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The valley that came to life

Tommy Garnett, our finest garden writer and creator of The Garden of St Erth, describes the rebirth of a Canadian wilderness

Prophecies by conservationists
One of the difficulties which always faces conservationists in establishing their point of view, is that they must constantly run the risk of seeming to cry, ‘Wolf, wolf’; of suffering the fate of Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, to whom the god Apollo gave the gift of foreseeing the future. But when she rejected his advances he added the cruel twist that, although her prophecies would all prove correct, no one would believe any of them. (I am not sure who plays the role of Apollo in modern society.) 
I am not claiming that all prophecies made by conservationists are correct. Some of them do immense damage to their cause by immodesty. Someone who admits to inadequate knowledge but tries to make the best possible use of what there is, is apt to be much more convincing than someone who relies solely on emotional vehemence to make a case.

In Australia, one can point to mistakes made and their effects: the rising salt of the northern and western plains from which too many trees have been cut, or the destruction of the fragile topsoil of the Centre by the cloven feet of grazing beasts. One can also point to the results of mistakes avoided: the lack of die-back in some parts of the New England tableland where sufficient timber has been left to support a balanced population of birds, insects, plants and fungi, for example.
But it is difficult to point to an example of a full cycle –abundance followed by destruction, destruction by devastation, devastation by restoration, restoration by abundance. The story that follows comes from Canada, where some mistakes are immediately obvious. You can fly over areas of forest where there has been clear-felling and see lakes stained brown from eroded silt.
On the Barrier Reef, I gather, only recently has it been possible to demonstrate the effect of fertilisers carried from sugar plantations into the sea. In the Australian Alps, there are few lakes to carry incriminating stains.
Perhaps, too, our skin of fertility is thinner and restoration more difficult than in Canada.

Certainly, from my own observation, on the sand-mining areas of Fraser Island, although eucalypts and wattles might return, there is little sign of the ground storey growing again.

So … a young man, not content passively to inherit a boot-manufacturing business from his father, found himself in western Canada 60 years ago. He took such odd jobs as he was offered, moving always out into the wilderness. There, in a small settlement he met a girl and her Indian grandmother, La-la.
The girl he married, and the grandmother, told tales of her people who had lived off the land and trapped the then far more abundant animals.
After La-la’s death, the Collier couple, now with an infant son, took up land and the right to trap, 50 kilometres from the nearest settlement. They travelled, with their few possessions, by horse and wagon and built their new home. They found that there were few animals left.
The deer and the moose, and the bears and coyotes which preyed upon the deer, had moved away because the valleys were choked with coarse vegetation. The lakes which had existed in grandma’s time were no longer there; they were silted up.
When there was a fire, there was no water to stop its progress, only additional fuel.
The cause of the decline was that the beavers had improvidently been killed and were now extinct. Beavers live in lodges, which they build of logs and vegetation, with entrances below water.
For their purpose, water of some depth is needed; and to obtain depth, they build dams by felling streamside trees. No beavers, no ponds; no ponds, only rank, unproductive vegetation; and floods from the spring snow-melt is long gone before fires arrive in the hot summer.
Eric Collier, his wife and son, reversed the process. First, by sheer hard work, they repaired the old beaver dams so that the ponds began to reappear. An imaginative game warden saw what was needed and persuaded the powers-that-be to allow him (somewhat reluctantly; bureaucracy is apt to say ‘no’ first) to transfer two pairs of beavers from a reserve to the Colliers’ valley.
That was in 1941. There was an anxious waiting period to see whether the beavers would ‘take’. Nine years later, they had spread widely through the river catchment area. The previous year, they had proven their worth, because they averted a disastrous flood. On Meldrum Creek, the beavers simply increased the height of their dams to hold back the floods. They were much more efficient at making repairs than humans with mechanical aids. So, gradually, the whole valley came to life again. 
Moose and deer, bears and geese, duck and fish returned; and among those who gained most benefit were the orchardists down the river, who had opposed the project at first, but forgot their opposition now that floods were in the past. The wheel had made a complete circle back to abundance for everyone.
It is ironic, of course, that among those who will most cordially applaud the final rehabilitation of the area are some who disapprove so strongly of trapping. If they had had their way, they would never have allowed the initial actions of the Colliers, which set the whole development in train.
St Erth during the gold rush

The Garden of St Erth’s main axis was the site of the Simmons Reef gold rush that started in 1854. At its peak, 13,000 Diggers settled in the town, which housed pubs, a church, a butcher and a shoe shop. The most successful and wealthiest gold miner was Matthew Rodgers who built the sandstone cottage, naming it St Erth after a town in Cornwall. The gold rush lasted for 28 years. An orchard and daffodil collection were established before the Garnetts settled in 1973 and established the garden. The Diggers Club took charge of the garden in 1996 and the Blazeys donated it to The Diggers Foundation in 2011.

More

Letters From The Country

The Japanese garden is a microcosm of the landscape

St Erth’s creator traces his gardening life

Tommy Garnett, our finest garden writer, connects to Gertrude Jekyll, Russell Page and Edwin Lutyens

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Clive Blazey

Clive is the founder of The Diggers Club, a pioneer in the rescue of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties and author of seven books on flower, vegetable and fruit gardening.

Arno King

Brisbane-based horticulturalist, garden writer and presenter Arno King grows a wide range of vegetables, spices, herbs and fruit and many reliable heritage crops and saves seeds to share with other gardeners.

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