‘Hey Frankie’, I smiled at my Kamilaroi mate who had given up his Sunday bowls tournament to come out scartree hunting with me. Frankie waved as he eased himself out of his patchy purple “coon car” as he called it and closed the door carefully to prevent it falling off its hinges entirely. I had scolded him once for using such disgracefully bigoted language when referring to the dilapidated Datsun but he had simply grinned and replied ‘wot… it’s a free world aint it?’ Frankie had no truck with political correctness or racism or even reverse racism. Fittingly the dodgy purple Datsun didn’t have reverse either and how it came to be registered was one of those inexplicable miracles of the modern era.
Frankie was a big, hairy, barrel chested, slab shouldered sort of bloke who looked like he had descended from a long line of sloth bears. His knuckles didn’t exactly drag along the ground but he lurched rather than walked and slumped when he sat drinking tea on my kitchen veranda. That’s where the likeness ended as his black eyes shone like mica, fairly gleaming with intellect. Frankie’s wild curly locks had enough natural crimp to make a wool classer grin. He mostly tied it back with twine or those broad orange elastic bands that held the week’s mail together. His clothes were slung around his person in a similarly haphazard manner suggesting he swaddled himself each morning rather than dressed. In short not the sort of man you would want to meet broken down on your own at night on a remote bush track. Which funnily enough, is exactly how I did meet him.
Frankie had found me close to tears one night with a flat back tyre in the old Daihatsu ute and a badly positioned jack that had slipped out of place in the soft sand. Dumb place to change a tyre his eloquent eyes suggested as he casually righted the jack and lifted the ute’s rear chassis back on with barely a grunt. After he replaced the baldy flat with an equally baldy spare, he asked with a troubled frown how far I had to go. ‘Just another few miles down there’ I gestured, reaching for my handbag, ‘can I give you some cash for your trouble?’ ‘Nah’, he said waving me away’ but you kin ask your old man kin I look round them scartrees in the sandhills there’. ‘Sure that’s fine’ I smiled glad I could return the favour and relieved I didn’t have to walk home in the dark.
‘I’ve always wondered what those big scars were for anyway’ I pondered aloud while Frankie packed up his tools. ‘We were told at school they used the bark from the big ones for carrying roos and the smaller coolamons were for .. um… babies’ I finished lamely. I was going to say piccaninnies but realized in time that was probably a suspect term even last century. ‘Theys boats’ he whispered softly nodding toward the sandhills. ‘Ok’ I replied doubtfully, eager to get on home to start the evening chores as it slowly dawned on me he thought I was a total dill. Better to remain silent then open one’s mouth and remove all doubt I thought belatedly. Unfortunately my words had already bypassed those brain synapses that censor speech. ‘Right, so … they cut out the canoes here and dragged them 50 Ks down to the river’ I asked sceptically? Frankie sighed with the patience of the ages, leaned closer and muttered, ‘floods’.
Of course, I thought as I drove home over the rough corrugated track, each bump jarring my mortified ego. Of course they would need boats during floods for the little kids and their meagre camp belongings. I blushed as red as the scalded flats with embarrassment whenever I recalled that conversation with Frankie during the week. Fancy living in such close vicinity with these majestic old trees and being so bog ignorant of their past. I googled pictures of tribal men carrying big game trussed on a stick or simply slung over their shoulders and updated my scanty knowledge base. I found that traditionally women did rest their babies in coolamons sometimes but mostly used woven dilly bags to carry stuff. So when Frankie showed up at the homestead the next weekend to see the trees, I went too. He didn’t let me off the hook entirely that day but conceded this, ‘when we woz at school them nuns toll us Cap’n Cook discover this country, howja reckon that feels’? Our long friendship began that day searching for understanding out on country, on the web, on Facebook or simply face to face with the old folks showing scartree photos on the phone.
Frankie’s education was limited like many indigenous men his age as his family moved around a lot. His father worked on various pastoral stations in the Walgett district and his mother did domestic work if it was available. Frankie didn’t drink but his father did so that probably explains that too. He didn’t talk much about his childhood but he sometimes spoke of various uncles and aunties and what they had shown him. He recalled their dogged determination as they clutched his hand and dragged him off on some bushtucker trip or another. Drunk or sober they would transfer the knowledge that became his priceless inheritance. It was their duty to give and Frankie’s to receive and he became the beneficiary of all this accumulated awareness. Improbable now in our disposable reinventable world that information gathered many generations ago would still be seen as relevant.
So “Scartree hunting” was a private joke Frankie and I shared as we carried only mobile phones and trees don’t move that fast. Even the purple coon car had better acceleration Frankie observed drily one day. Coolabahs do in fact creep forward over centuries, occasionally making a slow leap of space and faith to arch across and sucker up some meters away from the main trunk. The grotesque limbs from these gnarly old arboreal dinosaurs can reach out over time to reroot and shoot up again with surprising vigour. Such old fellas are infested with wood boils like arboreal cane toads. God love em they were ugly with their ageless cultural scars all healed into deep pockmarks and zippered lines of sutured bark. How long they had squatted there fulminating no one knew because no one ever bothered to age them. The truly ancient had become termite tucker and were now just dark shadows on the ground. Academic interest in scarred trees was limited to the coastal rim or national parks a few hours’ drive from the regional Uni’s, so they could all get back in time for lunch.
Frankie and I always found the most impressive scars resided on the humble bimblebox. The kind of scars that were so deep and so old that my jaw would drop in astonishment. Even Frankie would do the classic double take and mutter some of his truly original and organic expletives. From a farmer’s perspective box trees were mostly woody weeds and water thieves that were useless for anything but shade. They were nearly impossible to kill as you could clear them and burn them or poison them but they just suckered up from the butt and kept on keeping on. This tenacity enabled the tree to survive the arduous Aboriginal scarring process akin to having a strip of skin from your arse to your elbow removed with a scalpel. To stop the grubs and bugs getting in through the exposed sapwood, the tree promptly seals off the wound forming a semi permanent scar.
Occasionally if the old coolamon scars were on opposing sides of the trunk, the scar faces would fall out over time and a breezeway was created through the tree. Frankie and I loved these arborous portals. He said some of the gaps were made deliberately by tying limbs together when the trees were young and shoving a big stone in between to stop them growing over. The bound branches would fuse over time forming living tree rings. Tree changing had been popular in the last sixty thousand years or so, long before the TV series Frankie reckoned. He told me the people would ‘bend em, twist em, tie em, plat em and if they got hungry enough they’d eat em.’ The soft timber of the whitewood could be ground into flour and the roots of the needlewood dug up, sealed with clay and used as a water bottle. Not only could you pick the fruit, grind up the seeds and suck nectar from the flowers but valuble foods like possum, goanna and bird’s eggs were found in trees too. To extract a recalcitrant possum Frankie said you had to build a fire at the base of its hollow tree and send your mate up to the nearest escape hole with a net or a waddy. The smoke would force the possum up and out and not only did you have tonight’s meal but part of next winter’s wardrobe as well.
These possum trees still had their stories written in charcoal at the bottom of their burnt trunks. Frankie and I found most other trees with burn scars on their bases were clustered together and told of clans travelling through and camping there. Typically only the leeward side of slanting trees were burnt so the cooking coals were protected from the wind and rain. Sometimes the charcoal was carefully rubbed off to mix with the medicines and poultices that the people used. Fireplace scars had their own tales to tell of old ceremonies and long journeys navigated by the stars. If only trees could talk people used to say but Frankie and I saw it differently. If only people would listen. Each tree was unique and the stone axe wounds distorted over time producing complex consequences in the scar face. A single axe cut could cause considerable tree width dieback while the big redgum canoe scars might shrink down over centuries to nothing bigger than a football.
Eucalypts weren’t the only species utilised and Frankie and I found plenty of scrub trees proudly displaying their scars like war medals. Ironwood slabs were shaped into boomerangs and woomeras while mulga wood made good shields. Supplejacks that thrived in the sandhills west of Walgett sported their original axe cuts without any layer of overgrowth. Their sticks were rubbed together rapidly to make fire. We saw strip scars on belah trees too where spears had been removed. Quartz flakes for spear points, like grinding stones and hafted axe heads had to be traded for at gatherings on the Narran Lakes. As Banjo Paterson once wrote … “For the saltbush plain and the open down, Produce no quarries in Walgett town”
The exterior of a few old trees around the house here resembled the battered purple duco on Frankie’s car. Some scars were the result of natural branch fall or disease. There were others from bingles with vehicles or stock scratching themselves over the years. Often there were multiple scars of different depths but the curved trunk sections and bent branch elbows seemed particularly popular. Naturally convex wood requires much less work to achieve a basin shape and the maker would venture high up the trees to secure such a coolamon. The handholds and toeholds cut into the bark left their own scars and gave us more insight into the life and times of Frankie’s ancestors.
Not all scartrees are alive. Frankie and I came across plenty that had been ringbarked in the past including a remarkable rung “ring” tree. These dead eucalypts were still standing with their oval scars gaping open in anguish. I told Frankie once that the trees looked like they were screaming for help, but he had just shrugged. Rung trees remain frozen in time but relatively unscathed by it as the climate here is so dry. Instead of rotting away they stay upright like a fossilized forest. A rare few of the oldest ones had carvings such as emu tracks or other designs that looked like they were scraped out with a knife or broken glass. When the Chinese ringbarking teams came through in the 1890s they killed these carved trees as well. Still they stand unseen and isolated sculptures that age did not weary nor years condemn. For groups of rung trees on dusk always reminded me of ghostly army regiments. When I expressed such fanciful notions to Frankie he would simply raise one eyebrow in that exasperatingly familiar way. I would just shrug and reply ‘Wot.. it’s a free world aint it Frankie?’