04 September, 2010

Where the wild things are

Anna Krien 
The Age (article),  September 4, 2010

I'M AT the National Park Hotel on the road to Maydena, the last town before the Florentine and Styx valleys. It is dark when I walk in and order a beer at the bar. Ignoring the hush, I try to act as if I always walk into pubs full of men in the middle of nowhere. Perched on a barstool, I flick nonchalantly through the paper - but as I scan the front page, I realise my timing is unfortunate.

"Isn't that the river I just drove over?" I asked the barman, holding up the front page. It shows a photo of an Asian girl alongside a picture of the Tyenna River. The barman jerks his head.

"Yes, but it wasn't any of us."

A voice behind me chips in. "Definitely not us. That's a stupid place to put a body. I mean, there's hundreds of mine shafts around here."

I turn around, but there are too many eyes looking at me expectantly and I can't figure out who spoke. I nod slowly and read through the article. Police have arrested two Hobart men after discovering the girl early this morning, her body weighed down by rocks in the shallows.

"Are you a greenie?" another voice calls out, startling me. I spin around quickly this time and catch the speaker, a young man wearing an orange high-visibility top and blue pants; he falls back behind his mates as if to share around responsibility for his question. A couple of girls have walked in to buy a six-pack of sweetened mixers and they pause to look at me. I shrug.

"I dunno. Are you?"

His mates semi-shriek and fall over themselves, while he puffs himself up.

"No way!"

I tell them I'm a writer and that I've been staying at the Florentine blockade up the road. The men recoil.

"They stink, don't you reckon?" says a fella in a hi-vis fleece jumper. "They smell disgusting." I don't answer. "Go on, admit it, they stink. If one were sitting right there, would you sit next to them?"I say I would and the men scream with horror.

"No way! Go on, admit it. They smell," another pitches in.

"Well, yeah," I begin tentatively, "they've got their own …" But before I can finish, they're clapping and cheering.

"She admits it! She thinks they stink!"

I start to laugh, giving in. "OK, some can smell a bit gross, but I reckon Lynx deodorant and most women's perfume stinks as well."

Some of the men nod sagely. Others are giddy with joy that they've made me say it.

I look around. It's an OK pub. Stickers are plastered all over the walls, the usual "I love beer, shooting and f---ing"jokes ("Credit is like sex - some get it, some don't," I spy above the door). It's perhaps a little too antiquated, cashing in on the "Oh, aren't we oddballs, us Tasmanians"theme for the tourists. But at least it makes an effort to charm, unlike the other pubs I've seen on the island, renovated with rows of pokie machines and shrieking metal chairs. I look up at the dinner menu on a blackboard. I want to order a vegetable pattie but worry it will condemn me to "greenie-yuppie" status. Asking for a salad roll can be fraught with danger down here. When I asked for one at a cafe in New Norfolk, the woman behind the counter looked at me with suspicion and asked, "You want ham, chicken or beef with that?"

I order fish and chips, silently apologising to my stomach. I hate meals that are all yellow.

When my meal arrives, a parmigiana is plonked down in front of the man beside me. He introduces himself as John, and tells me he is a tree-faller, a subcontractor in a harvesting team in the Styx Valley. Fallers are among the few who still touch the trees before they fall. If a tree is too difficult to cut with the jerky outstretched arm of a machine, the faller steps in with a hand-held chainsaw and with a series of cuts can make it fall away from the crew. "You can tell the fallers," one activist told me earlier. "They're the skinny ones. The rest are fat from sitting in machines all day." John isn't skinny, but he isn't fat either.

"We're also the 'sawlog chasers'," he explains; they trim the tops, branches and butts off felled trees and separate any sawlogs from the stem - the straight, wide logs suitable for boards rather than pulping.

A big man with blond hair, John is in his early 30s. He was a shearer before he got into falling, but his current occupation runs in the family. "My grandpa did it, my father too, but he got out after Gunns took control of everything. Said it was too much of a monopoly."

John stayed in the game. His family lives in Buckland on the east coast, a few hours' drive across the island from the Styx Valley. He commutes to work, living at this pub during the week and at home on weekends. "I'm trying to get the boss to give me a portion of his fuel subsidy," he tells me. "But it's not looking good."

John is a thoughtful presence amid the fluoro rowdiness. As we chat, there are times I think he hasn't heard me he is quiet for so long. I ask him about the activists.

"It's the weirdest thing," he says slowly, two beers between us. "You come to work and there they are. One dressed as an eagle, another looking like she wants to tear your eyes out, and then they try to talk to us as if this is normal."

John is part of a small "bush crew", contracted by Forestry Tasmania to fell a coupe and haul the timber to a mill. "[The protesters] tell you to call the police and FT, so you have to drive back in to phone reception, and then the boss tells us to go back - and then they want to talk to you all mate-like. Offering us cups of tea and bullshit like that. I mean, f--- , we're here to work, not to have a chat."

He shakes his head and says again, "It's the weirdest thing. You see them barefoot on top of a machine or tree, and there's a frost and they're dancing round, singing - they're f---ing crazy."

For many of the activists at the Florentine blockade, it's woodchips they have the biggest problem with, the turning of whole hectares of forest into mulch. I am told repeatedly that sawlogs account for only a small portion of the industry's output. They are cynical about the industry's claims that sawlogs are their top priority.

When I put this to John, he looks genuinely confused.

"It's the cream of the crop. I'd have to be stupid to send a sawlog to the chipper. What's left over goes to woodchips."

I tell John what the activists at the Florentine told me: 80 to 90 per cent of the forest felled there will go to the chipper.

"Yeah, but sawlogs are the prime cut," he insists.

LIKE a carcass in an abattoir, the forest is divvied into cuts. But unlike a cow that couldn't live without its T-bone, perhaps a forest could be left standing and just its prime cuts removed? John considers this for a while before answering cautiously.

"In regrowth forest, selective logging would be possible, but in old-growth it would be way too dangerous. You'd have to clear-fell." John already has the most dangerous job in the industry, and the most under-represented. When I ask him who in all the forestry brouhaha speaks for him, he again goes quiet, as if fishing in some dark place for an answer.

"Not Ferdie Kroon [CEO of the Forest Contractors Association], that bastard loves himself. And Barry Chipman, he's a wanker. I mean, who is Chipman? He is quoted in every bloody news item but I've never

seen him [Chipman is the Tasmanian spokesman for Timber Communities Australia, an industry group]." John laughs out loud. "And now Brant Webb is

running for election. What a goose."

Webb became famous when he and another miner were trapped in the Beaconsfield mine for two weeks. Their survival story made headlines around the world; they even appeared on Oprah.

As we talk, advertisements play on the television above the bar. There's one promoting Forestry Tasmania, another publicising a "Walk Against Warming" to be held in the Upper Florentine. A tourist on a nearby barstool overhears our conversation and starts to talk to the man behind the bar about the logging of old-growth forests.

"We used to go into the pub and say we were loggers," John tells me. "Now we keep quiet if we don't know the place. It's intimidating. I wanted to go see Johnny Diesel play in Hobart last month, but he was at the Republic Bar and I just thought I'd stand out like a sore thumb."

Around us, there's a hum in the room, fuelled by talk of timber. A younger logger leans between us to listen. Boyish, he gains confidence as more men gather. Pulling out a mobile phone, he shows me videos of working in the forest - skidders going back and forth, timber being dragged to a landing, trees falling over.

John eyes him and says with a dry smile, "When have you got time to do this, Mitch? Shouldn't you be working?"

Mitch laughs and shows another clip to a man standing near us.

"Oh, I reckon she would have already seen that one, mate," the man says knowingly. Curious, I lean over. It's the video of the car being smashed with Nish and Miranda inside it. Mitch must have downloaded it on to his phone. I wonder how many times he's watched it. He giggles as he replays it for me. I look at the faces around me, wondering who might be one of the blurry bodies in the video.

I ask John what he does when protesters come into a coupe he's working in.

"I try to keep out of it. Just don't say anything. But there was this one time we'd started logging a coupe in the Styx, 10F, and this woman she came out of nowhere and was going crazy at us. She was sobbing, a thirty-something-year-old woman, sobbing over a few trees. I was pretty rude to her, I could have dealt with that better."

Again I ask John about clear-felling. "It's the safest way in the old forests," he says. But what about all the potential sawlogs that go to the chipper before they've grown? Isn't that your future yield? John is quiet.

But then Leon, the pub owner, appears behind the bar. Leon is a retired logger himself, and John snaps up his head. "It would be OK if you guys didn't cut everything in the '70s."

A small round man with white hair and glasses, Leon barks back: "That's not true - we did a good job around Triabunna. All the wood was rotten, so we cleared it and reseeded."

John shakes his head accusingly. "That's bullshit. There was good wood in there."

"No, it was all rotten, John, I'm telling you."

"Good wood and you guys cut it all for the chipper. So now we're two generations behind."

I'm not sure what I've started. The man sitting on the other side of me winks and says in my ear, "Who needs an activist?"

Further down the bar, another man puts his beer down and says loudly, "I recommend that everyone shut their mouths and not say another word to this woman."

There's a silence. I lean forward to look at him properly. He's wearing a fluorescent orange jacket, and has closely cropped hair and a pointy face that almost fits into his beer glass. "She'll take it all back to the Greens, to Bob Brown. Or you'll be on A Current Affair next week."

I protest. "C'mon, mate - I've got standards. Today Tonight, at least."

The man beside me says, "Lay off, Turk, she's OK." But the others are quietly looking me over more closely.

"So, whose side are you on?" asks John, leaning back, his blue eyes on me.

This is an extract from Anna Krien's Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests, published by Black Inc

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/environment/conservation/where-the-wild-things-are-20100903-14uhd.html

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