There’s a tree in the park down the street that grows on the edge of a main road. The road is part of a busy junction where the city and the suburbs come together then break off into every direction branching out across Melbourne. The tree is a river red gum that has stood at a crossroads for between 300 to 500 years or so it says on a plaque where it stands; a wonderful sign that doesn’t claim knowledge that can’t be proved.
No one really knows how old the tree is, its age is an estimation based on what is known about trees, this native is thought to live up to 1000 years or more. However old it might be it is the last river red gum standing where there were once many, and it is far older than any other living thing that I have seen in the city where I live.
The crossroads where it stands have always been there in one form or another; the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung people, whose land it is and has always been, used the tree to mark a junction on their country. The tree marks a point to change direction, to meet, to come together, a constant standing in place against the changing landscape and the passing of time.
This river red gum tree is an elder standing tall over the land surveying life in every direction as it has done for longer than any living man or woman. In its youth it was cared for by the caretakers of the land who gathered to celebrate against the backdrop of this ancient place that served as a nursery for the fledgling river red gum. They call it the Ngargee or Corroboree tree.
Rooted in the scrub that covered the land in every direction from the ranges to the coast it thrived and grew. Sparse undergrowth allowed for sunshine to beat down where the tree radiated in the heat under the summer sun, in winter it weathered the damp cold. There was no need to push high and fast toward the sky, the surrounding trees grew standing apart enough to share the light so the river red gum grew wider and broader over time taking up space and staking it’s claim.
Contorting itself toward the light it grew lush and large spreading its canopy with fecundate ease then mutated from lush to sparse dropping limbs in drought time. Branches shed from the giant as near as a century or two ago were already giving back to the landscape homes for the possum and cockatoo, the hollow logs serve and have served as havens for generations of natives. The caretakers took leaves from the elder to make rubs and vapours using the medicine of the leaves to guard against sicknesses that came and went with the changing of the seasons.
It twisted up slowly toward the sky pushing roots down below deep into the earth to stand fast over the centuries claiming above as it does below. It taps into secrets of the land that we can never know as surely as it reaches down with a deep sinker root to tap into water far underground that we could never discern.
It reached taller, it grew fatter, it filled to the brim with history and life and knowledge. A person could never know the wisdom of a tree, our bodies would wither beneath the forces of nature unable to sustain a life beyond survival. The elements of the world are too harsh for us without the land and water and the shade of a tree.