighting fires in old logs to dry out our clothes, cooking jacket potatoes, searching for mushrooms, scrambling down waterfalls, swinging across gullies on vines, picking blackberries, fishing for minnows in rockpools and rummaging through the bone heap at the abbatoir.
Year by year as the number of siblings in our family increased we became more independent and adventurous and our bushland territories expanded to enable raids on the local fruit orchards. One of our favourite places to walk to was the Displaced Persons or Refugees Camp down at the Aire River Bridge where if we were lucky enough, the Chef would bake us some continental cakes and pastries, much more appealing than our usual fare of bread and jam.
How did your early life influence your career and what is a forest scientist?
To answer the second part of the question I will introduce the subject of forestry.
‘Forestry’ is the science and practice of managing, using, conserving, protecting, creating and repairing forests and their associated resources in a sustainable manner to meet the desired goals, needs and values for human benefit. Forestry embraces a broad range of concerns in what is known as multiple use management including the provision of timber, fuel wood, wildlife habitat, natural water quality management, recreation and so on.
A practitioner of forestry is known as a forester, and foresters who become further qualified with graduate degrees in science may be called forest scientists.
And now to the first part of the question. Although my father was a forester in the Otways for many years, he discouraged me from following his profession mainly due to the restrictions on movement – being constantly on standby and on call for fire fighting during the summer months meant little opportunity for swimming or cooling down at the beach. Consequently, visits to the beach at Apollo Bay for the 7 Smith kids during the summer holidays ware restricted to the cool of the evening leaving little time on the beach before darkness descended.
And then the long return trip from the coast after buying our fillets of barracouda from the Lorne Pier and negotiating the narrow, winding Skenes Creek Road or the even windier Wild Dog Road back up to the top of the Range. The arrival of the small car load of kids at the start of Turtons Pass, was always the signal for the family to launch into its repertoire of old time songs to help keep us awake whilst swaying round the bends in the little Morris Eight sedan. This was also the time for the family to be on the lookout for the well known landmarks at the side of the road such as the satinbox wickets, the blackwood walking stick, the ridgetop saddle, the giant mountain ash or the burly beech.
For me as a young lad, this was a magical time with the car moving slowly along the winding track, the car headlamps penetrating deeply into the forest with every turn and exposing the shadowy mountain ash trunks and treeferns.
Looking back, I believe that the numerous trips through the Otway forest at night must have left a lasting impression on my physche because when the opportunity arose to apply for a scholarship to the Creswick School of Forestry this seemed to me to be the natural thing to do.
You have created a beautiful book, The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges, what do you hope people will experience or gain from it?
From my very first visit to the Redwoods at Aire Valley as a young lad I realised from the conversations of adults that these exotic trees were something special: they were to be treated with great care, and they were not to be climbed or to be interfered with in any way. I was fortunate to visit Aire Valley many times over this period of 15 years and to notice subtle changes in both height and diameter growth.
And later on during my career I had occasion to return to Aire Valley many more times in my working life. I realised that I had a strong attachment to the trees and began collecting all available historical records including growth data and other measurements. Many years later after a visit to California I learnt that the growth of these Otway Redwoods compared more than favourably with trees of similar age growing in their natural environment along the coast of California. I then realised that the data would become more significant over time and that in an organisational environment where responsibility for the management and protection of public land was constantly changing, there was a need to place the data in a consolidated and permanent place on the public record.
I also hope that this book will encourage the Otway visitor to look beyond the tourist brochures and develop a deeper understanding of our native forests, by studying the changes in the forested landscape over time, and to discover how historical events, both natural and planned, have shaped the structure and condition of the forests as we see them today. I believe there is a need for the younger generation to learn that an old growth mountain forest is not the ultimate ‘wilderness” condition and an end in itself, but is merely one stage in a dynamic series of growth classes characteristic of our native forests.
What are your hopes for a sustainable future for the Otway Ranges?
Given the background of recent land use changes in the Otways it is inevitable that some sections of the local communities will be slow to embrace the changes in forested land use. If forest-based tourism is to develop, as predicted by the land managers and the ecotourism industry, then the wounds created by this long running conflict must be quickly healed. The tourist promoters and the public land managers must recognize the need to build on the rich history and the culture of the forest industry and to utilise the experience and knowledge of those previously employed in the forestry and timber sectors.
Some towns of the Otway Uplands such as Lavers Hill and Forrest appear to have made significant advances into the field of eco-tourism and are catering to the growing tourist trade. Other towns such as Beech Forest appear still to be in decline. Apart from the tourism/hospitality industry it is difficult to see another agriculture /forest based industry becoming established in the short term. There may be a niche for entry to the specialty timber category with wood turning and carving sector but this would be a cottage industry at best.
A sustainable future for the Otways depends on our ability to maintain our public forest lands as healthy forest habitat and to continue the revegetation of the abandoned weedy private farmlands particularly on the steeper southerly slopes of the Ranges.
this stunning photo of the Redwood Forest not far from Beech Forest was taken by Michael Collins and used for the cover of Roger’s book.