Friday essay: crafting a link to deep time from ancient river red gum




Billy Griffiths, Deakin University

With a mischievous smile, Damien Wright gives the exhibit an unceremonious kick. The enormous, curved slab of river red gum rocks back and forth on the gallery floor, casting a wavering shadow over the “Do Not Touch” sign at its base.

A couple of anxious visitors shuffle over to investigate as Damien tells me how he made this wobbling wooden bowl, and why he chooses to work with the hardest, most challenging timbers.

Damien Wright, ‘Food Bowl’, 2017. Recovered Red Gum, 2800 x 1300 x 250mm.
Fred Kroh

The river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) once grew on the banks of the Murray River. Damien discovered the thick slab in a miller’s yard in Wodonga, where it had lain exposed to the elements for years, slowly warping in the heat. What others had dismissed as damaged wood, Damien saw as creative possibility: he relished the opportunity to work with wood that had been “cooked, cured and crazed by the sun”.

In his workshop in Northcote, Melbourne, he worked to accentuate the warp in the wood by curving the edges of the slab, creating a long, bowing channel, almost three metres in length and over a metre wide. Like all his work, this object is an argument he has made with his hands.

The rough, red, cracking grain of the wood runs lengthways across the piece, like gullies and rivulets spreading across a parched, burnt land. Damien encourages this comparison with his title, which is a pointed commentary on the mistreatment of the waterways on which the tree grew.

“It’s called Food Bowl”, he tells me. And then, gesturing to a knot in the centre, “It drains in the middle”.

Damien Wright, left, and miller Kelvin Barton with the slab that became Food Bowl, Wodonga, 2017.
Fred Kroh

For Damien, wood is a way of thinking about place and time — even deep time. A river red gum may grow for anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years before it falls. And as it decomposes over centuries it becomes a home for new life. Murray cod lay their eggs in drowned red gums.

To work with wood is to think beyond a human lifespan. When you look at something like the Murray-Darling system from the perspective of a grand old red gum, you see the fragility and inter-connectedness of the waterway, and how rapidly it has degraded with recent human interventions.

“And if you have that conversation about deep time in this country”, says Damien, “you have to talk about Indigenous people and this continent as an occupied and cultural space, not just a physical place”.




Read more:
Friday essay: when did Australia’s human history begin?


River red gums were a part of Australia’s environment long before people arrived here. They grew beside the Murray River when it was a wide, cold, fast-flowing stream; they witnessed its transformation in the late Pleistocene into a narrow, sinuous, seasonal river; and they have remained, over the past 13,000 years, as the water has slowed and warmed, forming swamps, low sand dunes and small lakes along the channel, and seasonal wetlands in the wider riverine plain.

These mighty trees have also been absorbed into the social and cultural worlds of Indigenous Australians. Their roots have been dug and hollowed out to create bowls, their bark cut to craft canoes, and their limbs burned to warm camps and cook food. In recent millennia, they presided over the most densely populated areas of the continent.

A red gum along the Wagirra Trail in Albury, 2017. Before European settlement, wooden canoes were cut from the trees and used by the Wiradjuri people on the Murray River.
Sarah McPhee/AAP



Read more:
The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage


Damien tells me how he seeks to evoke this deep history through his craft as he shows me two of his other pieces: a striking lantern (Black Lighthouse) he made in collaboration with Yolngu craftsman Bonhula Yunupingu, which glows like a fire through thin, black wood; and an elegant reading chair and angular side table called Ned — a riff on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly helmet, which it closely resembles.

Each piece of furniture has been made from red gum in a stage preliminary to fossilisation. The wood is black and almost as hard as stone. It is known as ancient red gum.

While other native timbers enable Damien to explore relationships with the Australian environment, the ancient red gum opens a conversation about deep time on this continent.

Geomorphologist Jim Bowler was the first to identify the material as red gum; he used radiocarbon dating to place its age at about 8,000 or perhaps 10,000 years old. Later I call him and, over the phone, he sketches out the wood’s journey from the banks of the Murray River to the workshops of inquisitive artisans like Damien.

The tree would have seeded after the end of the last ice age, at a time when sea levels were rising and the climate was warming.

The rapid snowmelt in the Victorian Alps caused the mountains to shed huge amounts of gravel, which was then swept into the Murray River. As red gums fell into an ancient channel they were covered by this new gravel, which sealed them in the riverbank.

Preserved from decay by the acidity of the water, the entombed wood slowly absorbed enormous amounts of iron and silica. This oxidising and ebonising process is what makes it black through to the centre and hard, much harder than other red gum.

Articulating a future

Jim first became aware of the red gum when he received some samples at the Melbourne Museum in 1990. The damp and fibrous wood had been unearthed in a quarry on Yorta Yorta land in Wodonga, where it was regarded as a nuisance by those more interested in the gravel around it.

Jim and his wife Joan Bowler recognised the significance of the timber and were eager to see it preserved and used. They helped arrange for the director of the museum to provide “authentications” for woodworkers to make it into furniture, and Joan and her friend Annetine Forell travelled the country over the following two decades, drawing the remarkable material to the attention of millers and craftspeople.

The late Kelvin Barton, a miller, woodworker and seventh-generation farmer, became a crucial intermediary. He collected the ancient red gum in Wodonga, reducing its water content in his ersatz kiln to turn it into workable timber. This was how Damien, a long-term friend and collaborator, came to encounter the ancient red gum — indeed it was in Kelvin’s yard that he found the much younger slab that became Food Bowl.

Ancient red gum, Wodonga, 2004.
Damien Wright

Damien uses the ancient red gum to articulate his vision for Australia. He sees craftsmanship as a language: a practice that is refined over time to communicate knowledge, beauty and ideas.

He considers his furniture — in its functionality as well as its elegance — as an embodiment of this philosophy. Objects tell stories. They become part of our everyday lives and express everyday futures:

My argument is that to take a material that is ten thousand years old and to articulate that in a beautiful and passionate way and to make that a relevant thing to our lives or to peoples’ lives is a way of articulating a future for this continent. It’s a way of understanding our place in time. It’s a way of dealing with people. It’s a way of projecting forward.

Damien Wright, Reading Chair and Ned, 2017. Ancient red gum and recovered black bean.
Fred Kroh

Joan Bowler shares this vision for the ancient timber. In 2008, her company Australian Ancient Redgum donated a six-metre “Fossil Tree” to the Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, so that “children can sit under this ancient tree and look up through the hollowed out centre and dream of what was and what might be”.

Trees that were seeded after the end of the last ice age, that survived the ruptures of invasion and industry, have reemerged to offer a deep-time perspective of the continent.

It is a scale that reveals the long-term costs of short-term exploitation, and renders processes like the degradation of the Murray-Darling river system into sudden events.

Ancient red gum also invites a longer view of Australian history. And in the hands of Joan and Damien, it calls for the acknowledgement of cultures and histories that for so long have gone unrecognised.

This is an extract from Living with the Anthropocene, Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner & Jenny Newell (New South Books).The Conversation

Billy Griffiths, Lecturer, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The river red gum is an icon of the driest continent


River red gums’ iconic silhouette is found across Australia.
The Conversation/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


River red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, are among the most iconic of Australia’s eucalypts. They are the most widely distributed of all the eucalypts. They grow along rivers, creeks, waterways and flood plains where many Australians like to picnic, so most of us get to know and love them.




Read more:
This centuries-old river red gum is a local legend – here’s why it’s worth fighting for


Formerly known as Eucalyptus rostrata, the species was one of the first eucalypts encountered in parts of Australia by European settlers. Curiously, the name camaldulensis comes from the Italian monastery of Camaldoli near Naples, where a specimen grown from seed in a private garden was given the name Eucalyptus camaldulensis in 1832. No one knows how the seed got to be there!



The Conversation

River red gums can be very large spreading trees with huge trunks more than 5 metres around. In parts of Australia, such as along the Murray River, they can be very erect trees reaching more than 45m tall.

Most specimens have smooth bark with a mottling of multiple colours ranging from creams to orange and red, but there may be a skirt of fibrous grey bark for the first few metres of the base. They are called river red gums because they grow along rivers and their wood when freshly exposed is a bright red; almost blood-coloured.

River red gums have been used by Indigenous people for canoes, bowls, shields, and other utensils. The wood is red is because it contains very high levels of chemicals such as polyphenols, which are a natural antiobiotic when combined with air.

River red gums growing along the Murray River.
Elizabeth Donoghue/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

These chemicals not only protect the living tree from disease and some pest attacks, but make the timber very durable. These chemicals meant river red gums were used for medicinal purposes by Indigenous people. The wood has been widely used for railway sleepers, fence posts, and piers and wharfs where durability and water resistance are desirable. They have been widely planted overseas and in some countries pose a serious weed problem.

The trees can have very long lives, and may reach 1,000 years of age. They grow very rapidly when conditions are favourable and so become large trees quite quickly. But as they get older it is very difficult to age them without damaging the tree and putting it at risk of disease and decay. So their ages are estimated, as no one wants to be responsible for killing a grand old tree just to confirm its age!

Older specimens almost always develop large hollows, which can take centuries to form. The hollows provide refuges for birds, mammals and reptiles. The nesting sites are often raucously defended by brightly coloured parrots. The trees and the nectar from their small white flowers are also very important for honey production – a large tree in full flower over the warmer months can attract so many bees that the whole tree can be heard humming from many metres away; it’s a wonder the tree doesn’t take off.

Trees in full flower can hum with bees.
Rexness/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

At certain times of the year, often during summer, river reds can be very heavily grazed by insects to the point where their leaves are skeletonised. The trees look as though they are about to die, but they are very resilient and a few months later most are back to a full and healthy canopy. Another insect, the psyllid, also feeds on and skeletonises the leaves. It has a sweet, waxy covering called a lerp that protects the vulnerable insect nymphs beneath. Some Indigenous groups scrape off the lerps, roll them into a ball, and eat them like a lolly.

Surviving floods and driving rain

Any tree that can live for a millennium must be adaptable, so like some other eucalypt species, river red gums can shed up to two-thirds of their foliage when soils dry out during a drought, which reduces water demand and prevents the trees from wilting. This shedding often causes people to complain about the trees when they grow in towns and cities, but when the rains come a few months later they rapidly produce new leaves and are soon once again in full canopy.




Read more:
The glowing ghost mushroom looks like it comes from a fungal netherworld


River red gums can tolerate immersion in flood waters for up to nine months. They do this by having extensive roots, some of which contain a spongy, air-filled tissue called aerenchyma that allows for the accumulation and transport of much-needed oxygen in waterlogged soils. This adaptation to stressed soils also means river red gums can do quite well in disturbed urban soils when the urban sprawl impinges on their natural domain.

River red gums readily seed after flooding events and great numbers of young trees may germinate. However, relatively few survive to maturity due to competition from other red gums, other trees, and weeds. They may also struggle to survive in some places due to a lack of water.

Because river reds occur in some of the driest and harshest parts of the Australian mainland, you might think they are very efficient users of water. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The trees can have very deep, spreading and searching root systems, which tap into subterranean water, even if the water is many metres from the trunk. They are luxury water users with very little capacity for water use control. If water becomes really limiting, they simply wilt.

Territorial trees

E. camaldulensis produces a water-soluble chemical that is washed from its leaves by rain. These chemicals inhibit the growth of other plants, including river red gum seedlings, under the canopy. This phenomenon is called allelopathy, and along with a dense canopy inhibits plant growth under the trees. These chemicals are washed from the soil by flood water, which makes way for the germination of seedlings after floods. This is a wonderful mechanism that ensures seedlings do not germinate when conditions are dry and where they would compete with the parent tree for limited water, but germination is facilitated when there is plenty of water and soils are wet.

River red gums clear out the ground around them with toxic chemicals that discourage the growth of competitors.
allelopathy/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Some people think river red gums are dangerous because they shed large limbs without warning on calm, still, summer days. There is no doubt this does happen, but there is no clear evidence they shed limbs more often than other species.

The problem is complex, because they tend to grow everywhere people want to go. They provide shade along waterways on a hot, dry continent. In going to places where the trees grow, people tend to compact the soil with their vehicles and footpaths, which can be causes of limb shedding. The compaction of the soil affects soil moisture and aeration, which can lead to limb shedding.




Read more:
Warrigal greens are tasty, salty, and covered in tiny balloon-like hairs


In other contexts such as farms where limbs are shed, many old river red gums are growing in highly disturbed or changed ecosystems. Furthermore, many of these remnant specimens are often stressed and getting older and so more prone to shedding.

River red gums trace the watercourses of mainland Australia, and are easily seen from aeroplanes as you cross the continent. They connect the continental fringes with its arid heart. Their lives can span many human generations and it is nice to think that the majestic old trees that pull at our heartstrings have done the same to previous generations and, if we and they are lucky, will continue to do so for generations of Australians yet to come.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This centuries-old river red gum is a local legend – here’s why it’s worth fighting for


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


In Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, his titular character famously said:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.

In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the Lorax’s call to preserve what is precious couldn’t be more apt. The greatest threat to the survival of species globally continues to be habitat destruction and modification.




Read more:
The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage


A potential and local victim of this ongoing environmental catastrophe is a single tree, and a tree I have a deep personal connection with. The tree I refer to is Bulleen’s iconic 300-year-old river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

To me this tree has been a constant in my life. While everything else has changed around me, it has stood there, solid, just as solid as its red gum fibres are known to be.

As a child I fondly remember looking up at this tree in awe, as we’d often stop at the nearby service station on a hot summer’s day to buy a cold drink or ice-cream on the way to Saturday sport, the nearby Birrarung (Yarra River), or my grandmother’s house.



The Conversation

Bulleen’s majestic river red gum

It’s estimated to be approximately 20 metres in height with a canopy spread of 17 metres. And its trunk measures a whopping two metres across.

The tree is thought to be the oldest remnant of a once substantial red gum forest, and was saved by a local resident when the rest of the area was cleared for the construction of a service station.

It now faces destruction, as it is within the preferred path of construction for Victoria’s North East link.




Read more:
How I discovered the Dalveen Blue Box, a rare eucalypt species with a sweet, fruity smell


While the measurements of this tree are impressive, the splendour and value for me is that it has survived for so long and, in more recent times, against tremendous odds.

Surviving against all odds

The Bulleen red gum stands beside one of Melbourne’s busiest roads and the immediate area is covered with concrete and bitumen. The tree’s roots and health have therefore been challenged for a long time, and yet this massive red gum stands, as if in defiance of the modern world and the development that has encircled it.

Since this tree has survived for so long, it undoubtedly holds a special connection with so many: the Wurundjeri-willam people of the Kulin Nation, members of Australia’s famed Heidelberg school of artists who lived and worked in the near vicinty, everyday commuters that have driven or walked by or stopped to admire it, or the war verteran Nevin Phillips who once apparently defended it with his rifle against it being chainsawed.

Very old trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum deserve our respect and protection, for these trees have substantial environmental, economic and cultural value.
National Trust

Further proof of the value of this tree to so many is that it was awarded The National Trust of Australia’s (Victoria) 2019 Victorian Tree of the Year.

Why we must speak for and save old trees

I grew up near this tree and, like the Lorax, I would like to speak for it.
Trees as old as the Bulleen river red gum are now increasingly rare in our world, and beyond their strong personal and cultural values, including in some places as Aboriginal birthing sites, they are tremendously important for other reasons as well.




Read more:
Vic Stockwell’s Puzzle is an unlikely survivor from a different epoch


These trees provide shade and help keep our cities cooler, improve our mental health and wellbeing, and store considerable amounts of carbon aiding our fight against climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, under their bark and in their cracks and hollows, they provide homes for many of Australia’s precious but increasingly imperilled native wildlife, including bats, birds, possums and gliders, snakes and lizards, insects and spiders.

These homes are prime wildlife real estate, especially in our big cities, where such large old trees are vanishingly rare but where considerable wildlife, common and threatened, still persists. And yet more could survive with a helping hand from us.

A powerful owl chick in a tree hollow, in outer Melbourne.
John White (Deakin University)

As cities like Melbourne continue to grow around the world, there will be more and more cases where arguments of progress are used to justify the further destruction of what nature remains. But progress shouldn’t come at any cost, and in the case of preserving iconic and valuable trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum, it would seem there’s more than enough reasons to ensure this tree’s life and its many values continue.

Perhaps again the wise sage, the Lorax, says it best.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.