One can feel the drought settling in for the summer around here in the Mallee. (NB. This article was written in the lead-up to this Summer of 2019..it’s now 2021 and even worse!) It’s dry now and as the farmers will sighingly say..: “There’s nothing in the bank..there’s nothing in the bank…” Of course, they are talking about the “bank” of residual moisture in the deeper soil…it is dry down there as it is dry on the surface, there’s nothing put away to cover the drought..there’s nothing in the bank.
And Summer has yet to start.
So we are going into this warmer season already behind the eight-ball as we say. I can see the mallee trees in this district kind of settling down for the duration of the dry..a kind of hunkering down onto the broad, ragged boles of their base trunks and holding tight to their footings against the expected winds. They will shed some foliage, lose a limb or two, but with the companion plants of saltbush and other chenopods gathered like petticoats about their roots, they will ride out this storm like they have held fast against many millennia of adversity….they will survive.
But will we?…It is alright for the home gardener to heave a sigh of relief when five millimetres of rain dapples and cools their aching flower beds…or gives welcome respite to a small patch of favourite veggies…or even tops up that two module rain-water tank next to Father’s shed down the back yard. But out here in the sticks, anything up to five millimetres is useless…it is gone by an hour later..five to ten millimetres is not much better if it is not followed up after a couple of days with equal or heavier, as the false sense of security will cause residual seeds in the soil to just germinate and then whither and die after a week from lack of following rains, thereby compounding the desperation of the situation.
But the Mallee will survive, as it has survived and thrived out here in the semi-desert regions for more millennia than can be imagined. A wonderful species that , even though reduced and harangued to a flora state of poverty by the cruel eyes and wasteful hand of past settlers, is still there, and still ready and waiting to once again march across a wide country if we give it a chance.
There is a mystery about these mallee regions, about the relationship of all the native plants and fungi that co-exist in this now parched environment. There is a close connection between the mycorrhiza fungi that lives in the soil and roots of the mallee, likewise with the many varieties of chenopod (saltbush) species that will shelter under the mallee foliage. These relationships combine to gather, hold and maintain moisture about the tree so as to form mutual habitat that benefits the flora which in turn allows fauna to live and prosper off the tree’s generous bounty.
I have made my own experiments on the whys and wherefors of the trees in this area..I have conducted unauthorised and unqualified studies on the soils and temperature relationships between the seeding and germination of the mallee tree to see why, after the abandonment of cropping on this particular property nearly seventy years ago, NOT ONE mallee tree has self-germinated outside an isolated copse on the far corner of the farm.
I found that temperature testing revealed a large variation between bare soil exposed to the full sun of the day and the cold frost of a night and soil that was covered with natural litter that now has been thoroughly removed by many years of grazing…the soil temperature variation 25mm down from morning to midday to afternoon can be as much as fifteen degrees between the two locations but 500 mm apart, creating a environment unsuited to the germination of the seeds..also, my observations have displayed a theory that with the original mallee soil, it behaved much like any forest-floor matting in that the fallen seed found its way to the rotting mat of organic matter and there in the moist warmth, it germinated and THEN sent its roots down into the earth to seek footing. So the removal by grazing of this organic litter has reduced the chances further for seed germination, while the direct sun onto the top-soil remnant kills off the mycorrhiza fungi and completes the chain of events destructive to the expansion of the mallee forest.
Also, if we look to the chenopods, we will see their “keenness” to gather about the trunk of the mallee trees like so many little-ones about the skirts of a matriarch. Which brings us to another observation of my own. These saltbushes are of a variety..some are quite leafy, while others have foliage of a “succulent” kind that can be squeezed for moisture. I had a leaking pipe in a cluster of this succulent variety…it was a small leak not on the main line, but on a “feeder-line” to a trough..so I left it for quite some time before attending to it..now, in this dry clime, as any gardener will attest to in regards to a water leak, one would expect those plants in the near vicinity of a leaking pipe should and in most cases do, benefit from the liquid largesse…not so these succulent saltbushes..or at least so very little to differentiate from their cousins some little way away…which led me to consider if certain varieties of these hardy plants gather most of their water needs NOT from the root system, but rather from the moist night air, taking the moisture in through the succulent leaves and THEN transferring it TO their roots and in consequence supplying the mallee tree with a modicum of that precious liquid as a tenant will pay rent for shelter.
Then there is the soil in the immediate vicinity of the tree canopy circumference…I have conducted a small experiment with watering-can trickling water out from the base of the tree bole to the limits of the canopy and beyond. I found that there is a non-wetting soil under the canopy that ceases as soon as one crosses the unmarked limit of the canopy circle…I suspect this is managed by the tree to stop unwanted weeds and other flora parisiting its valuable nutrients and water in its immediate vicinity..also, I have noticed that in the lead up to a projected rainfall of some substance..not a small shower..the mallee tree weeps from its canopy perimeter branches a kind of oil or sap that drops to the ground and , I believe, is the means that the tree uses to create the non-wetting situation for its own protection.
And another last thing if I may tax your patience, Those rolly-pollies one sees tumbling across open paddocks like the tumbleweeds in a B Grade western movie, that then cluster against fence lines next to a road…if you get the chance to take one of those tumbling, dry balls, and rap it onto a flat, white surface, like the bonnet of your car, then look very close to the residual left there. You will commence to notice many, many varieties of seeds and insects that are gathered up on the rolly-pollies tumbling journey over field and shrub by the hooked lugs extending from its branches and brought with the plant to jag up against trunk, bole or in the case of the roadside fence and then to deposit this bounty there where it stops to allow the transportation of flora and insect life from one place to another.. a veritable environmental factory.
All this is well and good and if let go will continue for as long as forever is measured……..but for one little thing..an oversight that may cost us humans the very Earth we live on.
A sheep farmer will remark to you with fatalistic exasperation when they see injured or starving stock just seem to lie down and give up on life..: “Any excuse to die”… a sad admittance of the failure of husbandry skills to revive even with any amount of care, those beasts that have decided when enough is enough…We see the same with some plants in a garden we nurture that for no particular reason we can ascertain, they just wilt and die regardless of our worrying.
Well, let me give you warning…not that any will listen to yours truly, myself having little qualification in this world to claim right to give it..AND there being so many in the “consultation world” with self-assured knowledge and more wisdom than Socrates or Christ combined so that one could rightly observe that there are those who are so smart, they even outsmart themselves!…Still..let me, as one human to another, give you warning..There is a “knowing wisdom” in the heart of this natural world unmeasurable by either test or research, that while it does not stop altogether the natural cycles of reproduction of either flora and fauna, there is a “knowing”, much like the knowledge of seasonal change inherent in the DNA of all nature, and this “knowing”, evolved over millions of years has a means of “understanding the situation” when a line of no return is crossed and..I suspect..like those stock that surrender themselves to an inevitable fate, so too will the time come when we humans force the natural world to cross that line of no return, the limit of capability for homeostasis and She too will then decide and decide with no intent of either redemption or cessation, neither pity nor interest to opt for ”any excuse to die” ..and THEN we will ALL be well – and truly – fucked!
You know it makes sense. . .