Now, a tree doesn’t think like you or I. And that’s even implying that a singular tree thinks at all. For the purposes of this narrative, imagine an expansive and endless network of thoughts and impressions, all amalgamating in a timeless fashion. For what do trees care for days and months, minutes and seconds, ‘the other day’s and ‘last week’s when they have stood for thousands of years and share the memories of eons before them? Whispers of words on the wind, where secrets and pollen dance in the air.
And there are many trees with many stories, but committing them to paper has always been a sensitive topic. This is as much down to the mildly cannibalistic nature of the material as it is to a tree’s lack of hands and a voice as we would understand it. It makes each story as priceless as water in the desert.
One such tree whose story I will now attempt to tell stands grand and monumental in the pindan soil of Western Australia. Its age had been lost long, long ago, somewhere around the 1,500-year mark, when measuring time had finally become an irrelevant and exhausting way of passing it. This tree was a boab tree according to the thousands of visitors who had passed under its boughs. It had stood there and observed the world go by. It had stood there and witnessed both kindness and cruelty. It had stood there and seen the danger of arrogance and the price of presumed superiority.
The tree struggled to understand these human beings and their restless lives, without roots to keep them steady and strong and connect them to the earth, but it understood arrogance.
The boab had once been a proud and boastful tree. In the dreaming time, when the Wandjina creation spirits had stalked the earth and the land was formed and grown. The boab had boasted about its nutritious roots and life-giving fruit. It had gloated about the shade provided by its expansive branches, and its bark and pollen that could be used for rope and glue. It was such a useful and magnificent entity. The King of All Trees.
But the other trees had grown tired of the boab’s arrogance, especially as their own rooted nature prevented any possibilities of escape. They had cried to the Wandjina about their boastful neighbour and had groaned with exhausted boughs for something to be done. There was only so much that the rustling of their leaves and creaking of their branches could do to drown out the words. The Wandjina had obliged and gone to witness the boab’s haughtiness for himself. He saw the boab abusing the gifts the Wandjina had granted and lauding them over the other trees. As punishment for his crimes the Wandjina uprooted the boab in one fell swoop and overturned him, so that his roots rather than his branches swayed in the wind and only silence reigned from his entombed canopy.
And the boabs remembered.
It was an eternity later, when the trees had run out of things worth saying and had thus lapsed into thoughtful silence (a contemplative state humans have yet to master, what with their apparent fixation on the things worth not saying). It was an eternity later when this particular boab, which had stood outside Derby long before Derby was a word, let alone a place, was plunged into another tragedy of arrogance and spite.
It was apparently late in the 1800s by the annual measurements of the white foreigners. These men had brought their Aboriginal brothers and sisters to the boab’s hollow trunk in chains: taunting them, beating them, crushing them. For years the boab heard more of the moaning of the prisoners than the creaking of its branches, and of the weeping of the wounded than the whisper of its leaves. It had forgotten the twitter of birds over the clanging of chains and the flutter of bats’ wings over the endless traipsing of exhausted feet. He heard mention of foreign things: pearls, blackbirds, and long journeys from the far off lands of Fitzroy Crossing and Christmas Creek. But what these strange white and flightless blackbirds* found so interesting about these small, round pearls was as alien to the tree as the bowerbird’s obsession with colourful stones. Normally the issues of man were not the boab’s concern, but more so than any other fleeting human event, this struck the boab to its core in a very literal way. The only birds it had known up to this point had sought its trunk and branches for shade and sanctuary, not injury and imprisonment. But now the boab was regularly filled with wounded souls, sometimes as many as twenty heartbeats throbbing through the boab’s trunk in a collective cry of outrage, while the blackbirds in their strange clothes squawked and chattered outside. The prisoners had resisted as best they could, but they could not hope to match the white man’s violence. The boab would breathe in the very occasional flicker of hope, like a soft and sudden breeze in the dark stillness of night, which flits through the leaves with abrupt energy, but, like the breeze, would always bring back the stillness in its wake.
Eventually humans had moved on, but the boab had not. Its branches sagged, dragged down not by age, but by the unremitting weight of grief and suffering. And not a helpless and hopeless grief but a deep-rooted anger (and the boab understood entrenched roots well), which had thrummed through the prisoners at the injustice and cruelty they had faced for the sake of a people who had thought themselves better. Each soul weighed heavy on the boab’s heart, though it knew not their names, lives or endings, for both the boab and its Aboriginal prisoners were attuned to country the same way, and to some extent shared the burden of the other.
It was true that people still frequented the boab, although the constant stream of footsteps had faded into the distant background of the boab’s consciousness, the spot humans had inhabited for most of its existence. They read the signs and posed in smiling photographs, practically oblivious in their distance and denial. One day the boab might speak once more and share this side of the story for itself, but ‘one day’ may still be long after you or I, so it’s probably best not to rely on a tree. We must remember the story ourselves and acknowledge, forgive and learn from mistakes if we are ever to move beyond the scars of the past and heal over caverns as deep as holes in boab trees.
*‘Blackbirder’ was the title given to white men who hunted and captured Aboriginal people and transported them the coast for use in the pearling industry, as part of a process that was slavery in all but name.