Almost five years after revealing images of vast swathes of dead trees on the Monaro were first published on these pages, queries about the extent of the tree graveyard continue to fill this column's inbox.
The widespread form of dieback which covers an area of over 2000 square kilometres and has resulted in thousands of gum trees, mainly Ribbon Gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), is especially noticeable alongside the highway between Cooma and Jindabyne, where in some spots it appears as if every tree is dead.
Most readers, who, like George Jones of Kaleen, drive past the trees on regular trips to the Snowy Mountains want to know "is it spreading, I see more and more trees affected every year". Unfortunately, the latest news on the status of the dieback, which initial research indicates is caused by a number of factors linked to changing climate, isn't good. More theories as to the cause of the dieback are discussed here.
"Recent observations suggest the dieback is spreading into large reserve areas to towards Numeralla, and even into the southern parts of Namadgi National Park and is now also affecting other species such as Apple Box (Eucalyptus bridgesiana)," reports Catherine Ross, a PhD scholar at the Australian National University's Fenner School of Environment and Society, who has been studying the dieback for the last five years.
One reader especially concerned about the spread of the dieback is Sharon Field, a botanical artist from Burra. Field is currently putting the finishing touches to 'Monaro Runes' a series of paintings and drawings which she hopes will highlight the extent of the region's dieback to both a local and international audience.
Field's project, supported by a grant from the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) records this dramatically changed landscape, drawing on the trees as runes, or symbols.
"The skeletonised trees – both heartbreaking and starkly beautiful in their own way, are almost shadows, being the visible representation of something that is no longer there", explains Field, who believes "that given the environmental stresses the planet is experiencing, botanical art really should move away from just 'flower painting' and educate people about what we are losing."
"Monaro Runes (a play on the word 'ruins') pushes the boundaries of botanical art, so it will be interesting to see how it is received in the US," adds Field, who will presenting her artwork at the ASBA annual art conference and exhibition in St Louis, Missouri, later this year.
Earlier this week, in joining this column for a sneak peek at some of Field's artistic depictions of dieback, Nicki Taws, project manager at Greening Australia, who is implementing a number of projects to combat the dieback, remarked: "they are stunning, a most beautiful representation of a tragic situation".
I can only agree.
Monaro Runes: Prior to being exhibited in the United States, Sharon Field's series of 18 paintings (watercolour) and drawings (graphite) will be on show at the Raglan Gallery and Cultural Centre in Cooma during September. More: www.sharonfield.com.au
Did You Know? As part of Monaro Tree Comeback, a 10-year project funded by NSW Environmental Trust to address to address Ribbon Gum dieback in the Monaro region, Greening Australia is working with landholders to replant affected areas, trialling different replacement species with CSIRO, and running a series of cultural burning workshops with local indigenous groups.
Don't miss: On Tuesday April 3 at Severn Park, 579 Black Range Rd, Bobundara (near Dalgety, a two-hour drive from Canberra) Ngarigo elder Rod Mason will demonstrate traditional indigenous burning and its role in managing a healthy landscape. Sounds fascinating. The workshop is free, but bookings essential via 0408 210 736 or email@example.com.
While Bronson Sainsbury of Yass admits he "unfortunately can't help with the mystery of the growing rock cairns atop Gossan Hill," this column's recent exposé on the Belconnen nature reserve of the same name has solved a long-term family mystery for him.
The column revealed that following the First World War, Gossan Hill was leased by the Commonwealth to solider-settler Robert John Butt, who died in 1926 "from shock and haemorrhage" while fishing with gelignite on the Molonglo River.
"My great-grandfather Stan Blundell served in the 56th Battalion in WWI," reports Sainsbury, adding "he passed away shortly before I was born in 1975 but among his various souvenirs from the war was a photo of a close friend of his in uniform.
"Back in the 1980s, my grandparents explained the photo was a close friend of Stan's who blew himself up catching fish with dynamite after the war, but sadly neither of them knew his name. The story stuck in my mind and I always wondered who this tragic figure was.
"When I read your column and the paragraph about Robert Butt I thought that sort of incident surely couldn't have been too common. A quick Google search revealed that Robert did serve in the 56th Battalion at the same time as Stan and was also from Yass so I think I can confidently say I now have a name to the photo."
Sainsbury is no longer aware of the whereabouts of his family's photo of Robert Butt, but with the assistance of the good folk at Yass and District Historical Society we have dug up a photo of Butt resplendent in his military uniform. Perhaps if the informative 'Canberra Tracks' sign atop Gossan Hill is updated in the future, this photo could be added to put a face to the poor soldier settler who, as Sainsbury reflects, "survived the horrors of the Western Front only to meet his end in such a bizarre accident".
Meanwhile, several well-informed readers, including Ken McQueen and Will Osborne, two adjunct professors at the Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra have ongoing concerns regarding the 'growing' cairns atop Gossan Hill.
"Gossan Hill, as well as being an ACT Nature Reserve, is one of a small number of registered Geological Monuments in the ACT and an Aboriginal Heritage site," reports Ken McQueen, adding, "it is an important educational facility for students from ACT Schools and Colleges, as well as the University of Canberra."
McQueen explains that "shifting rocks to build cairns on the site is removing the habitat of critters, potentially disturbing features of aboriginal heritage significance and disturbing the natural surface distribution of rocks important for interpreting the underlying geology and landscape evolution of the area".
McQueen further explains "this disturbance has implications for the use of the site for educational purposes and can be considered as geological vandalism," adding "cairn building should be strongly and actively discouraged."
Osborne shares McQueen's concerns about the ecological balance of Gossan Hill. "For many years our students studied the density of scorpions under the stones and during those classes we encountered a great many lizards, some frogs (spotted grass frogs and smooth toadlets mainly) and many invertebrates under the stones on the hill. These surface stones and outcroppings are incredibly important for wildlife and the removing and piling up of stones results in the direct loss of home-sites for a great many animals."
So just how many stones have been removed to make the two cairns? McQueen reports that following a recent field trip to Gossan Hill, members of the ACT Branch of the Geological Society of Australia estimated that "depending on whether you calculate the volume as a hemispherical dome or an oblate dome, the larger cairn contains between 11,000 and 12,000 rocks and weighs about 71 tonnes". Using similar calculations, the smaller cairn between 1200 and 1485 rocks weighs about 8.7 tonnes.
"This means the estimated total number of rocks is around 13,000," explains McQueen, who laments, "if just a third of these rocks were originally home to critters, this would represent 4330 critters homes lost."
While several readers have pointed the finger at local school kids, McQueen believes "the cairns are too well-stacked to have been completely built by kids and is quite possibly the work of a veteran cairn-builder," adding "those involved are probably unaware of the damage that they are doing and need to be alerted before more damage is done."
While recently on a walk to Corang Cascades in Morton National Park, prolific geocacher Thomas 'tankengine' Schulze stumbled upon this termite mound, which he promptly photographed and cleverly captioned "was doing fine until I hit a tree".
The walk to the cascades is one this column is yet to step out along, but according to Schulze, "it's fantastic, about 9km (each way) on a marked track starting from the Wog Wog camping area."
You can probably guess where a certain akubra-clad columnist is probably camping this Easter.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Last week: Congratulations to first-time winner George Burke of Bonner, who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo (inset), as the entrance to the Bundanoon Bowling Club off Erith Street. It proved to be a tough one with the majority of entrants thinking the BBC on the sign stood for either the Belconnen or Bowral Bowling Club. The Scottish clue referred to 'Brigadoon: Bundanoon's Highland Gathering' – the town's annual event which centres on the oval adjacent to the bowling club.
Billed by organisers as the "premier Scottish gathering in Australia", this year Bundanoon's big bash is on Saturday 7 April. If you've never been before, be prepared for an entertainment extravaganza featuring pipe bands, games, stalls, dancing and the much anticipated 'Manhood Stones' competition. The history of this challenge dates back over thousand years ago when in the Scotland Highlands, a boy was considered to have reached manhood when he could lift two stone in weight from the bare ground onto the top of a stone dyke or fence. At Bundanoon, a set of five round stones ranging in weight from 90 kilograms through to 165 kilograms will be laid out with each competitor having to lift all five stones on top of a wooden barrel. More: www.brigadoon.org.au See you there.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday March 31, 2018 will win a double pass to Dendy.