The Forgotten Whispers of an Ancient Forest

In late winter months, as the final snows melted from mountaintops, a dear friend and myself set out on a fieldtrip to a forest reserve known as the Upper Florentine. We sought to explore the deepest and untracked parts of the forest on a two-day journey. It was along the blood-red waters of archaic rivers, and under the canopy of some of the tallest trees on earth, that we became witnesses to the voice of an ancient forest, in an unexplainable event that transformed our understanding of nature.

Our Trip Plan & Party

Before leaving for the forest, I was in contact with several protesters who had defended the region from logging in the past. They described the geography of the Upper Florentine Valley, and told me of a track built by protesters that led to a deeper untracked area beyond the initial protest site. They said we would need to climb a hill out of the first forest, and descend its backside to reach the forest beyond. “If you do decide to go there, be careful, while it’s a magical place it’s quite scary, and has an unwelcoming feel”, one of them warned.

So our plan was set. On the first day of our trip, we’d explore the main protester forest, climb the hill, and set up camp on the other side. On the second day we’d explore the untracked forest beyond, before making our way home.

Our two-men party consisted of myself, a burnt-out academic, and my long-term friend Joseph, a man of deep religious faith. Barely a day would pass when in each other’s company without drawn out theological debates, in which my sceptical nature and his religious beliefs would butt heads. While Joseph was a Christian, our debates explored the Tibetan book of Living and Dying, the Hindus’ Bhagavad Gita, journeys of Buddha, influence of Hermeticism, and of course, the role of science and religion in contemporary society.  Debates would usually involve me spinning logic and rationalism into each comment and Joseph shedding such ‘sterility’, as he referred to it, with the beauty of spiritualism.

Our contradictory and unusual friendship worked due to my complete detachment to all view, and Josephs’ complete attachment to his views. I saw no argument as perfect, and felt no offence or pride in losing or winning them, while Joseph’s unshakable faith left him immune to self-doubt and free from religious ridicule. While we were worlds apart in our approach to life, we were equally enthralled by our appreciation of nature.

And so our party of two set out, one a sceptical burnt-out academic, the other a faithful theologian unshakable in his beliefs, into the ancient Upper Florentine Forest.

Remnants of Conflict

Two hours drive from Hobart, and we start out by exploring the abandoned protester camp located next to the Upper Florentine road. Remnants of conflict are everywhere. Several trenches are cut into the gravel, tree walls are built to block trucks, and, most inventive of all, a toilet is dug into the road. We also find the burnt embers of what was once the main camp building, which had mysteriously burnt down during major conflicts.

After a short exploration we head into the forest, following a track called Lungs of The Land. The forest is coloured in rich greens, and golden light sifts through the dense canopy overhead. The air is thick with moisture and a fog floats gently on the forest floor. Leaves drip water steadily onto the soft soil underfoot. Navigating our way along the ethereal pathway we pass complex tangles of myrtle, wattle and eucalypt. At the pathway’s end, we see Buddhist prayer flags hanging between three giant trees. I had heard that they were often hung in the hopes of protecting trees that protesters built special connections to. I remember an old conversation I had with a tree-sitter,

“Some trees just give you the feeling they refuse to be cut down. Then after the area has been logged I would often return to see all the destruction, and those strange trees that seemed to have a personality are still standing. The only trees left in a field of thousands”. I never forgot the comment. My sceptical mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of trees with personalities and intentions.

Looking up at the flags, Joseph says, “Perhaps protesters are more sensitive to the flows of energy in nature. Maybe by living in the forest they are tuned into trees in a way that we aren’t?”

“Communicating trees sounds a bit too pagan for me”, I respond. “But I can appreciate their connection to the place. It is incredibly beautiful.” We both agree that the name of the track is unusual in that it captures so accurately the ‘feeling’ of the place. ‘Lungs of the land’ – was the name coincidental, scientific, or had the protesters felt some strange breathing sensation in this section of the forest, as Joseph seemed to think he felt, and as I tried to deny I did?

As we pass the flags the forest around us begins to slip away into the distance and plains of buttongrass open before us. We start climbing the hill and the late afternoon sun laces waves of heat upon us. It is as if we had crossed some kind of threshold. As we continue over the hilltop, and down the other side, the sun reaches below, touching the horizon, and with its descent, we too begin ours, into the deeper, denser, and darker forest beyond…

Crossing the Threshold of the Familiar

The further we descend the hill, the thicker and more swamp-like our surroundings. Leeches appear, swarms of little black snakes parachuting from tree branches and slinking along the ground to our warm bodies. The track shrinks into a small trail, easily lost in the fading light, but we reach our campsite next to a river bordering the forest as the sun’s last light disappears behind the horizon.

After setting up camp we take a quick trip down to the water to fill our bottles. A deep blood red water runs between its banks. As I reach down dipping my hands into the red water to take a sip, Joseph turns to me and says, “It’s ironic that the water is blood coloured”.

“Why is that?”, I ask.

“In a way this is a land of blood. The forests have been logged, rivers have been damned, and the last Tasmanian Tigers were killed here.”

It is strange, I think, as we return to camp.

Joseph plops down at the tent doorway and starts unbuckling his shoes to discover several lines of blood running down his legs. Each line leads to a fat black leech gorging itself. “I’ve never seen so many of them!”, he says, while pulling another off his neck. We return them to the ground, a little less hungry, and tuck into our sleeping bags. I look out the small tent window across the river at the dark forest beyond as sleep slowly washes over me.

My dreams are haunted. In one, I’m standing on a lone mound in a forest. Something feels wrong. I look down to see my feet transform into tree trunks. Wood and moss grow over my skin as my body morphs into a giant myrtle. A bang sounds, and my consciousness shoots out of the tree. I levitate into the stars, leaving the earth behind, picking up speed as I go. Faster and faster I travel. Around me the universe is forming and decaying like the ebb and flow of tides. Abruptly my speeding consciousness stops at what seems to be the edge of the universe. A giant flora god with infinitely long vibrant green tentacles, reaching outwards into the blackness beyond, floats before me. I hear whispers but can’t quite make them out. One tentacle moves forward to touch me, its massive form like an avalanche crashes over me, and I am thrown from the dream.

I jolt up, sitting in the tent, covered in sweat and feeling as though sleep hasn’t come at all. For a moment my body feels as though it has travelled a million miles. I still hear slight whisperings, something about the future perhaps? The world momentarily seems less real than the dream, as I shake off my drowsiness. I turn to Joseph who is talking in mumbled sentences, rocking erratically from one side to the other. I crawl deeper into my sleeping bag, and fall back asleep.

We wake with the rising sun and set out. As we enter the forest we’re surrounded by incredibly green moss. Thick beds of it cover every surface. The forest is much darker than the one we walked through, the canopy much denser, and only a little light trickles. I look down to my compass and take a bearing off a tree a few hundred meters in front. We walk to that tree and take another bearing in the same way. Without significant landmarks to guide us, this straightforward technique allows us to track an easy route through the forest. So we continue on deeper into the forest, following the humble direction of our compass’s needle.

Suddenly the ground around us sinks and we realise we’ve walked into a marsh. Surfaces appear safe to step on, only to discover that by doing so the earth gobbles up our legs to the waist. As I stumble out of one bog, I step forward sinking further into another. I reach out to Joseph who takes my hand and pulls me free. After sloshing through the bog for some time we discover a small dry clearing and decide to take a short break. As I’m scraping the mud from my legs Joseph mentions how unusually quiet the forest is. I stop scraping and we both sit in silence listening to the sound of… nothing. No rustling of animals, or bird calls, not even a wind blowing in the canopy above. “Let’s keep moving”, Joseph decides, picking up his pack.

We’re happy to leave the marsh behind as we continue on more stable ground. Small mounds rise from the ground around us, and atop one a particularly unique looking lone myrtle grows. We climb up to its base and are shocked to discover a hole around a metre wide beneath its’ roots. “It’s a cave!”, we simultaneously state in excitement. Joseph takes out his torch and shines its light into the hole – “It goes deep”.


We crawl in and slide a few metres down the muddy entrance. The torch light illuminates a small room-sized cavity. Water drips from the ceiling and huge hand-sized spiders crawl around the walls. A thick heavy earthly smell fills the cave. It branches off into three different directions. The first two are only several meters long and lead to dead ends, but the third wraps around to our right twisting further and deeper into the earth below, like a corkscrew. We slowly move around the twisting descent, as the entrance light disappears behind us until a huge spider web covers the way from floor to wall. Several massive spiders sit on the web decorating it in different parts, like guardians blocking the passage. “I guess that’s as far as we go”, I say to Joseph.

Then all of a sudden, as we’re staring into the spider’s web, the torch starts flickering on and off, and the cave shifts from dark to light. We are uncertain if it is broken, or if the battery is going flat, so we quickly scramble for the entrance. Clawing our way out of the black hole, up the steep muddy entrance. Joseph turns to me, “Gosh that was freaky”.

Then something happens that neither of us can explain. In the midst of oppressive silence, we both hear a strange gurgling wind swept noise that seems to come from the forest canopy and the cave entrance at the same time. It almost has a language to it – undecipherable and lingering. I quickly scan around the forest trying to confirm there is nothing there.

“Did you hear that?”, Joseph asks. Looking at Joseph, I can see he is struggling with the reality of what is occurring – panic riddles his frozen face. As we stand back-to-back, one looking down the hole, the other out towards the forest, the breeze grows stronger, shaking the Myrtle’s leaves as it sweeps through the forest. The guttural noise seems to take form, that of a shriek. It sounds primal, beastly, and non-human, but words become distinguishable…“GEEET OOOUUT!”

Escape!

We run. We run as fast as we’ve ever ran, running through the bog we crossed earlier, eyes frantically looking down upon the compass while dodging trees as we go. We keep running until we reach the Florentine River. Puffing and panting, covered in mud and soaking wet, we continue on, walking rapidly over the hill and back to the first forest. My brain wracks itself as my heart is almost pounding out of my chest. What the hell is going on, I keep repeating inside my head. Neither of us speaks until we pass the prayer flags from the first forest, and the ambiance seems calmer. Our voices recovered, we flit from one possibility to another. Is it madness, inherent fear of nature, effects of a sleepless night, God, shock, just plain noises, or perhaps a depth and intelligence of an animate nature forgotten? Is it time to reincarnate the resting idea of a green mother?

Finally, we reach the car, and make for home…