Even young trees bear the signature of deep time, if not eternity. For most of humanity’s existence, men and women have looked upwards through trees, wondering at the tracery of their branches piercing the firmament, the domed lid of the earthly world. Recorded mythology confirms that trees have occupied that special place in every ancient belief system; rooted in the terrestrial but reaching into the ethereal beyond.
Trees are liminal beings. They may be venerated for their own qualities, having stood for generations regardless of the tumult around them, but they have also been enlisted in the full range of human endeavour. They have provided food, medicine, warmth, shade and shelter, transport and refuge, not only for people but also for animals. They have marked the beginnings of lives and the end of lives, offering a route to the afterlife, repose for spirits and identity, memorials to the departed. They have absorbed the engraved designs of ritual identity, carved initials of lovers and explorers, massive scars of canoe hulls, or traces of the thinnest bark dishes.
Aboriginal men have cut templates of boomerangs and clubs from their limbs, smoked possums from their hollows, hacked out honeycomb from their trunks. Grand old trees mark the route for travellers, provide shade for contemplation and inspiration for artists, photographers and those defending the right of trees to live out their full span. Individual trees can redeem the most barren plain and the ugliest suburb. In forests, trees gather strength from each other, generating mystery, enchantment, a sense of the sublime. Few of us do not have a meaningful tree in our lives, at some point.
These are some images of eucalypts selected from the archives of the South Australian Museum.
This pencil sketch depicts a different view of the ‘illumba’ (ilwempe in Western Arrernte language), ghost gum of the Arrernte people – its bark faintly scribbled, its individual veined leaves drawn directly from the limbs and depicted in mid-air, as if the tree is deciduous. The Southern Arrernte man Erliakilyika, or Jimmy Kite, accompanied the Spencer–Gillen anthropological expedition from Oodnadatta to the Gulf of Carpentaria during 1901–2. His bush skills extended to art during the expedition, and later he became known for his small gypsum sculptures. His extraordinary pencil drawings of eucalypts may date from about 1910.
The watercolourist Rex Battarbee photographed this towering ghost gum in the Western MacDonnell Ranges during a 1930s painting trip from the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, accompanied by Reuben and Otto Pareroultja and their donkeys. Battarbee’s fascination with the ghost gum, both as a framing device and as an artistic subject in its own right, was shared by the Arrernte artists he taught, particularly Albert Namatjira.
George Aiston photographed this ancient coolabah tree on the banks of the Andrewilla Waterhole south-west of Birdsville during the early 1920s. This scratched print is the only surviving image of his artful study of his wife and niece camouflaged in the dappled light and shade conjured through the coolabah’s gnarled limbs and leaves. Aiston has evoked a single tree’s capacity to entangle and bewitch, as a forest can do; his original caption reads ‘find the girls’.
On 24 July 1862 John McDouall Stuart and his small party completed the first successful land crossing of the continent, sighting the Indian Ocean at Chambers Bay, east of present-day Darwin. Later that day, Stuart’s men carved his initials onto the largest eucalypt in the vicinity. For years its whereabouts remained a mystery, until it was located in 1883 and photographed two years later by Paul Foelsche, with the ‘S’ clearly visible. The tree was almost three metres in circumference at its base, and twenty metres tall. A piece of a branch is preserved today as a relic; the tree was lost to a bushfire in 1903.
Still standing half a century ago when Robert Edwards photographed it near Blanchetown during his canoe tree survey, this ancient red gum bears the healed scar of a four-metre bark canoe, like a badge of honour. At least 200 years ago, Ngaiawang men of the Murray River cut the canoe’s outline with stone tools and lowered it to the ground with fibre ropes. In Aboriginal mythology a bark canoe bore the Ancestor Ngurunderi down the Murray; on reaching the Lakes he placed his canoe high in the Milky Way for eternity. Perhaps that answers the question posed by these monumental trees standing on the riverbank, with their empty scars.
This albumen print of a eucalypt trunk carved with sacred designs was sent to Edward Stirling at the South Australian Museum during the 1890s. The photographer may have been the ethnographer Robert Etheridge, who had surveyed carved trees associated with burial and initiation grounds in western New South Wales, mainly in Wiradjuri country. Such trees were rarely found in isolation but occurred in encircling groves, their designs accumulating sacred force. The sum of those meanings is beyond recall, but the designs are similar to those carved on shields and clubs, evoking Ancestors who had merged into the trees themselves. Behind the tree, a pastoralist’s fence post stands witness as the bark draws its own curtain over the designs.
Francis Gillen’s study of a tree grave, photographed in Kaytej country near Barrow Creek during the Spencer–Gillen anthropological expedition of 1901–2. After death, a body was placed on a platform in the tree, perhaps for a year or two; the bones would then be ceremonially removed and buried. By then the spirit had departed from the tree; a belief and practice shared by the Kaytej and the Warumungu people to the north. Similar platform burials (either in trees or free-standing) were used among the peoples of the Lower Murray, Lakes and Coorong in South Australia.