Sunday, 8 July 2012

My father's fungi

Tarra Valley Archway by Jason Green

When I was a young boy, our family stayed in Tarra Valley in Gippsland.

Tarra (rhymes with 'Yarra' - it is not pronounced like Scarlet O'Hara's home) Valley is a remnant of the magnificent forests which once covered the Strzlecki Ranges. It was a wonderful experience for four brothers - roaming freely through this rain-soaked wonderland of old growth forest, with tree ferns taller than a two storey house, massive trees, fallen logs fermenting back into the oozing soil, lyre birds and leeches in abundance, and many places to become lost.

We stayed with Karamoana Healey (to us, always 'Mrs Healey' - she was part Maori, and her first name has that origin) in her house in the forest. It was on land now part of the national park, but then adjacent to it. Mrs Healey was ranger (called 'caretaker' at that time) of Tarra Valley National Park (as it was then called - now Tarra-Bulga National Park). She had no electricity, and the walls were lined with newspapers. I slept in a room made by closing in one end of the verandah - a room which boasted the exotic extravagance of a harmonium. Her extended family often visited, and we enjoyed meeting them. Mrs Healey was a woman with immense energy, and she loved Tarra Valley and knew what all its lyrebirds, animals and insects were up to.

In 1990, 30 years since we had stayed there, Sally and I went back with my parents. We looked for the old house. It had been in a large clearing, and we knew where it should be, but couldn't seem to locate it. Finally we noticed a shelf half way up the side of a road cutting - perhaps that was the remains of her drive after the road was widened? We climbed up, and walked through the bush. My father walked ahead, and called out. He had found hydrangeas, and knew we were in Mrs Healey's garden. Soon, to our great excitement, there was the house itself.  Rain was getting in and the veranda had already collapsed. It wasn't going to stay upright for much longer. I looked at a rusty hurricane lamp on a post outside, and tore a small strip of the 1930s newspaper from the wall to keep as a memento. It was the classified section, and houses were selling in Canning Street Carlton (where Sally and I then lived) for 150 pounds.

How had we come to this enchanted place to holiday in the first place?

My father, Neville Walters, worked for the CSIRO's Division of Forest Products in South Melbourne. His office looked out on the underside of the King Street Bridge - and if he were there today he'd find, instead of his quiet laboratory, the echoing cacophony of Crown Casino.

Dad was a mycologist - he studied fungi. He spent decades building what is now Australia's major collection of fungi, named after him, and which is housed today in the National Herbarium of Victoria adjacent to Melbourne's Botanic Gardens.

This short clip from Gardening Australia (you have to go down the page and choose the item 'The Fungi Collector' to view it) describes the collection he built up.

Dad had collectors all round Australia sending him fungi.

Several of them came to visit us, including Jim Willis, H J Cann and the one who gave him more specimens than anyone else - Mrs Healey. After a long correspondence with my father, and after visits from him for field trips from time to time, she invited us all to come and stay.

My father was English, but the turmoil of the war tossed him up on the shores of Australia, where he met my mother. He loved the Australian bush, and knew a good deal about it - more than most who have grown up here. He studied botany at Melbourne University post war, and soon specialised in his beloved fungi.

Whilst a childhood highlight for us was going for family outings to magical bush places, we struggled to take in the Latin names for the various plants - and especially fungi - which Dad would carefully recite for us.

Meanwhile his collection of fungi was building, and today stands as an important baseline for the fungi of Australia as we confront the challenge of climate change. It is a significant legacy, but perhaps more is the legacy of family and friends with an intense appreciation of the forests and bush he loved.

1 comment:

  1. My brother John recalls:

    One of my strongest memories at Tarra Valley was going into the forest with Mrs Healey and all of us to find a white spec the size of a grain of rice sitting on the red soil. This spec was the tip of a stalk that, when excavated down about a foot below the surface, revealed a caterpillar shaped body at the base of the stalk. I think it was a caterpillar that a fungus had infiltrated. We took the specimen home carefully wrapped in newspaper, as it was an uncommon fungal specimen for Dad.