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"A Living History"
John La Gerche
La Gerche was born in 1845 on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. He grew up on the family farm and excelled at school. At the age of 20, he emigrated to Victoria, and, six years later, was running a small sawmill in the Bullarook Forest.
In 1871, he married Elizabeth Nora Bendixon, also from Jersey. Almost nothing is known about his private life, but his granddaughter, Eugenie Johnston, describes him as a very cultured man who loved to read Shakespeare with his wife and six children in the evenings.
Powerful neighbouring timber mills forced La Gerche out of business in the early years of his marriage, and he became a public servant. In 1882, he was appointed crown lands bailiff and forester to "supervise the Ballarat & Creswick State Forest and to take legal proceedings under the 1869 Land Act against all persons found cutting or removing timber in the forest".
The job not only involved the prevention of illegal timber cutting, but growing useful trees for commercial use and reforesting denuded areas. It was a daunting task at a time when trees were regarded as a resource to be exploited and forestry, as a science, scarcely existed.
The fair-minded forester resisted pressure from his superiors in Melbourne to clear the Chinese, in particular, out of the forest. They were old men, he objected, mostly fossickers and vegetable growers, and "likely to die off soon".
La Gerche had far more trouble from illegal wood cutters and wattle bark strippers (selling to local tanneries). They were his "natural enemies", responsible for a "great slaughter of saplings", he wrote.
He would often sleep in the forest at night to prevent the theft of young trees. His diligence, especially in the early years, was not always supported by distant officialdom and often made him unpopular locally.
In 1883, La Gerche embarked on the immense task of restocking the forest. Over the years, he experimented with a range of eucalypts, pines and introduced species. La Gerche planted each tree by hand.
A walk in Creswick is made more enchanting by a little knowledge of the man who shaped the forest it meanders through.