Allan & I went out looking at Ring trees & artefacts this week despite the bone chilling westerly. I have come across so many Ring trees in the last few months that I am beginning to think they were more a sculptural thing than a sign for water. Like the ancient arts of bonsai & espalier that had cultural rather than productive purposes. Why wouldn’t the Kamilaroi manipulate the pliable tree species with limbs that fuse over time to produce meaningful shapes? After all the clans here already knew where the water was and unless sunken underground it would be obvious. Ring trees may have guided travellers but generally these trees are within 100 meters of a reliable water source so they would have already smelt it. Given the people had acutely refined senses they would have probably smelt the water over a km away. Possibly Ring trees are not a sign of water at all but a result of it.
Allan reckons the plaited branches on rosewoods and coolabahs were used to represent the union of different tribal groups. Such branch weaving would have been done when the trees were young and during wet seasons when the wood was sappy. During such good seasons there were probably many people gathered for the abundant food supply and vibrant social ceremonial life. Some of these Ring trees may have taken generations to complete. The “solstice” Ring tree would have needed firstly a low epicormic shoot sprouting off the main trunk. Scars can stimulate these buds to grow by interrupting the phytohormone flow (Strigolactone). Then this emerging shoot had to be carefully made divide and separate. Many years after the 2 low diverging branches were tied together so a ring was formed. I have no idea how long coolabah wood takes to merge when bound and I doubt anyone else does either. The entire process with ongoing technical adjustments could have taken centuries & for all we know the Ring may not be finished at all.
Rhonda Ashby from the Ridge also came out some days after this to lend her considerable knowledge to the question of Ring trees. Coolabah Rings are found on the heavy black soils here & Leopardwood Rings on lighter red soils. I know of only a single Bimblebox and Bambul (wild orange) Ring tree but Boonery (rosewood) sometimes have gaping holes in their trunks caused by branch fall as well. We had a very interesting day and ended up on our neighbours’ place where her mother and aunt had worked as domestic help years ago. They helped raise the landholder’s children and close bonds were formed on both sides. What Rhonda doesn’t know about scarred trees is hardly worth knowing. Allan had told me awhile ago that the grounded coolamon is a memorial to the loss of a child. Rhonda agreed and added such a coolamon with a smaller one above represented the loss of the mother in childbirth as well. Like a gravestone without the words. Another piece in the puzzle of the scartrees that will give me pause in the future to remember the hidden humanity behind this particular type of scarring.
Rhonda said she enjoyed hearing a farmer’s perspective on land use and productivity and how we conserve moisture for cropping. I showed her the silage bunkers and hay depot that let us keep livestock numbers up despite the worst drought in written record. Bush tucker production is a thriving new industry (new to non indig. at least) but won’t feed 25 million of us. To keep the land productive before the whites arrived, Aboriginal people had a sophisticated system of patchwork rotational burning – now known as ‘firestick farming’. When the whites took the land they didn’t have the cultural knowledge to continue this practice and resorted to ringbarking to keep invasive scrub at bay. This wasn’t very successful and much of the fire farmed clearings returned to scrubland after a run of wet seasons. Water courses became infested with coolabah saplings after floods. Add over-stocking, droughts, rabbits, cactus and land clearing legislation driven by ignorant green public servants & politicians and you have the current environmental mess.
Most illegal land clearing by farmers out here is simply a clumsy attempt to return the land to the condition it was in around the 1840s when first settled by Europeans. The bulldozer has replaced the firestick and unless we want to import our food as well as everything else from China it might be a good idea to get some advice from the original landowners. Hectares of monoculture whether its crop or plantation was not the indigenous way. We need to reverse the ridiculous belief that every tree is a good tree & that the whole of the country needs more of them. Much of urban and regional Australia does but remote areas like this could do with a bloody lot less.