A Haunted Wood

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A creek, billabong and bridge in a classic Cumberland
Plains Woodland setting.
Last week, on an extremely cold July Sunday, Esther and I made a visit to Mount Annan Botanic Gardens, which I have written about previously. In addition to a Swamp Wallaby, Kookaburra, feral rabbit and some other brightly coloured species of birds, we also stumbled upon a haunting memorial to Australia’s “Stolen Generations”.

The biggest hurt ... was having my mum chase the welfare car. I’ll always remember it – we were looking out the window and mum was running behind us and singing out for us.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The plaque on the stone reads: “ ‘The biggest hurt, I think,
was having my mum chase the welfare car. I’ll always
 remember it – we were looking out the window and mum was
running behind us and singing out for us.’ Stolen Child

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Another haunting voice from the past: “ ‘They just came
down and said, “We’re taking these kids.” They just take you
out of your mother’s arms. That’s what they done to me. I was
still at my mother’s breast when they took me.’ Stolen Child
Image via Tom Häkkinen
It reads: “ ‘There are still a lot of unresolved issues within
me. One of the biggest ones is I can’t really love anyone
no more. I’m sick of being hurt. Every time I used to get close
to anyone they were just taken away from me.’ Stolen Child
The Stolen Generations were those Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who were forcibly taken from their families under the auspices of various State and Commonwealth government directives, beginning prior to the formation of the Commonwealth itself, right up to the late 1960s. The history of the Stolen Generations has been well-documented in the Attorney-General’s Bringing them Home report and also in Phillip Noyce’s outstanding film Rabbit Proof Fence. In the Australian High Court case of Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 1, it was argued that one of the State government acts authorising the forced removal of children from their families, the Aboriginals Ordinance Act 1918 (NT), amounted to an attempt at cultural genocide. However, the High Court rejected this reading of the facts, on the specious grounds that, as the act in question was posed in terms of “paternalistic protection” of the Aboriginal children in question, the necessary “intent” to destroy an ethnic or racial group was lacking. Seems to be saying if a government phrase an act with enough hypocritical verbiage they can enact anything.

Every time I used to get close to anyone they were just taken away from me.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Black and white tree trunks standing side by side.
I found this memorial particularly stirring. The Cumberland Plains woodland setting of the memorial seemed somehow fitting for such a memorial. Before the arrival of the First Fleet under Governor Arthur Philip, most of the Sydney basin was Cumberland Plains woodland -- so it seems a fitting place, for people who have been stolen from their culture and traditions to try to regrow those old links with their culture, even if, due to the passing of time, some of that renewal has to have something of an artificial character. Walking along the memorial, the woods seemed pregnant with the ghosts of the past, as conveyed by the simple and honest quotations from adult survivors of this state-sanctioned kidnapping.
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Moreton Bay Figs

Image via Tom Häkkinen
After backing-up the length of a football field I managed
to fit an entire tree into the frame. 
Oak trees are not native to Australia and are therefore quite a rare sight in Sydney. Which is something of a shame as they really are mighty trees and quite spectacular to look at. They are also particularly tree-like, I often think the oak embodies a sort of Platonic essence of trees. But for all that, we do have an equally impressive tree in Sydney, which for what it lacks in Platonic tree essence, more than makes up for in tree character.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Esther looking-up at a lichen-covered ancient fig. The
side of me prone to hyperbole likes to compare it to some
sort of gnarled-old-man of the forest, as if from one
of the works of Tolkien. 
Moreton Bay figs are common across a great swathe of the Eastern Seaboard of Australia. The planners of Rose Bay, whoever they were, in there infinite wisdom thought to plant rows of these mighty Figs along the harbour-side promenade and in Lyne Park and whenever I go to the Rose Bay Ferry Wharf I get a chance to marvel at the Gothic colonnade formed by these trees.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A Gothic colonnade of Moreton Bay figs.
Image via Tom Häkkinen
Is there not something altogether monstrous about the
proportions of these trees -- whose limbs, thanks to their
buttressing roots, are able to to stretch long boughs
towards you from so far away?
What’s more, these old figs around Rose Bay are not unimpressive in size either. The cathedral arches, medieval buttresses and architectural proportions of these trees were not the only ways in which they reminded me of the Notre-Dame de Paris -- trying to get a photo which captured the entire tree, I was transported back to a memory of having to keep walking further and further backwards, till Esther, standing at the doorway, was a barely visible ant, trying to get the whole Cathedral in one photo.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Moreton Bay fig betrays its murderous intentions
in the aerial roots it sends down from its upper boughs.
Although these particular figs were planted, generally the Moreton Bay fig is what is called an “epiphyte”. In the world of trees, this means the tree is a “strangler”, the seeds find there way into the boughs of other trees high-up in the canopy thanks to the birds who eat the figs, from there, with access to plenty of sunshine, the trees send roots back down to the earth; twisting and coiling their way around the torso of the host tree as they do so. Eventually, smothered within the choking embrace of this Gothic enclosure, the host tree is no longer able to get any sunlight and dies. In particularly old strangler figs, the host tree rots away completely leaving an empty cavernous space, like a crypt or sepulchre for the forgotten host tree.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
A young Moreton Bay fig beginning its life in the
crevice of a host tree -- and you thought it looked cute.
Although the Moreton Bay Figs that I photographed stand innocent, you can see their murderous intent in the aerial roots that they drop from their branches. Perhaps a bit more malign than your everyday oak, but it seems strangely fitting for a continent that was to be the home of a colony settled by convicts.
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