Epicormic Psychology

Flowerdale Victoria epicormic buds

The regeneration of Australia’s flora and fauna after fire is swift; or is this just a misconception of a nation’s psyche?


The Learned Pig


The winding trail of sandstone rubble ascends before me through a pocket of dorsal-fin shaped bushland in Lapstone, in Australia’s Blue Mountains. This ecosystem is not granted a name. Even though it is autumn – the sun warm but shade cool and the sky clear and crisp – I am wary of snakes. I clap my hands every few minutes to create as much noise as possible.

Though, the snakes can probably hear me anyway. My feet scrape over the orange and brown rubble, crunching on leaves and across large, flat, light grey rocks with lichen splotches on their faces. An electricity tower looms above, all metal bones painted green in an attempt to fit into the environment. If you stand close enough, you can hear the faint crackling of invisible energy racing through it. I walk into a spider’s web, the single length sticking across my face and I quickly brush it away and check all over for eight creeping legs; thankfully I see none. Bellbirds chime amongst the trees, their quick, high-pitched chirps shoot out all around. About the size of a budgerigar, this bright olive-green bird has an orange beak and legs. But it’s hard to spot as it darts from branch to branch.

Some trees have an untidy patchwork of bark; others have bare branches and are contorted like lightning strikes. From memory, the ones which are long, lanky and white-grey are called “ghost gums”. Their bark, unlike the other trees, is smoothly shaped; wrapping around in one continuous material. Little brown wrens with little round bodies and long, stiff tails pointing skyward rush through the scraggly scrub: tall, thin brown grasses that look like wheat, spiky green miniature ninja-stars that prick like needles and pine-like shrubs with soft, spindly leaves.

No birds dart around the blackened tree trunks that stretch out before me.

No birds dart around the blackened tree trunks that stretch out before me at the top of the trail. It’s been almost fifteen years since this landscape was partially burnt – it must be impossible to find bushland without the scars of fire. The canopy of lush green leaves is thick. Some leaves sprout from thin branches further down the trunk. This is the work of epicormic buds, capsules of life hunkered down on stems and roots that are protected by thick bark. Heat or smoke trigger their germination. The black bark is brittle; I can easily pry it off. It leaves smudges on my fingers that show the swirls on my skin. The wood underneath the scab looks brown and healthy. I stoop low and slow my pace as a bee buzzes loudly around my ears. Its inspection is complete after a few seconds and it zooms away. A twig moves its head. Snake! But it’s only a baby, a snakelet, and I let out a breath. Its brown and red leathery body is thin and kinks awkwardly between rocks as it sunbathes. I watch it carefully as I step around.

There are two main types of bushfire: wildfires and prescribed burns. Wildfires are blazes that are intentionally or unintentionally lit, either by lightning strikes, cigarette butts, faulty electricity equipment or arsonists. Prescribed burns are fires that are lit to burn fuel loads on the ground to prevent wildfires, although sometimes they can blaze out of control and become wildfires.


The Learned Pig


The text on the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage website sounds like a primary school teacher. Wide margins create narrow paragraphs. Scrolling to read of fire’s many advantages seems almost as endless as the list of tabs and sub-tabs.

Fire, we’re told, can crack open seed coats, allowing certain species to survive after the adult plant is killed, their seeds falling from the canopy and into the fertile ash below. These are known as obligate seeders. Fire clears thick vegetation, giving the seedlings a chance in the competition for resources beneath the soil. But their shoots may be eaten by animals. Prescribed burns are precisely planned with the impact on wildlife carefully considered.

Fire is nourishing.

Fire is nurturing.

We are masters of the flame’s consequences.


The Learned Pig


“What do we know about fire? What’s the impact of fire on fauna?”

Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology at La Trobe University, asked these questions after his research site in Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, was destroyed by an out-of-control prescribed burn in 2012. Clarke had spent seven years mapping the site on a twenty-metre grid, but after the fire he couldn’t recognise where he was standing on that grid. But the birds could. Tree creepers, whose calls cut through the quiet landscape, ate cooked insects amongst bark fissures. Crimson rosellas flocked to the forest, grabbed messmate seed caps and threw their heads back to “scoff the seeds like they were taking shots” – their adaptability astonished Clarke. But he also noted that other bird species had been decimated by the fire. With a team of scientists, Clarke has since undertaken several research studies and land surveys to thoroughly examine how wildlife responds to fire. It is an area of knowledge less extensive than that of the response of plants.

This bushland is part of the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council. Despite the open gate, I cannot shake the feeling of trespass.

In October 2013, the Blue Mountains experienced its worst bushfire season to date. The blaze destroyed 3,500 hectares across Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock. Singles Ridge Trail is tucked between houses along Singles Ridge Road, Yellow Rock’s only road in and out of the suburb’s centre. The trail descends quickly into bushland; you’d only catch a glimpse of it if you were looking for it. What strikes me first are the banksias. Their towers of golden-yellow stigma and anther, strangely wiry yet spongy, are bright amongst the dark green regrowth. The ground cover is thicker than I expected, but it is dishevelled and only knee-high. The trunks are still blackened and leave smudges on my fingers. The bark is light and aerated like Styrofoam. Epicormic shoots have done their duty; thin branches hold bouquets of large, green leaves. Light brown rocks, some blemished red or striped purple, and leaves crunch under my steps, some half buried in sand. Charred chunks of trees slowly disintegrate on the ground as the insects take over – hollows have been burrowed into the wood and ants scurry around beneath. Two or three bees buzz about and my wrist catches on a single thread of spider’s web and I shake it away. A dark orange mushroom grows in a semi-circle on a black, fallen tree. Is it smooth like silk? Or furry like felt? I resist the urge to find out. More birds call out here. They are not bellbirds, could they be treecreepers?

This small patch of bushland is part of the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council. Despite the open gate, I cannot shake the feeling of trespass. This land council spans west from Parramatta and nearly reaches Lithgow, and from the Blue Mountains National Park north up to the Colo and Hawkesbury rivers. The council aims to safeguard cultural interests on traditional land.

Aboriginal uses of fire demonstrated a deep connection to the land. There are hundreds of Indigenous languages and dialects across Australia, with several words for fire; wayandi, gadla, parrandi, ngadlendi, guwiyang… Explorer Thomas Mitchell wrote in 1848 that fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seemed dependent on one another to exist. Fire was used to smoke out possums and gliders, to clear land, to communicate (via smoke), to ‘clean’ land after the death of an inhabitant or during warfare. These practices had both positive and negative effects. While species such as Cypress pine were maintained in northern monsoonal Australia, several genera of leaf-eating kangaroos are thought to have become extinct due to these practices. Combining Indigenous traditional practices with modern techniques could decrease the impact of fire, though efficiency will not be optimal. Australia’s landscape has changed considerably in the 200 years since traditional practices were discontinued.


The Learned Pig


The text on the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage website sounds like a primary school teacher. Wide margins create narrow paragraphs. Scrolling to read of fire’s many advantages seems almost as endless as the list of tabs and sub-tabs.

Native animals, it says, have particular adaptations that allow them to survive bushfires. Escape to unburnt areas is one way native animals can avoid fire. Some insects, reptiles and small mammals may even hide underground. Low to moderate intensity fires will push arboreal animals up to the tree tops. Eggs and chicks are most vulnerable during fire seasons. A majority of species will recolonise burnt areas.

Fire is not a major threat to our native animals.

Fire is child’s play.

They are masters of the flame’s consequences.


The Learned Pig


“Different species do not universally bounce back after fire,” says Clarke. The Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project was one study that Clarke undertook with scientists from La Trobe and Deakin universities. The project investigated the impact of fire on native animals in the Murray Mallee region in south-eastern Australia and uncovered significant vulnerabilities. Some birds favoured landscapes whose vegetation had regenerated, though this can take over thirty five years. Nectar is also affected by fire. It took almost ten years for Mallee eucalypts to flower after fire: Clarke noting this severe impact should thousands of hectares of the food source be destroyed. Habitats can take extremely long periods of time to redevelop: tree hollows, which provide homes for birds, parrots and mammals, can take over forty years to regenerate. Spinifex hummocks, thick tufts of native grasses, provide shelter and places to forage for many species, including the globally endangered Mallee emu-wren and the Mallee ningaui, a small carnivorous marsupial. After fire, the quality of the size and shape of these hummocks is considerably altered and regeneration can take between seventeen to thirty five years, only then does the emu-wren return. Breeding females of the Mallee ningaui take considerably longer to return to the hummocks, from forty to one hundred years after fire. The conclusions of The Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project are bleak. With wildlife’s need for time-since-fire environments and the growing frequency of fires due to climate change, the maturity needed to provide adequate habitats may not be reached, endangering species and causing local extinction.

Human safety is prioritised, and the needs of individual ecosystems are not taken into account.

Prescribed burns too are concerning for Clarke. As human safety is prioritised, the needs of individual ecosystems are not taken into account, resulting in ‘blanket’ plans for prescriptions. This one-size-fits-all approach was the outcome of the Bushfire Royal Commission in Victoria after the Black Saturday fires, a result that disappointed Clarke. He argued that the locality of fire must be addressed for the most environmentally sustainable practices, where prescribed burns were tailored to suit the needs of individual regions, ensuring both flora and fauna can re-establish.

It looks like it would take an eternity for this landscape to re-establish. On the corner of the Oaks Fire Trail and Bennett’s Ridge in Glenbrook, Blue Mountains, 1,211.87 hectares were prescribe burned. Nine days post-fire and the earth is black-grey and brittle. It crumbles to dust with barely a pinch of my fingers. Every few steps I catch the scent of charred wood. The crunch beneath my feet is not robust like in Lapstone and Yellow Rock; it is breathless, the air snuffed out. There are trails of ash along the ground, all that’s left of a branch completely disintegrated. The ash is soft like flour and it is difficult to imagine it as fertile. Tree trunks are black; some have fallen and have huge gouges. Bark falls off with barely a touch of my finger, the light contact leaving only small smudges. Thick bunches of surviving leaves are curled over and a sickly, dark brown-green. Spindly, pine-like leaves are brownish and rough. Thinner trunks of small trees, oversized, upright twigs, are bent over, paralysed. I have to crouch to pass under these frail arches and I notice once again that the insects have taken over.

The black-grey ground is pocketed with innumerable small holes and webs tangle under fallen trunks. Again, my arm catches on a single strand of a spider’s web. Minute insects flutter around; a white, upright one that looks like a moth and smaller orange ones, bulging ants with wings. The brown marsupial mouse, a small carnivore like the Mallee ningaui, is common in this area, but I do not see one. Something rustles above me and I stop dead in my tracks and look upwards. A National Parks and Wildlife information officer had told me that fire weakens trees and they can fall at any time without making a sound. Two rosellas zoom through the air, their visit brief; are there no messmate seed caps for them to down like shots? Wedge-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons too are common here, but all I can hear is a plane flying overhead. The landscape is quiet. Paradoxically, it blocks my ears.

Fire is destructive.

Fire kills.

We are not masters of the flame’s consequences.


Image credit: Elizabeth Donoghue


The Learned Pig

Nicole Crichton

Nicole Crichton is a fourth year student at Macquarie University, Australia, majoring in Writing and Ancient History (Greece and Rome). She is dedicated to her studies and has been offered positions as a writing mentor for first year students and as a student editor for Macquarie University’s student journal of creative work ‘The Quarry’ for the coming academic session. Nicole enjoys the puzzle that writing presents, whether that be academic essays, non-fiction, fiction or screenplays. ‘Epicormic Psychology’ is her first publication.