By MIKE GILLAM
All photos © Mike Gillam
When people ask, I describe myself as a refugee from Melbourne, and my teenage years in horizon stretching suburbia provide some context for what I’m about to write. It’s not my intention to pour scorn on that vast southern city at a time when morale is low but my loyalties lie in the arid zone, a richer definition of vast.
Like so many of my baby boomer generation (b.1955) my first exposure to ghost gums and red gums, came through the water colour paintings of Albert Namatjira. I can hardly write about ghost gums, the colour and light of Centralia, without mentioning Namatjira and those that followed.
In fact, ghost gums have cast a spell on every photographer to pass through Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap) for well over one hundred years. A spell so great that all of us are willing to risk the derision of our community howling out cliché, as we struggle to find a tortured survivor clinging to a rock face or any other rarity or angle that offers our image a hint of originality.
For this distracted teenager growing up in a dreary suburb the impact of Namatjira’s paintings was a delightful and unsettling shock. I remember framed prints of ghost gums and river red gums hanging in a school classroom and the lounge-rooms of friends. It would be entirely accurate to say Namatjira touched the lives of millions “condemned to live and die in crowded towns” (to borrow a phrase from the explorer Ernest Giles).
My favourite city refuge was a degraded urban creek in Boxhill and there could be no greater contrast to Namatjira’s paintings conceived in the desert heartlands. I’ve just searched the internet and perhaps predictably this tiny tributary of the Yarra known as Koonung Creek is showing ‘improvement’ with elevated walking trail/cycle paths. It’s still described by Melbourne water as the unhealthiest water in the city but the high E.coli counts are not relevant to my story.
In my time there was a secret pool where, if you sat very quietly and long enough, you could see long neck tortoises swimming around. On a warm summer’s day, one might even discover a lowland copperhead draped over a cushion of dead bracken ferns, seeking the sun. Copperheads were slow moving and gentle snakes, strangely forgiving of risk taking teenagers who didn’t really know what they were doing.
In retrospect my beautiful refuge was really a glorified sub-divisional drain, a largely disrespected place where some locals thought to dump the occasional dead fridge or washing machine from the road bridge above. The avalanche of lawn clippings and shrub prunings heaved over back fences of the tidy middle class housing estate were slightly less eye watering.
Few other places held my interest. There was a neglected cemetery or two where subsidence had caused the cover stones of occasional graves to crack and tilt. These were perfect habitat for wonderful blue tongue lizards that would bask in the sun on the heated black granites and disappear into the void at the first sign of young boys stalking them.
Arriving in Alice Springs at the tender age of 17, I felt immediately at home among the painters and the dreamers in a small town held in the strangely familiar embrace of oxide mountains. Sure it was an unsavoury frontier society awash with alcohol and misery but its wild heart was still beating.
Like Melbourne, there was plenty of squalor and rubbish but far, far fewer people. There was also the slow theatre of a desert sunrise, the omnipresent peak of the wild dog ancestor and the screech of cockatoos. In a sandy river bed Aboriginal people sat in semi-circles beneath the muscular branches of river red gums and sang in time honoured praise of Altjira, ancestors and country.
And rain, a generally despised and vaporous element in Melbourne, here in the centre of the continent was revered, delicious and more varied in form.
Aboriginal artists saw trees as sentient beings and both ghost gums and river gums featured prominently in the watercolour tradition of what became known as the Hermannsburg school. The ghost gums in particular with their characteristic skin creases and prominent protruding hips and elbows looked as though a cocooned spirit was struggling to emerge from centuries of stasis.
In time I discovered the trees of Otto Pareroultja, a vision of country quite different to Albert’s, trees as totemic forms, rotating and twisting with a life force, vigorous and dynamic.
Much later I met the endlessly inquisitive David Mpetyane Stuart who trained at CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, as a cameraman. Mpetyane saw ghost gums as lightning rods connected to underground force fields that he represented with electrical motifs for AC and DC currents.
His unique Arrernte vision was equally informed by a technical knowledge of electricity and the nature of lightning, where ground ‘leaders’ complete the connection so that lightning passes not only from the clouds to earth but also from the ground up. I remember one of Mpetyane’s late career paintings that combined ghost gums and a conical quartzite hill. His symmetrical white trees looked very much like forked lightning inverted.
My friend did not have time to reveal his full creative potential, his life (1963-2008) cut tragically short by the effects of a serious assault and residual poor health. I write this essay, one week before my 65th birthday and reflect that Albert Namatjira died aged 57, Otto Pareroultja at 59 and David Mpetyane at 45.
Many of those famous trees painted by Namatjira are still alive, a tribute to their longevity, with ages of 400 and 500 years commonly cited for river red gums.
Tragically, one of his most famous painting sites, referred to as the Twin Gums, was destroyed in an arson attack. As their name suggests, the trees in question stood side by side and they certainly felt closely balanced in form and appearance.
In late 2012 the Twin Gums were nominated for inclusion on the register of the national heritage estate in recognition of their cultural significance and connection to Albert Namatjira. This nomination was widely publicised and an arborist was duly engaged to help improve their failing health.
Then, on Sunday 30 December they were burnt with a fire so intense it followed the trunk underground for approximately one metre. With high fuel loads from the previous very wet year, 2012 was a dry year, characterised by a record breaking 157 days without rain.
Three fires were apparently lit on a 38 degrees C day and were fanned by a stiff 25 knot breeze from the SSE. It seems possible that embers travelled from fire two and were responsible for the ignition at fire three, the site of the Twin Gums, a mere 100 metres west.
There is a history of tree killings in Australia, too many to mention. One relatively recent example is the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, a ghost gum and symbol of union fellowship, which was poisoned in 2006. Barcaldine was the headquarters of the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike and the tree was the site of the 1892 reading of the Labour Party manifesto leading to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
Closer to home, at the Traeger Park oval in Alice Springs, two sacred trees, associated with the story of the Kwekatye boys travelling north, were drilled and poisoned in 2009, apparently because they stood in the way of plans to extend a grandstand.
Killing a sacred tree, an ancient life form that has stood through multiple human generations, is a coward’s way of inflicting great pain on the tree’s custodians and admirers. The perpetrator knows too well that such a crime will not attract the degree of attention or level of punishment reserved by our society for those who assault or kill their own kind or even those that commit mainstream property crime.
If the criminal is lucky, no-one will even bother to investigate the murder of sacred trees. So it was I discovered a few years later, for the case of the Twin Gums. Claiming the crime scene had not been preserved, police decided not to investigate.
A few days after the event I received a call from the sacred sites authority (AAPA). They were intending to send their investigator, an experienced former policeman, to Alice Springs and asked if I had any thoughts on the arson. I’d heard only the news reports and offered to drive out to look at the trees.
The fire had been very intense; regrowth seemed improbable. I called in to a couple of nearby outstations to see if they knew anything but there was no one home so I returned to town and passed on the tragic news that the Twin Gums were no more.
A few days later a journalist rang from Melbourne looking for quotes and I declined the offer. In conversation we both agreed the national media interest in the trees as a result of their heritage nomination and their destruction a little while later was a hell of a coincidence. Regretfully in that moment I failed to caution him against making assumptions that the destruction of the Twin Gums was a racist act.
Overnight the inference of a racially motivated attack on the sacred trees known as the Twin Gums made international news. For the many locals who knew and loved this prominent landmark, it felt like Alice Springs was in the news yet again for all the wrong reasons.
I have no doubt that some fire fighters and others living in the area knew the truth but what’s done is hard to undo. Media interest was intense but in the rush to print, those who knew the truth were apparently never asked.
The following excerpt is representative of media reports that followed the fire:
“There is no doubt somebody set out to destroy the trees,” a source close to the investigation told Fairfax Media. “… they had been approved for heritage listing, and that had apparently made them a target.” … Susan McCulloch, author of the Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, said destruction of the ”majestic ghost gums” that appeared in so many of Namatjira’s best-known and much-loved works was a tragic act of cultural vandalism …
In the weeks following the fire I returned to take photographs. Walking the fire ground I was reminded there had been three separate spot fires along the southern roadside of Larapinta Drive. The most easterly ignition point was just inside the boundary grid approaching the Simpsons Gap turnoff, another on the west bank of Roe Creek and finally the third at the Twin Gums. The fires were separated by a distance of about 1.7 km and the ignition points of fires two and three were only 100 metres apart.
There was little left of the Twin Gums to photograph so I focused my efforts on the nearby fire (fire 2) that had claimed a ghost gum, healthier and more magnificent than either of the ageing Twin Gums. I composed a surreal image with the fallen tree flowing like a torrent towards the camera, another graceful standing tree nearby and the inscribed tracks of the fire tender connecting both (image at top).
The more time I spent at the site, the more convinced I became that media reports had not uncovered the real cause of these fires. Might we not have to entertain the possibility of coincidence here, between the heritage nomination and the destruction of the trees.
Why would a racist, intent on destroying the nationally significant Twin Gums, spread their assault over such an area, thereby increasing the risks of detection? I remembered numerous other fires within the national park that had originated from the roadside. One informant confirmed my instincts of an unusual fire history showing a definite cluster in the local area involving many fires lit over several years.
Fires are lit for a multitude of reasons. I’ve seen a fire lighting spree triggered by a domestic violence incident – the man choosing to light random fires along the grassy river banks to terrorise his wife who had disengaged from their argument and was walking away. I’d draw a parallel with blokes I’ve known, who losing an argument with their wife or girlfriend, would punch a hole in a door to demonstrate their strength and propensity for violence.
I have it on good authority the Twin Gums incident involves a pattern of behaviour by a regular visitor to the area, a troubled and drug-affected young man seeking attention and demonstrating his anger. I doubt the destruction of the Twin Gums was a premeditated act but rather a grass fire that escalated. Nevertheless, the risks of this behaviour extends well beyond trees; such a fire could spread and threaten neighbouring hamlets and suburbs within minutes.
I won’t say more but I am convinced that any inference of racism, unlike the act of bastardry that killed the Traeger Park trees, is totally wrong. I could complain bitterly about the heavy price of lazy journalism and hasty judgments consigned to print. More relevant, I should emphasise the greatly weakened position of mainstream media and the pressure on fewer journalists to file more with less time and resources.
I really didn’t want to write this story and open old wounds or point the finger. Is it possible however to write about ghost gums and some of our nation’s most treasured artists whilst ignoring the Twin Gums tragedy? Might this awful memory fade from public memory over time? Wrong! The next lavishly illustrated book on the history of art in Australia or the one after will surely dedicate space to the shocking loss of this important cultural site. The existing public record stands until it’s corrected. Surely I owe it to the next generation of writers to interrogate the evidence and clarify this historical event.
I would argue this incident involving potential pyromania, mental health issues, adolescent stupidity and drug abuse should occupy a lesser citation in the continuing push-pull of the culture wars. Legitimate examples of systemic and shocking racism are commonplace in Australia and we certainly don’t have to magnify them or invent more to satisfy our appetite for bad news. Unsurprising to me, none of the Aboriginal people I spoke to wanted to throw white people under the bus for the Twin Gums tragedy.