(CNN) – James Wood is looking for a tree.
He is surrounded by trees on the ground track – gnarled mirtobeech, slender snow gum – but he is looking for a particular tree.
There is little time. Clouds of steel tear the doleritic peaks of Tasmanian St Clair Mountain-Lake Cradle Mountain National Park, presumed of rain, but there is another reason for the hurry.
A pencil pine tree can live a thousand years but the ancient tree bears its seed cones only sporadically. This rare event – known as “masting” – was last held in 2015. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it has happened again.
It won’t last long – “If you’re not there at the right time you miss him,” Wood complains – and nobody knows when it will happen next.
Therefore, it is on a mission to collect and conserve genetically different seeds from the endemic conifers most at risk due to climate change in the Tasmania World Heritage region.
Wood is not a survival expert. He is a botanist from London’s Kew Gardens, who now works in the seed bank of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens in Hobart. He has never been on the ground track.
The botanist James Wood is on a mission to collect rare pencil pine seeds.
Courtesy Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
Its navigator is Justin Dyer, an expert guide of the Tasmanian Walking Company, a local operator of “luxury” guided excursions along the best trails in Tasmania.
Overland Track is one of the main alpine walks in Australia. It is a serious undertaking for hikers with a good level of fitness who understand the risks of remote alpine areas where conditions can change rapidly.
The deaths occurred, even in the summer months, when people were poorly prepared for the brutal weather.
It takes two days for Wood and Dyer to reach where they want near Pelion Plains. There is a primordial specimen modeled a bit like Marge Simpson’s hairstyle with green-like leaves and tightly crossed cones in the highest branches. The woody capsules are ripe and ready to release seeds.
“If there is a real fire, the iconic pencil pine will probably be one of those lost – along with King Billy’s pine – so there is a basic need to act now if we want to keep these plants in our landscape,” he says. Wood,
The coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly granted Wood and Dyer one of life’s superlative gifts.
Between October and May, the Overland Track usually attracts intrepid recreationists from around the world, with up to 60 hikers per day embarking on the 65-day six-day trek from Cradle Mountain to Mt Ossa (the highest peak in Tasmania) ending at St Clair Lake (Australia’s deepest natural lake).
But, for now, the scientist and the man outdoors have everything for themselves. When Covid-19 forced the closure of all national parks, they discovered what it meant to have complete solitude on one of Australia’s most exhilarating mountain walks.
“It was oddly silent out there,” says Wood on his return to civilization at the end of a five-day odyssey in a landscape carved with glacial valleys, ancient forests, heaths and meadows. “One day we came across a platypus that sneaked into a small pond next to the track, totally unaware of humans. It was very sweet.”
Another day, through sheets of torrential rain, the couple entered a dense Pandani field.
“It’s a crazy plant,” admits Wood. “A type of heather that most closely resembles an oddly tropical and grassy type of palm with one head of long leaves. It is particularly out of place in this cold environment.
The Tasmanian World Heritage Area is full of unique alpine vegetation.
“As we climbed Mount Oakleigh, we had to squeeze a belt of them. It was really misty and they were in shrouds like big wipers in a car wash station. I looked back at this beautiful dark silhouette on the horizon. It was a single pandan with his leaves arching down on the earth against the gray / purple sky. It was simply wonderful. We were the only witnesses of that moment in time. “
Discoveries of new species
The last night in the Tasmanian Company’s Pelion Hut private cabin was a kind of relief for Wood. He had been threatened with a knee injury (after climbing the steep track on the first day) but the cabin was warm and Dyer was a craftsman with lamb ragù. The guide had this sourdough appetizer from home to make bread and there was a good red wine shop.
Insulation in nature is not entirely unrelated to wood.
“From time to time I worked on Christmas day at Wakehurst Gardens in the UK,” he recalls. “I would have the whole property for myself and it would be strangely silent. Not another soul alive all day.”
When the English seed collector moved to Tasmania in 2005 – having been interested in botany since his teens – he was still amazed at the differences in the landscape.
“I had worked in Mexico and Africa, but then I went out to Australia for the first time, and it felt like I was getting off the plane on a completely different planet. Nothing seems familiar.”
He struggled to get his head around things and decided, if the opportunity to work in Australia ever came, he would take it. The floral diversity of Tasmania is much lower than on land, but new species are still identified each year.
Rain falls on the Overland Track seed collectors.
Royal Botanical Gardens of Tasmania
“You know,” Wood enthusiastic, “I’ve been out for investigations this season and I’ve discovered a plant that was known only from another collection that was made 30 years ago and we don’t even know what it is. Such discoveries are quite rare in Europe, but they are much more common here. The opportunities to learn new things are huge for someone with my interests. It is immensely rewarding and very exciting to be in this type of environment. “
An insurance policy for the future
With the change of Tasmania’s habitat, many alpine species can become extinct and this will constitute a harrowing loss for humanity.
“Some populations have already been lost to fire and may not be able to restore naturally due to fragmented distributions or poor dispersal capacity,” says Wood. “The growing aridity and likelihood of fire in these areas is very worrying.”
Most pencil pine holders are clonal, i.e. by an individual. This means that seed collectors must capture genetic variations over a large area to ensure biological diversity.
The two men who met as strangers separated as friends, after covering 300 hectares of earth, collecting two handfuls of cones from 46 groups of trees, filling a cloth bag with what, in the end, amounted to 8000 seeds vital.
Pine seed pencil.
Royal Botanical Gardens of Tasmania
“It’s not a mediocre range as an insurance policy for the future,” concludes Wood.
The collection will be kept in the Tasmanian Seed Conservation Center and in the Millennium Seed Bank (United Kingdom). Eventually, one day, the seeds can be reintroduced into the landscape for gain.
“It would be nice if we could leave those who follow us with more than just a taste of what the world was like at the beginning,” says Wood.
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