IRONBARKS, AS THEIR name suggests, are tough trees. Their outer covering is thick, rough and deeply furrowed. Dead bark is not shed but accumulates. As it dies, it is infused with kino, a dark red sap or gum. The kino ensures that the bark is impervious to fire and heat, protecting the living tissue within – one of the many adaptations of eucalypts.
It is this infusion of kino that gives the bark its dark colour, almost black. As if the trunks have already been burned. Or belong to another time. In places, deep red oozes through, like blood. Ironbarks grow in tough country, tolerating the dry. Their grey-green narrow leaves, turned sideways to the sun, are one of the features of the Australian landscape that early white explorers and settlers found so dreary and monotonous.
Ironbarks are my heartwood. They cling to the hilltops and paddock edges in the dry land of my childhood, in central-west New South Wales. Much of my family’s property is flat or gently rolling: wheat, cattle and sheep country. Most winters, the paddocks still run soft and green. Ghosts of big old yellow box linger, dropping limbs.
The countryside was once covered with dense scrub and tall trees. By the 1890s, tree cover had receded to the hills, a separate part of the property we have always called ‘Up the Back’. It is stony and steep, which makes for poor farming, but thick with ironbarks, cyprus pine, wildflowers and wildlife. It was to these hills I was drawn as a child.
From twelve or thirteen, I camped out alone with the rocks, trees and stars. I would carry in everything I needed – at first on foot, and later on my motorbike. To reach my campsite, I had to cross the main road and the neighbour’s paddocks, negotiating three difficult gates. The final leg was a tough climb over logs and rocks.
There was a flattish site for a tent and a large stone fireplace, overlooking crop and grazing land: straight boundary fences and lanes transecting the curves of tree-lined creek beds and ridgelines. After sundown, my ironbark sentinels faded into the dark. The sky was bright and vast, sounds carried from far off, and I could just make out the glow of the next town.
By day I wandered, collecting itchy seedpod boats from beneath kurrajongs to sail on the dam, where mistletoe-infected trees admired their own reflections. Or sketching the delicate bluebells that appeared, as if from nowhere, in spring and summer. Below my campsite, on the cool side of the hill, there were a handful of boulders. They lay as if scattered by a giant. No matter how carefully I climbed down, the black wallabies thumped away at the first snap of a twig or scrape of my boot, leaving me to explore the shade-loving ferns and mosses and orchids – a secret world of green.
THERE WAS A big old ironbark, a giant, in the valley through which you enter the property, where the track crosses a dry creek bed. A pair of wedge-tailed eagles had lived there for as long as anyone could remember, in a messy nest of sticks. My father would always stop to see if they were home, or better still, if there were any new chicks peeping over the edge. If they were not in the nest, we would keep an eye on the skies until we glimpsed them soaring against the blue.
There was once another ironbark, of even greater stature, across the clearing. My father would point out the stump whenever we were driving by, as if it deserved our constant respect and gratitude. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I would say. ‘I know.’
The floors in our home all came from that one tree. It had been struck by lightning in a rare electrical storm, years before, and died, when my father still rented the land from his father. He brought down that tree with plans for the house he would build, and the family. The timber was sawn and stowed away, and later cut into three-inch boards and laid, sanded and finished. My mother walks on them still.
Twenty-five years later, my father went back for the stump. He tore up the earth, picked away with a crowbar, and took to its roots with a chainsaw. He wrapped it in chains and tugged at it with the tractor. I went along the first time, expecting action, but walked home after a few hours, bored. The stump would not be moved.
Weeks later, after a great deal more digging and chainsawing, the earth finally gave up the stump. My father carried it down from the hills to the farm, triumphant, in the home-engineered digging ‘bucket’ on the front of the tractor. The monster’s ganglion limbs spilled over the sides, dropping dirt.
Ironbark is dark red and dense, tough on axes and chainsaws, and traditionally used for railway sleepers, bridges and buildings. My father had, since he was a young man, made furniture, and turned oversized bowls and vases on an industrial-strength lathe. Inverted, planed flat and sanded smooth, that stump was, over a period of months, transformed into a magnificent coffee table. Its knobbly exterior was burnished with heat and a wire brush, until it looked, once again, like the black trunk of an ironbark. The rich grain of its surface, deep red fading to yellow sapwood on the outer edge, records more than a hundred years of growth ring by ring: good years and bad, the variance and cycle of the seasons. The story of a tree’s life.
A SHORT WALK through ironbarks, uphill from my campsite, is a trigonometrical station: a pile of rocks about adult height, supporting a white post topped with a reflective lead disc. At 1,521 feet, it is a modest summit, but the highest point for miles around. Our trig station is, like all the others I have seen, pocked with bullet holes. I imagine, when first built, it was visible for miles around: an ideal test for long-range marksmanship.
As a girl, I took considerable pride in owning the local high ground and being able to identify the spot on maps. I formed the vague idea that it had something to do with aeroplanes flying overhead, but never connected it with the trigonometry I ploughed through in school.
Trig stations form a network of triangulation for accurately locating the position of boundaries, roads, and bridges. To establish not just latitude and longitude, but the relationship between maps and the physical world. Modern maps are based on aerial and satellite imagery, and now GPS, but for a long time survey information was used to scale and orient the map and remove distortions in imagery.
Our trig station, ‘Coba’, was erected sometime before World War II. Coba signifies latitude, 33.984100341, and longitude, 148.209594726. There is still a designated access road marked on maps, although the road itself has long since disappeared beneath trees, shrubs and time – none of which stopped the local council forcing my mother to buy it back after a recent audit.
GPS may have made trig stations redundant, but they still stand atop hills and mountains, a testimony to our attempts to orient ourselves in the landscape. Our trig station has a primitive look, at odds with the mathematical accuracy of its purpose. A pile of stones on a hill, a cairn, like a monument to the dead and the customs of my Scots ancestors. Or the First Peoples, who were ‘displaced’ on settlement.
The men who built it would not have had to reach far for materials; the area around the trig station is the rockiest of all. We called the whole hill and ridgeline ‘the trigsite’ or ‘Trigsite Hill’. The pass up and over to the cleared land on the other side is rough and precipitous. Before I was born, my father rolled his first tractor there, somehow escaping with little injury or damage to the machine.
In summer, when feed was short, we would let the cattle have the run of Up the Back, bringing them down to the main property again in late spring, when the fattest were trucked off to market. The cattle would go a bit wild up among the trees and rocks, like brumbies – proof of the argument, perhaps, that creatures are their environment. Down on the flat, contained in neat, fenced paddocks, they were domesticated animals. The worst they might get up to would be worrying the chain on a gate until it opened, or tossing their horned heads in the narrow race of the cattle yards.
Whether they were unwilling to leave the hills, or sensed the fate that awaited them, some cattle would seek cover among the ironbarks of the trigsite, refusing to be herded. We were not horse people, which would befit the country, but rode motorbikes. It was challenge enough to negotiate the slopes, dodging black trunks at speed, let alone a ground surface of rocks and fallen logs.
Individual cattle could turn on you, too. Once you saw their head go down, you knew you were in trouble; they were about to charge, break back deeper into the trees – or both. This would mark the end of the line for me. My father, however, would pick himself and his bike back up, and go after them. The cleverest cattle would slink away through the trees, without any open display of rebellion, to live out another season in the hills.
IT WAS WHAT lay beneath the hills that brought my ancestors. My great-grandfather, John Simpson, bought and sold gold. He had been travelling back and forth between Lambing Flat (now Young) and Emu Creek (Grenfell), where he owned general stores and shanty pubs, carrying gold concealed in his saddlebags. He used a number of disguises to avoid attracting attention and carried a revolver beneath his coat. It was, after all, bushranger country, with some of Australia’s most famous – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and Frank Gardiner – hiding out in the nearby Weddin Mountains. Only the year before, the Gold Commissioner, John Grenfell, had been shot and killed in a stagecoach hold-up.
John Simpson settled between Lambing Flat and Emu Creek, at Seven Mile – a rich network of veins where a new mining town had sprung up. In 1867, he selected block number one, parish of Coba, county of Monteagle. Selecting the highest point suggests he had early, if not first, choice.
One of Seven Mile’s seams ran behind the trigsite. Up the Back’s real name is Eureka, after the largest of these mines. When gold petered out, the crowds moved on and the town closed down, leaving behind hundreds of holes in the ground and miles of tunnel work.
When I was a child, these mine shafts were still open wounds, pooling with water after rain and presenting a hazard for cattle. My father eventually filled in the shafts on our property, though not before we had combed them with metal detectors for any traces of gold left behind.
A hundred years after the gold rush, we mined the country again – for rocks. My father would park the flatbed truck as far up as he could and we would gather rocks by hand. For me, at first, this required lifting the stones above head height onto the truck’s tray, so I suspect I was not much help. I preferred to examine lichens and fungi, or follow animal tracks and spoor. As the building process got underway – it would take four years to encase our pink fibro house in stone and build its extensions – I developed an eye for stone.
Not any stone would do. It needed to have two flat sides. It was even harder to find stones for corners, windows and doorways, which needed three flat sides. My role in building the house was ‘chinker’. I worked along behind my parents, placing small stones in the middle of the sixteen-inch walls, in the spaces left between the larger stones.
When the farmhouse was finished, and then a massive workshop, each of which seemed life works, my father began sketching new plans. He returned to the trigsite with a new, improved version of the digging bucket, and a more powerful tractor. We had exhausted the surface of building stones, so he dug up the ground for more.
He carted them to a block of land four hours away, a truckload at a time, to build another house – from scratch this time – on a cliff overlooking the sea. It would be two storeys, with his trademark sixteen-inch walls, and a deck. Neighbours came to check on the slow progress early on, shaking their heads as if it couldn’t be done.
It took five years and three hundred tons of stone. Holding it all up are hundred-year-old ironbark beams, salvaged from a Sydney brewery that was being torn down. They, too, are sixteen inches square. Hand adzed. Grey on the outside but still deep red beneath. They had to be lowered into position by crane.
The crane was used, too, to lower in the stump coffee table. Although hollowed-out underneath, it is still incredibly heavy and too large to pass through a door frame. It takes pride of place by the front windows, looking out through banksias and mahogany gums, as if the house was built around it. Guests caress the root forming part of the surface on one side, exclaiming at the colour and impossibility of it all. ‘That’s ironbark,’ I say.
While we were mining stones, a mining company came, taking core samples around the trigsite. The area showed up as some sort of hotspot, and I thought this meant we would soon be rich. My parents tried to explain the concept – relevant again today for landholders fighting coal seam gas mining – that we only owned the skin of the land. My father was, nonetheless, interested in the process, and what it might turn up. Core sample pieces, compacted rock in pastel layers, like marble cake, lay around at home until my mother tired of dusting around them.
A different company approached my mother a few years ago. As if new technology and new men with embossed business cards could unearth what others had not. ‘Can’t you say no?’ I said, envying for a moment the gold rush days, when you could run someone off with a shotgun. ‘Don’t they have to pay you?’ Apparently not. The company went ahead and drilled another set of holes, deep into the bedrock, and asked if they could use water from the nearby dam to cool their machinery. It was during a severe drought, so this time my mother did say no. The resulting cores, in yellowing plastic bags, lay about for a few years. Eventually the company withdrew, with no explanation. Whatever riches lie beneath the hills remain there for now.
I HAVE COME to see those core samples as an assault on the land, although by no means the first. In all the history of the property, there is no mention of the area’s First People. At school, ‘Australian History’ began in 1788, and ‘Ancient History’ was about the Greeks and Romans. Yet all through my childhood we were still finding stone tools, turned up by the tines of the plough. My father would bring them home and place them on the hearth, challenging me to deduce their purpose.
Up the Back is in Wiradjuri country. The people of the three rivers – the Lachlan, the Macquarie and the Murrumbidgee – are known for their possum skin cloaks, diet of fish, and fierceness. Led by the warrior, Windrayne, they fought back against the settlers. The Wiradjuri wars, near Bathurst, brought about the declaration of martial law and the death of up to a third of the Wiradjuri population.
I’m not sure how many people moved through the area, or how often, before 1788. But by the time the gold rush came, there were few Wiradjuri left. Displacement seems too polite a word for the co-ordinated attempt to wipe out a people with disease, bullets, strychnine and arsenic.
Of course, Aboriginal concepts of country include a responsibility to care for the land. As Eric Rolls argued long before it was fashionable, in A Million Wild Acres (Nelson, 1981), fire was used to maintain balance and diversity. Areas like the creek flat on our property, where the two big ironbarks grew, would have been burned regularly to encourage new grass growth and draw out kangaroos and emus. Within a few decades of settler clearing, creeks dried up, slopes were eroded, the soil degraded, and plant and animal species diminished.
The Wiradjuri, like the Kamilaroi, to the north-west, carved trees with stone tools to mark the graves of celebrated males. A section of bark was removed, and elaborate geometric designs cut into the exposed heartwood. As a pathway for the spirit to return to the Dreamtime these arborglyphs always faced the grave, and warned passers-by of the spiritual significance of the area.
The warning went unheeded by settlers, who cut down the trees and burned them during clearing. More recently, surviving carvings were destroyed deliberately, for fear of native title claims. In the early nineteenth century, almost a hundred burial trees were recorded and mapped. Only a handful remain. Some were removed to museums, where at least they have been preserved. A few have now been repatriated to their original sites.
Most burial carvings were by riverbanks, a long way from the trigsite. Ironbarks were, however, along with box and stringybarks, often left scarred by the removal of sections of their bark for tools. No one mentioned any scarred or carved trees on our property, but ironbarks seem a fitting tree to mark the burial of these warrior people. It is no stretch to imagine Wiradjuri at the place I call my campsite, surveying the land – a people who do not need trigonometry to know their country.
THE WINTER’S MORNING on which my mother returned from shopping to find the tractor butting up against an ironbark on the fence-line, engine still running, was dry and brown – the thin end of another drought. My father had built a machine to dispense grain, which made it possible to feed the stock on his own from the comfort of the air-conditioned tractor cab. He had only to hop out for a moment and turn on the tap, stepping between the rear of the tractor and the grain machine. He would leave the tractor crawling along in low gear, and the sheep would crowd close in anticipation.
My mother, still in her town clothes, turned off the tractor and followed its tracks back across the farm, through the torn fences, to find him.
He was one of a hundred and fifty men who died in farming accidents that year. Numbers have since declined, but after mines, farms remain the most dangerous workplaces. In the weeks after his death, the neighbouring men took turns at feeding the stock, as well as their own, without being asked, and later shook their heads at any offer of payment.
I am made of ironbark and stone. Formed on hills scraped back to their bones. It is to hills I have returned: the Sunshine Coast’s subtropical hinterland thick with trees and loud with birdsong. At first, blinded by chaotic green, I didn’t notice the ironbarks. After heavy rain, I recognised their black trunks standing among the brush box, tallowwoods, bloodwoods, grey gums and flooded gums.
These ironbarks are not the straggling things I first knew, eking out a living. They grow dead straight and tall. Saplings shoot up, gangly, competing for light. I cannot see their foliage unless I crane my neck and squint; they are all trunk. A verdigris of lichen clings to their southern sides.
Sometimes I see them with my father’s eye, calculating their diameter, the quantity of timber within, or the dimensions of a bowl turned from a cross-section. There is one outside the bay windows of the lounge room, halfway down the slope to the dam, which must be sixty feet tall, and without a branch or blemish until at least thirty-five feet up.
It is no surprise, I suppose, that I gravitated towards this handmade cottage of timber, stone and recycled brick. One of my father’s lounges – the weight of which always makes removalists exclaim – occupies the living area. An ironbark bowl squats beside it.
It is by the big ironbarks that I orient myself, get my bearings. There are three around the studio, in a triangle, as if securing it to the slope. From the deck of the cottage, there is a giant at twelve o’clock, at the end of our ‘garden’, looking towards the mountain range. It is the first tree I see from the loft in the morning, its dark trunk coming into focus before the others. The biggest is by the mailbox, at the top of the driveway, marking the spot to slow and turn in.
WHEN I LAST visited the trigsite, a freak windstorm had passed through, throwing ironbarks and cyprus pines over the old track up to my campsite. I had wanted to show the place to my then partner and her children, and was anxious at finding it less beautiful than I had described. The trig station still stood, unchanged, and the children were much more interested in it than my old ring of stones and view to the south-east.
While a neighbour leases the main part of the property, Eureka now offers little economic return. Recently, over the phone, my mother tried to discuss the possibility of selling it to clear some debts. ‘Huh,’ I said, and asked questions about the trigsite, shifting the conversation off-road.
I would rather she sold any other part of the property. But I’m no farmer. As an only child, without children of my own, the line dies with me. And the debts are mine.
My mother sends a black-and-white photograph of the trig station, labelled in my grandmother’s scratchy block letters. The ironbarks are thin and spindly: regrowth after clearing. I daydream about reversing my great-grandfather’s process, and reafforesting the land.
A few days later, my mother calls: the trigsite has been struck by lightning, sparking a fire. My second cousin lives nearby, in my great-grandfather’s original farmhouse, and is in the local fire service. He and his men responded quickly but the hill is difficult to access. A yellow plane flew over, dropping water. Nonetheless, some of the larger trees burned for days. Once fully alight, a tree takes some putting out.
My mother has yet to inspect the damage. Her ute is broken down and it is a long, steep walk for a woman in her seventies. I tell myself the fire will have done some good, cleaning up the dead timber. It may well spark a rejuvenation, a seeding of new trees. Eucalypts, after all, are formed from fire and drought. Ferns and mosses will again grow among the rocks below my campsite. The trees and wallabies will return. And so will I, to the place that holds me: the landscape of my childhood.