Biyala Stories

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ONE DAY LAST August I was standing on the banks of Moonee Ponds Creek, near Racecourse Road in Flemington, in the gap between two overpasses. I was looking at several river red gums. The trees were still young, maybe twice my height, their pale green leaves a delicate spider web filtering the sky. They were both scrappy and beautiful. I was standing in this muddy place with a friend, a photographer, who told me they had germinated without human intervention, from seeds washed down from further up the creek. That despite the fact the river red gum have the broadest natural distribution of any eucalypt it was now rare for these self-seeded trees to mature as these gums had. Once common across the open woodlands of the land we call Melbourne, they struggle for space in the urban environment. River red gums like creeks, wetlands and rivers – as do freeways, an engineering preference that has lead to the concreting of waterways, creeks being driven underground and the re-routing of rivers. ‘As time has passed [tributaries have been] progressively buried deeper underground to create a stable, dry surface… In searching for “firm ground” (literally and figuratively) we deny the essential instability of our occupation of this land.’[i]

I saw these gums on a series of walks around Melbourne. It was over the months I did these walks that I came to realise that most of Melbourne’s significant older trees – the one’s that pre-dated white settlement – were river red gums, or Eucalyptus camaldulensis (subspecies camaldulensis). The trees referred to as veterans were anything from four hundred to eight hundred years old. Some were dead but had been preserved and left standing as memorials: the two Fairie Trees in Fitzroy Gardens, the Separation Tree in the Botanical Gardens, the Corroboree Tree at Burnley Oval. There is a ring, or fused tree, on the Bundoora campus of Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. It lies on the ground now, but is still quite magnificent: a large, weathered hoop where its limbs were tied together by the Wurundjeri at least a couple of hundred years ago.

Death is a mutable thing in trees. For a start, most of a tree’s trunk is dead cells. The life is in the thin sliver of the living tissue on the outside of a tree. This is why ring barking is so fatal. That said, even ‘dead’ heartwood conducts water, provides structural support and contains ‘bud strands’, the living tissue of plant stem cells. In eucalypts, these bud strands can extend from the very centre of the heartwood, through the sapwood, to just below the bark. The final stage of life, the point when the rate of cell division lags behind the rate of cell death is known as senescence. River red gums can remain in a state of senescence for more than a hundred years, and what you might call a more active dying process can take about fifty years.

Once dead, the skeletons of massive red gums continue to serve an ecological purpose. Many veteran gums are known as ‘habitat trees’, so called because they provide habitat or nutrients for dozens of mammals and birds and hundreds, if not thousands, of insect species in the hollows created by fungus and fires, by dropped limbs. That work continues long after the tree has ‘died’.

IN ST KILDA Junction there is a living veteran, twenty-metre-high river red gum known as the Ngargee Tree. When Queens Road was upgraded from a track to a road in 1875, it was diverted around the tree. The finest stand of river red gums I know of in Melbourne can be found on the Bundoora Campus of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. There you’ll find more than a dozen veterans estimated to be eight hundred years old, including three canoe trees and the six Keelbundoora Scarred Trees.

Scarred trees are trees that have had bark cut out of them to make anything from a large canoe to a shelter, shield or coolamon (carrying vessel). Keelbundoora was a Wurundjeri clan ancestor who was present at the signing of the Batman Treaty in 1835 (the treaty that purported to ‘buy’ Melbourne for some knives, shirts and food). Better-known scarred trees exist in Treasury Gardens and Yarra Park. Of the two at Yarra Park, one was recently presumed to be dead and therefore cut back – but, in a not atypical red gum manoeuvre, it started to sprout from the base of its trunk and now has the growth patterns of a young tree despite being several hundred years old.

The second scarred tree has been standing there for anything up to eight hundred years and has significant presence, polished by the elements to a high, silvery-grey sheen. Up close the bark is rough as an elephant’s hide, and the line of the scar has curled to form a lip. The tree kept growing after bark was removed, so the wood underneath is stretched taut and smooth. Archaeologist Dr Gary Presland has argued this particular scar is more likely to be the result of a fire crack than the removal of bark using stone axes.[ii] Whether scarred by fire or hatchet, a special connection exists between trees such as this and contemporary Wurundjeri people, a connection that ‘underpins the high significance of these places. Once they are destroyed, the connection is largely destroyed.’[iii]

Argus journalist Howard Willoughby wrote, as early as the 1880s, that ‘in the Yarra Park an inscription on a green tree calls attention to the fact that a bark canoe has been taken from the trunk. The canoe shape being evident in the stripped portion, and the marks of the stone hatchet being still visible on the stem. The blacks would find their way to the river impeded now by a treble-track railway that runs close to their old camp…’[iv]

Over in the Royal Botanical Gardens, there are two river red gums designated as significant by the National Trust. The more famous of them, the 400-year-old Separation Tree, stands on the site where citizens of Melbourne gathered on 15 November 1851 to celebrate the news that Victoria was to become a separate colony from New South Wales. The original Separation Tree was damaged in two separate ring-barking attacks, in 2010 and 2013. After the first attack, bridge grafting succeeded but the second attack undid that good work. By 2015 it was clear the tree was dying so its canopy was slowly reduced. Vandals have attacked other veteran red gums as well. Development isolates these older trees, making them vulnerable. At the same time, the rarer the veterans become the more we value them. As well as being removed in large numbers as Melbourne expanded, river red gums were commercially harvested from around 1863 and it’s hard to know how many were lost (though scientists have developed various estimates). Perhaps consider this: the wood of the river red gum is dense and used for railway sleepers, and between the 1860s and 1930s the railway networks of Victoria and New South Wales expanded rapidly. About six hundred sleepers are used for a kilometre of track. Between 1864 and 1891 the network grew from 410 kilometres to 7,650 kilometres.[v] And that is just one use the tree was put to.

IT WAS WHEN I went to visit the Separation Tree that my relationship to the river red gum shifted from one of appreciation to a deeper curiosity. I noticed a second gum close by, one I hadn’t read about. Like the Ngargee Tree, this second tree stood about twenty metres high, perhaps higher. I stopped in front of it and looked up into its thinning crown, its feathery pale-green leaves sitting like lacework against a bright blue sky. Down lower it was lumpy and covered in burls. The river red gum stood by the Ornamental Lake, once a swamp connected to the systems of wetlands around the Yarra River. When it germinated some centuries ago it would have been closer to the banks of the wandering river than it is today and would have stood by while the Anderson Street (now Morell) Bridge was built over dry land in anticipation of the Yarra River being rerouted. The tree would have felt, deep down in its roots, that the river was changing course, becoming shorter, straighter.

It is hard to convey the intensity this particular tree emanates without sounding slightly crazy: it stands like a sentinel, or an ancient god, looking across the land. The publication of The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins back in 1973, which suggested that plants communicate with each other, was met with mockery. The author of the more recent The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, argues something similar though he is more careful with his language. Of course there is an enormous leap between suggesting trees within a forest communicate with each other, and that they, like Tolkien’s Ents, communicate with other species. What I know is this: as I stood by the Ornamental Lake I found myself thinking that to understand Melbourne, its history, our environment, I need to know this tree.

Another way of putting this is that the tree came into focus. I saw something in it that was clear to both our First Peoples and some colonisers: these trees have practical uses at the same time as having a particular quality that I’m going to describe as spiritual until a better, perhaps more accurate, word strikes me. Historian and author James Boyce saw this also. ‘It is surely something of a miracle that such stupendous living connections with the Yarra world of 1835 have survived. There are two especially beautiful specimens in the Botanic Gardens around the lower lagoon, once part of the reserve in which the Kulin took early refuge before being expelled into less valuable swamps… I return to them often in my imagination because their roots, endurance, graceful hospitality, silent majesty and very survival seem to testify that…there is some force greater than us.’[vi]

Baron Frederick von Mueller, first head of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, became an eminent eucalyptus specialist, which leads me to believe that he too was struck by this tree and its kin – certainly, it’s not just this particular eucalypt that projects a spiritual quality. Dr Matthew Colloff, author of a book on the history of the river red gum, spent ten years researching the ecology of the tree and its capacity for adaption. He writes, ‘this tree connects time, place, people, land and water, desert and forest. The story is the history of our continent. The river red gum is central to that story.’[vii]

River red gums are not just central to the story of this place, they inspire story. They have a powerful capacity for survival: I’ve seen photos of river red gums flat out (like a lizard drinking), or fallen trees that have regenerated from a series of epicormic shoots reaching upwards from a horizontal trunk. When river red gum limbs drop or fire splits trunks and branches, sap heals the gash to protect the tree from fungus and wound wood forms. When prolonged floodwaters threaten to drown them they can develop aerial roots. Their heartwood can burn or be eaten away, leaving what remains of their lower trunks to form cathedral-like arches around a space as large as a small room.

It is humans, of course, that may be their undoing. Having cut so many down, we are loath to replace them. Here is just one example. The University of Melbourne has four magnificent river red gums, adjacent to its sporting field. They predate the campus by several hundred years. The university, like many institutions around the world, has a heritage policy of maintaining like with like. This raises a question as to what heritage means to my city. Pre-white settlement Melbourne – and if so, which era? Or colonial Melbourne? The answer seems to be the latter. When an elm or plane tree dies, no matter how much those species have struggled with drought conditions, they are replaced with another elm or plane tree, despite the fact the elms and planes replaced river red gum (among other species).

Questions are raised by most considerations of the river red gum and those questions slip easily into narrative. During drought river red gums drop limbs suddenly, without warning, and the occasional person has died as a result of this. Who was the person who died, what was their life? How long has the drought been going that caused the tree to cast a limb? How much longer will that drought go on for? Narrative formed when bark was cut to make a canoe for a river that ran a different course to the course it runs today. Or when the tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens provided temporary refuge for the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri who’d been driven out of central Melbourne. The narrative continues when that tree becomes the focus of political ceremony and is turned into a tourist attraction, and deepens, more tragically, when that tree is murdered. Ola Cohn’s desire to carve the Fairies’ Tree in the early 1930s revealed a desire to turn the river red gum, quite literally, into a story, ‘mostly for the fairies and those who believe in them, for they will understand how necessary it is to have a fairy sanctuary – a place that is sacred and safe as a home should be to all living creatures’. Personally, I’m struck by the moment when Melbourne’s largest river gum was turned into a belfry for St Francis, Melbourne’s oldest Catholic Church, in the 1840s before being cut down in 1878 then carved into a throne for St Patrick’s Cathedral. Before its execution that tree was so big St Francis’s planned expansions were impeded and the gum was described as ‘terrorizing’ the church. Once a throne it was sat on by Archbishop Mannix, a man who wielded significant political influence for forty-six years. More recently, the controversial Cardinal Pell used it. [viii]

Peter Solness, the author of Tree Stories, talks of trees as a ‘genuine (if dormant) cultural icon, full of potential narrative’. [ix] He describes people telling him stories as he photographed trees. I have an Instagram account in which I post a daily picture of a tree, and people often email me with tree stories of their own. The trees of the City of Melbourne can now be emailed directly via the council’s Urban Forest Visual Map – all 77,000 of them (though the numbers are steadily rising) – and a surprising number of people take advantage of this opportunity. The hope was that these emails would alert the council to dying trees in a time of drought but many of the emails have tended to the poetic and declarative. [ix]

I’ve slipped here from the river red gum in particular to trees in general, but my point is that the river red gum provokes more stories than many beings, sentient or otherwise.  And we need its stories. ‘Its innate toughness and capacity for survival inspire and motivate us. In the twenty-first century we need new narratives and new images of our connection with our land and waters, as well as respecting and celebrating those we already have.’[x]

I VISITED BARMAH Lakes, in the recently formed Barmah National Park on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, in early January 2017. I wanted to see river red gums in a forest, not just as individual and ageing survivors. The Barmah-Millewa forest is a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance), and the largest red river gum forest still extant in the world (71,575 hectares). The reason the area has been saved from development over and above timber harvesting is that the regular flooding makes the land unfit for pastoral use. That said, seasonal grazing has occurred over the last century, and wild horses run there still.

As I walk to Barmah Lakes from the car park, what first catches my eye is not the vertical lines of the thousands of young red gums reaching up to the light, but the horizontal ones: striations of greys, charcoal and ochre that delineate the levels of various inundations. The homogeneity of these trees’ size, and their density, is a result of human intervention. While resilient, they can go for decades at a time failing to produce seedlings that mature. Both timber harvesting and grazing (with its consequent trampling of seedlings) have taken their toll on the tree’s populations and, to quote Colloff, ‘each phase of the forces of change has left its mark’.[xi]

After extensive timber harvesting between the 1860s to the 1880s there was a massive regeneration event, one that resulted in an established stand of trees. Germination is always relatively straightforward but seedlings reaching maturity is not, and requires a delicate balance of conditions including a cycle of floods of the right depth and length of time, and more temperate conditions. Up to 80 per cent of the seedlings can survive but as few as 2 per cent is as likely. By the 1960s, full regeneration was occurring less and less frequently. The stand that I was walking through seemed to be an example of a successful, relatively recent regeneration event, quite possibly the one that occurred in 1974.

I walked through the forest to grassy woodland and there I began to see more veterans. I was in awe as I passed a river gum with looping fused branches, suggesting it had had its limbs tied together by the Yorta Yorta. Reasons for doing this varied, but included the indication of tribal territory. I sat in the hollowed out trunk of a habitat tree and admired the smooth charcoal of its walls, the filtered light coming in through the doorways. As I got closer to the lake the veterans began to cluster in larger numbers, presumably because the variable water line made them harder to get to. High roots fanned outwards in sturdy swirls, giving way to other root systems as they hit their neighbour’s territory. The forces of (unnatural) selection meant many of these veterans were fabulously monstrous: thick, squat, misshapen, covered in burls. Loggers had preferred their straighter, neater siblings.

Once at the lake I stood by some large rushes (natives that are thriving in the changing conditions, pushing out more fragile plants) and looked across the water. My hiking boots sank slowly into the mud. Normally you’d expect it to be uncomfortably hot – it’s often more than 40 degrees here in summer – but it was only 23 degrees, and the rain was misting down upon me.

I didn’t just notice the river red gums, but also the cracked mud of receding water, rotting gum leaves, greater eastern egrets, kingfisher, heron, ibis, ducks, emus, kangaroos, wild horses, wasps and flies. I even saw (threatened) Murray cod foraging in the shallow water along the lake’s bank, and quickly learnt to look for them at the centre of the ripples of golden tannin their fins sent out. It was the first time I’d seen them surface, amphibian-like, in this manner. The effect was prehistoric. A single galah feather caught in a spider web stretched, strong as rope, between two river gums, waved gently in the corner of my vision.

A friend, the poet Robert Adamson, once spoke to me of the ‘calligraphy of the swamp’ and that seemed right. The word cacophony also came to mind when a kookaburra started up, a solitary call, before being joined by dozens of them, in a chorus that went on for several minutes.

I’d read up on the area in an attempt to understand what I would find when I got there. I’d also sought to understand the political context the Barmah forest now existed in. I knew that this was Yorta Yorta land – had been for thousands of years. In response to a native title claim submitted by the Yorta Yorta in 1995, it was determined that the ‘tide of history’ had ‘washed away’ any real acknowledgement of traditional laws or observance of traditional customs by the applicants. Watery puns abound. An appeal was made to the Federal Court on the grounds that the judge had ‘failed to give sufficient recognition to the capacity of traditional laws and customs to adapt to changed circumstances’.[xii] The native title claim was still not recognised. In May 2004, the Victorian state government signed a co-operative management agreement, which gave the Yorta Yorta a say in the management of traditional country including the then Barmah State Forest. In 2010, the area became a national park.

IN THE PRESENCE of the river red gums you find yourself thinking about time differently. Their long lifespan leads to questions about the age of a particular tree, then suddenly you find yourself contemplating what the landscape may have looked like a few million years ago. Twelve million years ago the spot I was standing on was a shallow sea. The group of eucalypt species that contain the red gums evolved at least five million years ago. Two and a half million years ago a species akin to Eucalyptus camaldulensis had evolved, though even today there is pronounced variation between individual river red gums that can confuse categorisation. These variations have resulted in significant historic misnomers and misrepresentations.

It’s worth mentioning here that the human fixation on categories leads to an illusion of clarity in the botanical world that is itself a misunderstanding. These blurring boundaries (and the resistance to recognising the blur) have serious implications in a time of human intervention in everything from the climate to the geographic spread of trees and their propagation. Such distinctions (or lack thereof) are more commonly in the popular press when it comes to fauna: polar bear or grizzly? Dog or dingo?

The emergence of river red gum species two and a half million years ago coincided with an earthquake that changed the geology of the area I was standing in, and also with a shift in the climate, which became drier and cooler. Lakes evaporated and dunes formed. After this ebb there was flow again, and as recently as 120,000 years ago Australia was a land of lakes. Over millennia these ebbs and flows created a series of quite specific ecosystems, ones that could tolerate both periods of dry and inundation. The lakes reached their peak area around 32,000 years ago and, not coincidentally, the extensive river red gum forests in the mid-Murray region date back to this time. About 25,000 years ago a displacement occurred along the Cadell Fault, raising its eastern edge above the floodplain and transforming it into the Cadell Tilt.

To my delight I saw this as I drove from Barmah towards the Cobb Highway, a ridge of the sand dunes from the ancient lakes that had been forced up as the land heaved. The Murray River flowed to the north and then the south, attempting to get around the Fault. The Goulburn River was dammed. As a result of this activity new water channels were drilled into the landscape, and existing rivers had to handle a much greater flow. An inland delta was created: the Barmah-Millewa wetlands that exist today. The presence of river red gums in Barmah forest have been dated, through pollen samples, to three thousand years ago, and the particular trees around me were (probably) up to five hundred and fifty years old. River red gums are hard to age because eucalypts don’t develop annual rings, and they adjust their rate of growth to environmental conditions.

The river red gums have been managing, on their own, for millennia. But while the trees around me were certainly hardy their environment has gone from being a robust system to a fragile one, from a self-regulating system to a dependent one. The Murray-Darling Basin is now a regulated river system, and the water released to maintain the wetlands must be negotiated with multiple (and successive) governments. This was something that became clearer to me as I walked along Broken Creek and past Rices Weir, where waterways were littered with skeleton trees and had banks lined by gums that appeared to totter on stilts, their roots exposed by erosion.

As the land rights ruling against the Yorta Yorta indicates, humans, fauna and flora alike are adjusting rapidly to an unprecedented rate of change. However, governance structures are far less flexible than ecosystems, and those ecosystems are finding their capacity to adapt and manage change blocked, both by human development and policy.

I emailed ecologist Dr Saul Cunningham (my brother) about these issues, in part because he has worked extensively on hybrid environments and more specifically because he’s done research in Barmah forest. My key question was this: is there any point in allowing environments to shift to a new normal and in accepting the losses that are inevitable? Colloff phrases this more adeptly than I. ‘Attempting to manage for static conditions makes little ecological sense if this does not reflect a natural process.’[xiii]

Cunningham told me that he thought the notion of normal, or even a ‘new normal’, was unproductive as the constant is change. ‘Water flows, which drive everything, are essentially completely scheduled by humans. Water only flows down that river if the managers decide to let it. Some flows are essentially delivering water to users downstream (think of the river as a delivery pipe between the dams upstream and the farmers downstream). Some flows are allowed for environmental reasons. In the case of a manually operated system the question is no longer “should wetlands be managed?” but “how should they be managed?”. What water should flow? When? And to what purpose?’[xiv] The challenge for ecologists is to map the ways these challenges were managed by river red gums in the past, and what that can teach us about managing the present and future. ‘Nested within the landscape are the clues that tell how ecosystems have adapted to continuous change.’ [xv]

A subfossil that is probably Eucalyptus camaldulensis was removed from nineteen metres below the Yarra River and has been dated to 8,780 years before the present. [xvi] One reason these trees are considered sacred, indeed feel sacred, is that their presence traces the lay of water above and below the ground. The condition of a tree can also indicate how deep the groundwater lies as the roots of mature red gums go down ten metres. The patterns of their growth can follow the traces left by the water of millennia past. Original forests probably mark swamps, now drained.

RIVER RED GUMS had various names given to them by first settlers, including ‘Yarra’ [xvii] – also the name of the river that runs from the Yarra Ranges to Port Phillip Bay. The river was first named Yarra Yarra by John Wedge, John Batman’s private surveyor. Wedge believed Yarra Yarra was the name given to the river by the Kulin, though he later learned they’d been referring to the pattern and movement of water, not the river itself. Language was extrapolated from many different clans. Georgiana McCrae, a painter and diarist who immigrated to Melbourne in 1841 translated the words Yarra Yarra as meaning ‘flowing flowing’, and the word ‘Yarrabing’ as ‘white gum’.[xviii] The word for red gum in Yorta Yorta is quite different: Biyala. This word is close to similar names in some Kulin clan dialects and other Victorian Aboriginal languages, words such as pial or beal, biel and be-al.

The mashing of the word Yarra to mean several different things seems appropriate given that the river red gum traces water, denotes it. The river and the red gums are, if you want to stretch the poetic point, as one. In a culture obsessed with classifications and difference I sometimes find this way of thinking – of the not-difference between things – useful. To call a river a tree is, on the one hand, absurd, but it also draws attention to the interdependence, the relationships, that effectively mean these two systems – forest and waterway – act as one. The Yorta Yorta would argue that the interdependence is broader than that. A submission to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council on Yorta Yorta connections with river red gum forests argued that there was a correlation between the loss of the Yorta Yorta’s traditional lands and health problems within the community.[xix]

River red gums give us pause. A consideration of their lifespan, and the time it took to create the right conditions for them to flourish, a consideration of what has occurred under and around their boughs, forces us to think more clearly about our place, its history and our place in that history. These trees survived the Central Desert’s shift from a more temperate climate to today’s fierce conditions, and the ebbs and flows of the developing Murray-Darling Basin. River red gums still manage to establish themselves along creeks that have been concreted, rerouted and repurposed. They will continue to trace historical water lines and find new ones, colonising riverbeds as they dry out, sending their roots down to the groundwater that still exists below. Our survival is linked to theirs. If the river red gum can find a way to regenerate successfully, maybe, just maybe, so can we.


[i] Potter, E quoted in McGaw, J and Chang, C 2010. ‘Melbourne’s Hidden Waterways: Revealing Williams Creek’, Double Dialogues, vol. 13.

[ii] Presland, G 2017. Private correspondence with the author.

[iii] Canning, S and Thiele, F 2010. ‘Indigenous Cultural Heritage and History within the Metropolitan  Melbourne Investigation  Area.’ Report to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council on behalf of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation Council. p. 23.
[iv] Willoughby, H 1886.  Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil. Religious Tract Society, London. p. 54

[v] Colloff, M 2014. Flooded Forest and Desert Creek: Ecology and History of the River Red Gum. CSIRO Publishing. Clayton. p. 155

[vi] Boyce, J 2013. 1835. Black Inc. p. 256

[vii] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 28

[viii] Annear, R 2005. Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne. Black Inc. Melbourne. p. 38

[ix] Solness, P quoted in Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 264
[x] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 261

[xi] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 254

[xii] Federal Court of Australia, 1998. ‘The Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v The State of Victoria & Ors [1998] 1606 FCA (18 December 1998).’

[xiii] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 253
[xiv] Cunningham, S 2017. Private correspondence with the author.

[xv] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 253

[xvi] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 37

[xvii] Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek, p. 21

[xviii] Otto, K 2005. Yarra. Text Publishing. Melbourne. p. 16

[xix] Atkinson, W 2005. ‘Submission to VEAC on Yorta Yorta Connections with River Red Gum forests on public land in Study Region.’ Federal Court of Australia.

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