Johanna Keskitalo profiles Aidan Kempster, a bearded bush lover, writer and scientist who crusades for the forest from the seat of his mountain bike. She asks, ‘Why, in 2019, are native forests still being logged?’
What is nature worth? In a world of five second sound bites, the value of nature can be lost amidst competing human interests.
Aidan gazes over the sooty trees. His face is grave.
‘They’re planning on cutting this down,’ he says.
The lazy Saturday sun peeks through the trees near Mirboo North, 155km east of Melbourne. The smell of eucalyptus is tangy. Aidan hops off his bike to walk up the hill with the rest of the group who’ve already given up.
‘So, the trick is really to just keep pedaling to make it hard on your cardio but not on your legs,’ he advises a fellow rider. He’s an experienced cyclist who spent a year travelling on his bike around Australia.
His hand reaches back for a bag of gummy snakes that he then passes one to us.
‘Also, gotta keep the sugar up.’
Our group consists of four including Aidan, the trip organiser.
The terrain puts up a tough fight. Heavy panting breaks the otherwise quiet struggle as we push our way up.
Finally, the incline is tolerable again. And off we go.
Meeting Aidan Kempster
Two days before the trip, Aidan Kempster, 28, and I met at E55 on Elizabeth Street, in Melbourne. A loose knitted beanie on his red hair completed his thoughtfully weathered outfit. He’s a born and bred Melburnian. Despite a degree in chemistry he’s chosen to work as a freelance writer. It enables him to spend as much time in the forest as he wants.
This Saturday we’ve come to ride a 31-kilometer route in the forests of Mirboo North. The bike adventure is one of the monthly Riding for the Great Forest trips Aidan organises.
The global environmental crisis has left many environmentalists feeling powerless. Aidan isn’t one of them. He wants to raise awareness for the local nature and to support the campaign for The Great Forest National Park, which aims to turn a forest area in the Central Highlands into a national park.
Pondering what he’d achieved so far, he tilted his head backwards. ‘I don’t know,’ he said and suddenly stared me dead in the eye. His eyebrows added a sense of sadness to his kind eyes.
‘No forest has been saved directly because of his trips, he reckoned. But what he has done is introduce hundreds of people to the forests. Whether or not that’s changed anything was still uncertain. ‘But I’ve had a lot of fun,’ he said with a hint of unexpected glee in his voice.
But thinking about the future left him torn. After a moment of deliberation, he admitted to being pessimistic. ‘I understand the reality of climate change,’ he said.
Water-Giving Forests Are Being Logged
Two-thirds of Victoria’s native forests have been cleared in the past two hundred years. The industry plays a significant role in the damage the environment confronts today.
‘No wala, no nobody’
According to Professor Lindenmayer from the National University of Australia, the forest generates nearly all of Melbourne’s drinking water and logging near water catchments poses a threat to the city’s water supply in the form of intense fires. The industry is making a loss and a study published in mid-2000 on the Thompson Catchment maintained that the value of the water yield was greater than that of timber.
Someone deeply concerned about water is Damien Saunders Kindred — a Yorta Yorta, DjaWurrung and Kamiloroi man in his early 40’s who works as an Aboriginal heritage officer. He’s from Echuca in Victoria. ‘No wala, no nobody,’ he writes using his native word ‘wala’ for water. He told me about the two life elements: time and water.
‘Time’s been controlled ever since the clock was invented,’ he says. ‘They control everybody’s time instead of sensing and feeling it.’
And now the government has control over water, he says. Many landscapes suffer from drought. ‘And when the land is sick, our spirit automatically gets sick.’
So, Why Is Logging Still Allowed?
That same question bewildered Lisa De Kleyn, a social sciences PhD student and professor at RMIT. ‘It comes down to what nature represents to different people.’
There are a lot of stakeholders when it comes to the forest’s future. To some locals, the value is tradition in the industry. To others, the presence of bushland is what drove them to these areas. To the city residents, forests hold moral value and provide spiritual nourishment. To the government, it’s economical. To the First Nations, and Aidan, the forest’s value is immeasurable. They don’t see nature as an object, separate from us. As Damien says, ‘We are a part of it.’
‘If we made decisions about the forest sitting in the forest, what decisions would we make?’
The threat to our drinking water isn’t a cause for alarm for many Melburnians who are disconnected from nature. They remain oblivious to the water’s origin and how it made its way to our taps, Lindenmayer maintains.
Lack of awareness leads many Melburnians to think the forests are far away. Distance keeps many city-dwellers from even crossing the Yarra river or going to St Kilda.
It’s an urban mentality. But ‘If we made decisions about the forest sitting in the forest, what decisions would we make?’ Lisa asks.
We need to come to an understanding about the interconnectedness of humans and nature. And to see eye to eye about nature, we ought to see nature.
Riding For The Great Forest
We take off for our final squeeze back to Mirboo North. The pedals feel harder and harder to push against. The last straight stretch of incline is never-ending.
Yet, I’m surprised by how fun and easy the ride has been so far.
‘I’m not trying to kill anyone,’ Aidan quips as he rides beside me.
‘The politics and all can sometimes seem daunting. In the end, you gotta remember what’s important. I just wanna be able to have fun and enjoy the forests.’
The soft light of the setting sun flickers on us through the bushes. The gentle wind blows through our hair. Aidan speeds up to ride in front of me. And with his arms spread wide like a bird, he cruises on into the forest.
Forests are closer to Melbourne than you think