The struggle to save the birthing trees

June 14, 2019
An 800-year-old Djap Wurrung tree the protesters are trying to protect.

When you travel the Western Highway in Victoria from Ballarat to Ararat, it is easy to see why local people have called for a widening of the road.

A few kilometres out from Ararat the road narrows from a four-lane divided carriageway to a narrow, two-lane, undivided highway, dense with trucks. It does not feel like a country road, despite the old gums that line the way. For a busy road that leads to a major town, the argument for widening is hard to ignore.

Abruptly, a strange sight emerges from around a bend. Barrier ropes and banners bedeck huge, labyrinthine-limbed trees. Sprawled among them are makeshift shelters and an Aboriginal flag. Signs declaring this an embassy of the first people of this land appear in full view, right on the edge of the carriageway. No one travelling this section of highway can fail to notice: there are people here and they mean to be heard.

I park my car and walk into the camp to the sound of wood being split. A young woman is swinging a splitter and stacking the firewood into a pile under a tarpaulin-covered frame. I say hello and ask if I can lend a hand. She smiles and hands me the splitter.

As I take my turn at working the logs we talk. She is from Melbourne and has been here only a few nights, lending her time to help defend an ancient legacy. A man asks if we would like a cup of tea. No generator runs, but solar-powered Christmas lights hang from the trees and a small fire burns.

Soon a blackened kettle is settled in the coals and we talk. He is a Welshman, who has taken time out from travelling to help with the embassy. Occasionally, a passing car gives out a staccato rhythm on its horn, in support or disapproval, no one can tell. The Welshman waves back anyway.

Truck drivers would often assail them with long blasts from air horns until the embassy crew put up a sign on the roadside urging drivers to honk if they support the protest. That eased the assault somewhat, they tell me, but a few passing trucks still let fly with long blasts as we sit.

A utility passes. Its passengers lean out of the windows, shouting angry abuse as loudly as they can. We cannot hear their words, but the message is clear: the embassy is not welcome. Again, we wave. I think about how personal this debate must be to both sides.

Ancient landscape

An Aboriginal man joins us. He is from Ballarat and has been coming here to support the embassy. This is not his territory, he tells me, although just across the nearby creek there is a 20-kilometre wide band of neutral territory. The ancient landscape remains for these people, and their laws are not forgotten.

There are two many-limbed trees here, centuries old. The one within the camp is the grandfather tree, and I am welcome to approach. But the grandmother tree, the Birthing Tree, is shielded with a rope barrier and a sign requesting no photographs. I am asked not to enter. It is a woman’s place, I am told by the young woman from Melbourne.

I walk over to take a look, wondering if these rules, meant to honour and protect an ancient tradition, help or hinder the cause of the embassy. But I honour the request and only walk around the tree. Ancient trees are always an impressive sight, but I find myself wondering if I have ever seen a tree so clearly ancient as this one.

It is tall, broad and at its base, facing the road, is a large opening, blackened with age and easily large enough to accommodate a birthing woman. In a forest, it would be an obvious place for a birthing woman to seek shelter, and I wonder how many lives began here through the ages. I wonder how many trees like it have been felled since European settlement. Some of these ancient trees were just too big to be cut, it seems, so the engines of development passed them by, until now. All the while, the road roars behind me.

A couple of dogs sniff about by the fire as the Aboriginal man smiles. He has spent a great many nights here. He holds a CB radio and tells how, when the truck drivers talk about driving through the camp he is able to say hello back. He is good humoured about the whole affair. It is a cause he must stand for, but he is not embittered. He seems a man glad to live with a purpose, protecting his ancestral heritage and the landscape of his ancestors.

Community split

I ask about the surrounding community and how they feel about the protest. The firewood I helped split was donated and delivered by a local farmer. Many of them are also against the road expansion — some because their land would be affected, but others because they too love the land, the old trees and the history.

But the animosity of others runs deep. Severed animal limbs have been thrown into the camp under the cover of night. The camp has been harassed with spotlights and horns and nearby rifle fire. Young activists from the city, unused to country ways, have found it too much.

A young woman raised in the district tells me these stories. She had been volunteering with Aboriginal support services in Ballarat and became deeply involved with their community and now with the protest. She is liaising with media and authorities and, she tells me, has not always been careful in her speech when dealing with locals and police.

An Aboriginal man was arrested recently at the camp, not on charges relating to the protest, but for driving without a licence and “verbally disrespecting an officer”. He was released on May 27, after spending 26 days in custody. As the young woman tells me, they were angry and abusive to the police and he paid the price.

From the comfort of our living rooms, we may judge this as a well-deserved punishment for abusive behaviour. But few of us live quite so far outside the grace of the law as the children of the survivors of the conquest of this land. More than the law is at play here and old animosities linger on from the days of rifle-fire and spears.

She tells me of a rumour that the local police were encouraging locals to run through the camp to disperse the protestors. While this may have been no more than a rumour, it is nevertheless eerily evocative of tactics once used against the first peoples of this land. I find myself wondering if such actions really do belong to the past, or if they have never really ceased at all.

I ask them what they need and they all say “not food!” They have had boxes of fruit go off before they could be eaten. What they really need, they tell me, is presence. They need people to help staff the embassy. I tell them many of us are working all the time just to keep the wolves at bay and have little time. I cannot stay myself. I have work and a young family at home.

I had come here to learn and I would do my best to share what I learnt. They nod, understanding. In our age, the insult of dole-bludger has resonance in the community. I do not know who here is on benefits. Clearly, none of them are working full-time. But so few are able to actually give their time to actions like this that it is almost always the under- or unemployed, the eldest and the youngest, who find themselves on the frontline of these fights.

The sun starts to sink and I tell them I have to get home to my family. They give me directions to the second camp and I drive back towards Ballarat: the cars and trucks thickening on the highway as the working world heads home to warmth and a meal at the end of another day.

Second camp

I soon find the dirt road that leads to the second camp and, a few kilometres along, I see the cars, tarpaulins and fairy lights strung up between the trees. A couple of small fires are burning.

I hear voices and say hello. They are welcoming and I soon find myself beside another fire with half a dozen young men and women. They offer to share a meal, cooked in a blackened pot over the fire; a sweet potato and vegetable curry with some cold rice. I think, perhaps, I should not take from them. There is a meal for me at home and these people are far from home. But they offer in good cheer and so I take as small a portion as I can.

We get to talking. Most are from Melbourne, but one is from Scotland; a traveller taking time out to do something that matters to him. One young woman asks me why some people are so hateful towards the defence of the trees. I tell her many of them are likely direct descendants of the settlers who fought and killed to colonise this land. To honour the Aboriginal heritage would, for them, be to cast doubt on the virtues of their forebears. For them, I tell her, this is deeply personal.

An older woman sits down with us by the fire. I cannot see her well in the gloom, but she does not look like a visitor from the city. It turns out she is a local, a farmer, and she has lived here all her life. She loves the land and cares for its histories, both recent and ancient. She has been lending what support she can. We talk briefly, but the night is closing in and I have to depart.

She too is heading home and we walk to our cars together. She says we have to find a new way to think of wealth. “What is wealth?”, she asks of me. “Is it money? Or is it peace of mind?” I tell her I feel the world is changing and a new understanding is growing. She agrees, but says we have to stand up and fight for it where and when we can, or it will never come.

Money versus culture

These people stand between knowledge and ignorance, between respect and destruction. It is a scene that plays out all over the world at every scale — from a single individual protecting one tree, to entire communities and cultures defending whole ecosystems and ways of life different from our own. And always the causes are the same. Money drives us, but gives us no peace. And those who teach other ways disturb our images of ourselves as noble and hard-working. There is nobility in our labours. But what do we build? And why?

These are questions we dare not ask ourselves, because the answers are fearful. Perhaps we build little of real worth. Perhaps we do labour for nothing. How many of us can really claim to do meaningful work? How many of us long for the end of the working day? The week? The year? The life? The ways of the ancients confront us with these questions. And if we cannot just look away, too often what offends our eye we seek to destroy.

But most of all, what plays out here, and in all such places and events, is a failure of governance. Our elected officials step away from their responsibility to engage the communities affected by change, and instead, leave the opposing groups to fight it out among themselves, dividing communities, towns and even families.

The road to Ararat needs widening, but other possible routes exist. A lower speed limit is another possible solution. A community can come together to find a way, and the farmers, the truck drivers and the guardians of the trees do all belong to one community. Mostly, what I see is a waste of so much energy; energy that could easily be directed to creating together, rather than fostering barricades and abuse.

As I drive home down dirt roads in the dark, a timber field is being burnt clear after the timber harvest. The flames glow against the darkened hills. I stop to watch the flames for a while and think of the mark we all make upon the lands in which we live. The First Peoples of Australia too burnt the land for their harvests. We are not as different as we think, and good hearts, good intentions and good honour in the face of anger, fear and confusion are the signs of what is best in all of us, and are the hope that lies in all of us for healing and the building of a better world for us all.

The birthing trees described here have been given protection, thanks to the efforts of the embassy protestors. However, they would only be preserved within the confines of the extended roadworks and would be practically inaccessible to the Djab Warrung people whose heritage they represent. It is for this reason that the Djab Warrung protestors seek to have the surrounds protected as well, and the road redirected.

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