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Bush skills

I have been privileged to work with, and to observe a lot of highly skilled bushmen in my time. Men who could shear a sheep, put up a post-and-rail fence, drive a bulldozer as if it was a sports car, build timber bridges capable of carrying locomotives, and hew railway sleepers by hand with a broad axe. I also knew the Australian working man when he was not just a worker, but was also an athlete. He had broad shoulders and arms like tree trunks, he was narrow-hipped and was capable of swinging an axe or a pick all day long.

Sleeper cutters with splitting mawl and broadaxe

The working men (and now also women) of today, by comparison, tend to be mechanics and machine operators, spending their day in air-conditioned cabs, hardly working up a sweat and worried about their weight.

Bush skills in my day were not confined to workmen. When I first began work as a forester in the wandoo country out in the Helena catchment east of Mundaring Weir in the early 1960s, there was a group of bushmen there to whom we looked frequently for guidance with our forest regeneration work. These were the beekeepers. In those days, before foresters had cracked the code of the flowering cycles of the various tree species (which were all different) we relied upon beekeepers to advise us which trees at any time were flowering, setting buds, had ripe seed, or were dormant. This was important to know, because when we went out to do a regeneration burn in the areas where the mills had been cutting timber, we wanted to be confident that there would be ripe seed in the tree crowns at the time of the burn. Beekeepers had no silvicultural training, but they fell into that category of bushmen who kept their eyes open in the bush, who knew what was going on and who had a collective wisdom which had never been recorded in books or set out in forestry prescriptions, but which had been passed on from father to son over generations.

Jim Muir once told me a good story about the practical wisdom of the beekeepers. Jim was a scion of the pioneering Muir families who had farms way out east of Manjimup. He had taken cattle to the coast, managed stock and crops all his life, fought and lit more bushfires than the rest of us had enjoyed hot breakfasts, and knew the southern forests like the back of his hand. When the great fires of 1937 struck, Jim told me, there had been a beekeeper operating in the karri country down near where the Deeside Road cut across the Southwest Highway. The beekeeper smelled smoke and sensed trouble, and before the big fires swept down from the north, he had collected all his bees and trucked them to safety. Unfortunately he had to leave behind a considerable stack of 4-gallon drums filled to the brim with precious honey. As expected, the great fire hit the area with ferocious intensity, and the stash of honey drums took the full brunt of it. The heat was so fierce, that it melted the solder on the joints of the drums, and the honey ran out, and flowed down the side of the road where they had been stacked, and into the table drains on either side.

There was a view amongst many local farmers and foresters that this was a calamity from which the man might never recover, but the old bushman just smiled quietly. He subsequently recovered 100% of the spilled honey. “How did he do it?” I asked.

“He brought back his bees,” said Jim.

I was chatting with some old forestry colleagues recently about stories like this, stories redolent with the memory of men of the bush and their wisdom and skills. Reminiscences began to be exchanged, and the topic of the best exhibition of bushmanship any of us had ever seen came up. This prompted me to remember a classic tale of tree felling from a past era. I hadn’t been there to witness the event myself, but the story had been so well told to me, it was as if I had.

It happened this way. In December 1959 I was undergoing training as a fire lookoutman on Carlotta Tower, a few miles south-east of the little Western Australian forestry and timber town of Nannup.

Carlotta Fire Tower (photo courtesy of WA Parks and Wildlife Service)

The towerman was a retired farmer, Les McClements. Les had been one of the original settlers on the Nannup blocks in the 1920s and had survived everything life could throw at a man. In his mature years he had taken a seasonal job with the Forests Department as a fire lookoutman, and was highly regarded. He was steady, reliable and uncomplaining, and he knew the land around Nannup for miles in every direction. When Les spotted a smoke, he could tell you where the fire was with amazing exactitude, usually without the need for a cross-bearing from another tower.

Another thing about Les, like many an old-time farmer, and like most fire lookoutmen I ever met, was that he loved to yarn. But he was mostly starved of people to yarn to, fire watching being a very solitary job. Having a young forestry student as a captive audience in the tiny cabin of the Carlotta fire tower was like manna from heaven for Les, and I was better than most, because I loved his stories and encouraged him to keep them coming.

Back in the early days on the farm (said Les one day, taking a sip from the large bottle of cold tea he took up the tower with him each morning), I once had a serious worry over a big jarrah tree, which overtopped the dairy where I milked each morning and night. For some reason, the tree had been left when the block was ringbarked, and then the dairy had been put up by some useless bloody contractor employed by the Group Settlement Board, and they bunged it right under the tree. I used to look at this jarrah each morning and each night, and the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to me that one day it was going to fall right across the dairy at a time when I was inside milking. It got so I couldn’t relax, and this made the cows anxious as well, and affected the cream yield.

Down the road on another block, I had a mate, name of Will. Will had been a faller for Deanmill before he decided to go farming and took up a Group Settlement block. He was considered an expert at the falling game and still had all his gear. Although getting on in years, he would occasionally do a special tree felling job for the Roads Board or to help out the forestry at a fire. So, I got onto him and asked him to come round one morning with his gear and see if he could do anything about this jarrah tree.

Will turned up one Saturday morning, about 8.30. He had his axe, a crosscut saw with spring, and a sugar bag with hammer and wedges. He prowled around the tree for about ten minutes, studying it from every angle. He plumbed it with his axe, and he checked the wind direction with a moistened finger, and he walked one way and then the other, studying the way the weight of the branches was distributed relative to the wind, the slope of the ground, the angle of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon and the curvature of the earth.

“She’ll be jake,” said Will at last. “What I need to do, is cut the scarf in about here, but only to here,” he indicated with a sweep of his hand where the scarf must go. “Then I’ll hold wood on this side, start the back cut in here with the saw, and then wedge it, here and here” Again he gestured confidently. She’ll lift on the wedges, pull hard on the wood that’s held, twist on the stump and fall over there” – again he made a sweeping gesture, this time indicating the eventual lie of the tree, well to one side of the dairy and the cow yards.

I gave him the OK. Will got out his whetstone and worked for a few minutes honing the edge of his axe. Then he started in. It was wonderful to see how he did it. He was a true bush craftsman of the old school. The scarf went in just to a certain point, with wood held just as he had said it needed to be, on the right-hand side. Then he rigged up his crosscut saw and spring, and sawed in across the back, just so, stopping every now and again to check that he had it just right. Eventually he withdrew the saw. Then he went and selected two big steel wedges from his sugar bag. He placed the wedges carefully in just the right spots of the saw-cut, one here, and one here. Then swinging his ten-pound hammer alternatively at one wedge and then the other, he drove them in.

After about an hour’s work all told, the tree began to “talk”. Then there was a great crack, and the whole thing lifted and slowly toppled.

At this point in his story, Les paused and took another swig from his bottle of tea. “Fell fair across the fucking dairy” he said.

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