Restoring the Concept of Priceless
This article in the Food for Thought Series reflects my long-standing concerns for the natural and cultural heritage of Alice Springs. The views expressed here are my own but the reader is entitled to know I currently serve on the Board of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. MIKE GILLAM.
The Policeman who loved trees
In 1988 I published a poster entitled “Canopy of Life” to highlight land management issues in the Todd River. I’ll quote a few passages because the words are still relevant today.
“One hundred years ago the gum trees in Alice Springs were saved by a remarkable act of foresight. On November 22, 1888, Mounted Constable W. G. South wrote to the Minister for the Northern Territory: I have the honour to inform you that when the township is sold … the Young Gum trees along the Todd Creek … will require protection or they will be all cut down by the residents for building and fencing purposes, in fact some of the trees have already been destroyed by persons forming camps. I would request your instructions on this matter and … all regulations with regard to protection of timber. The trees are a great ornament to the place and it would be a great pity to destroy them …”
Historically these were times of great conflict and given the public’s singular fascination with scoundrels and violence Constable South’s example is often overlooked. It may be useful to provide some context for his actions in this remote frontier ‘settlement’ that would become Alice Springs. He decided to protect trees at a time when the civilized folk of Sydney had only just declared (nine years earlier) Australia’s first (Royal) National Park. This followed declaration of Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park, in 1872. Before the advent of Parks many ancient societies understood the importance of protecting special places and applying rules and taboos. The gum trees in the Todd River were important to Arrernte people and its possible South was influenced by this knowledge.
As an aside, South was appointed Protector of Aborigines in 1908 and Chief Protector in 1911 – he was no ordinary policeman. I doubt South intervened on behalf of trees to win friends or influence people but I’m willing to speculate he believed there was a moral obligation to act. Flanking the Todd River’s west bank, South Terrace is a reminder of William Garnet South’s contribution to Alice Springs. So what’s improved? There is more legislation designed to protect the natural environment but very little compliance. The Todd River, managed by the monolithic Technical Services Department of the Town Council, desperately needs an autonomous river manager or curator. I’m hoping there is someone out there with South’s passion and sense of duty.
The heart, the soul and cultural warfare
The heart, the soul, the centre is an inspired marketing tag but is Alice Springs in danger of losing its soul? The natural landscape cradling this town is incredibly important whether you view it as a scenic wonder or a cultural map or much more. Arrernte sacred sites and song-lines are embedded here, a rich cultural heritage that co-exists with a modern urban setting. With European colonisation, the heart of the interior was a magnet for exploring parties and scientific expeditions and Alice Springs remains a cultural touch-stone for today’s adventurers, mavericks and dreamers.
The unfolding conversation between black and white, the friction, the highs and the lows, place us conspicuously on the world stage. I’m stating a fact of life – no marketing campaign required and social media is disseminating much of the story. The transformation of Aboriginal culture continues and in the process whole languages are being lost, but thankfully the value of sacred sites to Aboriginal identity and memory are recognised in our town. Managing our natural assets, the backdrop and life force for these stories, is a challenge but I’d like to think most of us believe it’s essential.
Would we be happier if the Todd River was reduced to a tree-less concrete drain? I’ve met no-one who thinks the town’s modern architecture is a wonder to behold and yet we are rescued from mediocrity by this amazing natural setting. In fairness to the town’s architects they’ve had little influence on urban design and landscape architects are not responsible for the tragic appearance of our street plantings. As a tourist destination it seems surreal, I know. But thank the stars for river gums, foothills and ranges that give us timeless horizons, texture, colour, shade and above all, form.
Public appreciation for sacred sites is undermined by a torrent of one-liners, racial stereotyping, commercial opportunism and political expediency. For some, particularly those with electoral ambitions and little else to offer voters, sacred sites represent a favourite political football. Why would any local want to denigrate this priceless cultural heritage? How can we expect Aboriginal people to benefit from cultural tourism, not to mention self worth, identity and pride if we are prepared to damage or kill their stories for short-term profit or political gain?
I’ve come to realise that denigrating or damaging sacred sites or the heritage of another is part of the ongoing culture war being waged in this country. No doubt a similar disdain for European heritage is aired by some Aboriginal people. Surely we can identify and actively remove some of the blockages that facilitate and encourage racial division in our community?
Balancing the plumber with an arborist
A significant number of trees and tree communities are registered sacred sites and in recognition of their importance to Arrernte people, are protected by law. In contrast mature planted trees, even those recognised as trees of significance to the general community, may be cut down at will by landowners.
The absence of a by-law protecting trees in Alice Springs creates an issue of racial conflict where one shouldn’t exist. Throughout Australia municipal councils are at the forefront of tree protection. This is not just a matter of heavy-handed law enforcement and compliance. Trees are core business for Shire and City Councils and arborists routinely provide expert tree advice to ratepayers. Despite the obvious significance and value of trees in this semi-arid landscape, both the advice and the compliance are clearly missing.
Is our community hiding behind sacred sites legislation? Are we reluctant to stand up and be counted on the issue of tree conservation because Aboriginal custodians can do it and they make the perfect fall guys? ‘They’ will continue to be seen as ‘anti development’ and local government can avoid sharing the burden of hard public interest decisions. Whatever the reason, the absence of by-laws leaves the majority of mature trees in our town without any protection whatsoever. Yes, the majority.
The Town Council should introduce overarching tree protection by-laws that reference sacred trees, heritage plantings and other mature trees that add to the amenity of this place. This would give the town a unified position on the meaning of ‘priceless’ instead of endlessly pitting one culture against another.
In Alice Springs plumbers often advise people to cut down trees when old or faulty plumbing is invaded by roots. Where’s the balancing advice from the arborist? It really depends on your perspective – the presence of roots may be viewed legitimately as a failure of plumbing because roots are generally attracted to moisture. Sometimes a very large tree too close to plumbing is simply incompatible but on occasion it’s actually cheaper to place root barriers or move the infrastructure. The problem can and must be corrected and frequently, provided the repaired system does not leak, the tree can remain.
The knowledge and professionalism on display at the Alice Springs Desert Park and Olive Pink Flora Reserve should be echoed in our management of urban bushland and the landscaping of our streetscapes. Alice Springs needs inspired thinking to ensure that our investment in trees, a long-term contract in any society, is sound in every respect. A commitment to landscape architecture would benefit the public domain tremendously and an arborist would be needed if tree protection by-laws are adopted. Perhaps the two positions can be combined.
Now I’m wondering what the upcoming elections will do for the interconnected future of the natural environment, the fragile balance of race relations and the viability of tourism. Bad news seems to eclipse good news so I expect the highs and lows but mostly the lows of our conduct will be picked up by the media and beamed around the world. That’s a shame because Alice Springs is an extraordinary place looking for extraordinary leaders. Without pinning all our hopes on leaders, we the town’s citizenry, must follow the example of Constable South because 500 year old red gums are being lost through neglect and the trees can’t speak.
IMAGES (from top, all by Mike Gillam): The Wills Terrace causeway across the iconic Todd River • Author Mike Gillam • Frogmouth plays tree • Moth on plumbush • Eucalyptus – peeling bark.
MIKE GILLAM REPLIES TO COMMENTS (it is run here because Mr Gillam provided the photo below as part of his response): Not sacred but certainly sculptural – a group of planted Eucalypts on part of the Melanka site.
Russell: I’m confident, in the not too distant future, most developers will view sacred trees as a gift and not simply an impediment to maximizing profits. These are some of the new pioneers that we need to attract.
I wouldn’t take Melanka too seriously – I have no idea why Steve implicates AAPA (Sacred Sites Authority) in some wild theory threatening 50% of the potential of this very large commercial block. I’m certain some potential buyers / developers would greatly value the few sacred trees that grace this block – given their location they impact very little on the development potential of the site. We should also remember the owners gained approval to build to an unprecedented five storeys.
In this town many at risk and yet highly valuable trees sit within boundary setbacks and do not encroach significantly on potential building envelopes. Smart developers naturally balance economic returns with the need to create landmark buildings with shade and amenity. There is little point building a greedy box to minimize capital costs and maximize leasable floor space if the upper levels remain unoccupied half the time. In contrast the most recent plan for the Melanka site had some design merit (notwithstanding a five storey impact!) and the few sacred trees strongly enhanced that proposal in my personal view.
Some locals have enthusiastically suggested the cleared site remain a park – I’m not one of them. But are they responding to the power, beauty and grace of tall trees within the CBD? These values of parkland relief are quite rare in the CBD, while any evidence of high quality landscape architecture is rarer still. I hope the Town Council takes note because prominent streets such as Gregory Tce. are almost treeless. In contrast one of our best-treed roads is the Stuart Highway where the NT Government (not the Town Council) is responsible and the importance of landscape design is recognised.
Thanks for the information about Stott; I’m not surprised because he was a man of character. Judging from historical photographs, tree cover across much of the town was pretty grim at that time. Overall the current situation is better but trends in both the streetscape and the natural environment are unmistakable and there are no prizes for sitting on our hands.
Trees are a long-term investment in the townscape. Landscape architects can combine inspirational design with informed decisions about water use, shade benefits, maintenance, environmental impacts and tree survival in the longer term. In the past we often planted street trees from temperate zones, watered them lavishly for many years and watched them die in a single dry year. Those times are slowly changing.
Happy Australia day to all tree lovers, especially police and I absolutely support Janet’s right to paint her house blue.
Pictured above: Not sacred but certainly sculptural – a group of planted Eucalypts on part of the Melanka site.
Pictured above: Another victim of fire in the Todd River – this majestic gum is referred to in Hal Duell’s letter in the comments section below.