I’ve just spent more than a week living in a eucalypt woodland in central Queensland. For 8 days I saw no concrete, no bitumen. I didn’t check the internet, or watch any TV. I slept in a tent pitched on pale orange sand, with native grass tussocks all around, dried to a crisp straw-yellow. At night an owlet-nightjar churred softly in the tree above my tent. Further away, a boobook owl was making courtship noises – its continuous whoop-whoop-whoop call sounded like a stuck record. Sometimes echidnas would come shuffling by in the night. Many small humped golden termite mounds were scattered through grass, and in the morning there would be new excavations at the base of a mound or two. One day we found 3 echidnas cosily embedded together in the base of a hollow tree. Waiting sleepily for their nightly feasts of insects.
The camp was surrounded by a type of golden-trunked bloodwood (a relative of Eucalyptus) that only grows in central and northern Queensland. It’s called Corymbia leichardtii, after the famous and ill-fated explorer, or ‘rusty jacket’ if you want to be more familiar.
Many of the middle-sized trees had come up in the wet years of the 70’s, although a giant growing near my tent was likely to be around 200 years old. Its trunk was about 55 cm in diameter; its many hefty limbs sought upwards to the sky, and then trickled away into narrower and narrower branches, finally looping over and down to brush the grass below. An arching, golden fountain, generously adorned with bright olive-green-yellow foliage, visited by birds, and surrounded by sapling youngsters. Its vitality was offset by the pale grey dead wood of its deceased companion: a tree that had once been the same height and shape. Some of its remaining branches still pointed upwards, striving towards the light, and others swept downwards to the earth. I wondered when this now-dead tree had germinated, when it had died. If the living tree was about 200 years old, this dead one probably started its life well before white people settled Australia. Were these two trees siblings, cousins or parent and child?
I spent hours drawing these two trees, and felt privileged to be in their presence. Drawing a tree is complicated and requires concentration. But after a while it becomes a meditation, especially when sketching the branches, concentrating just on the lines silhouetted against the sky. You follow a particular branch and discover where it goes, how it links with another, or disappears in shade or behind foliage to reappear again like an old friend. There are many ‘aha’ moments.
The woodland stretched out in all directions. Vast, virtually untouched, a continuous dance of venerable old trees, with bowing, curved, reaching branches.
The old trees were replete with hollows. Large fallen trees had been left where they had toppled over, leaving tangles of woody debris. This meant many homes and hiding places for wild animals. And there were plenty of young trees, scattered and in groups, upright and sprightly. The tree and shrub species were a curious mix of arid-country sclerophylls and rainforest relatives. Often converging together in their appearance: plenty had rough-barked trunks and thick, strappy leaves. The place is grazed only lightly so the native grasses were abundant.
And then there were the birds:
A dawn serenade of Jacky Winters, the demure brown-grey relative of the robins. There seemed to be one perched high in a tree every few hundred metres or so, singing sweetly but insistently to stake out its territory.
Garrulous chattering of the honeyeaters: blue-faced, grey-fronted, striped, spiny-cheeked, white-plumed, noisy friarbird, little friarbird. Sweet pipings of the white-throated and western warblers; yellow-rumped thornbills tinkling as they flew up into the trees from the ground. Chortled fluty notes of the pale-headed rosellas; green-and-red undulating flight of the red-winged parrot.
Rufous whistlers and weebills called cheerily, as did willy-wagtails, while grey fantails and restless flycatchers swung and darted up in the trees. Occasionally you would see the waving skirts of an emu as it strode away. Once a stiff-necked bustard, bill pointed skyward, eyed us warily as it disappeared into long grasses that were aflame with the warm colours of sunset.
A spotted bowerbird cursed me harshly as I followed it to its currant-bush retreat. No bower yet – was it waiting for the rain? Above my head, 6 species of woodswallow wheeled and glided like paper darts across the sky.
A brown treecreeper busily inspected its tree, hopping vertically up the trunk and along the undersides of outstretched limbs, while hooded and red-capped robins looked on. There were bush stone-curlews and babblers, finches and fairy-wrens. Many of these woodland birds are declining species elsewhere in Australia. In this expanse of woodland they were thriving.
The woodland is mainly dominated by the silver-leaved ironbark (Eucalyptus melanophloia), but the second-most common tree species is what gives this place its name. Bimblebox, the poplar box, Eucalyptus populnea.
This is Bimblebox Nature Refuge. It was preserved by some wise and far-sighted people during a time of frenzied tree-clearing. They bought it with the help of funds from the National Reserve system of Australia, and it became a Nature Refuge under Queensland law, the highest protection that can be granted to private land in the state. Seen from the air, it is an island of green surrounded by treeless cleared land. Now Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal company is set to turn the place into a coal mine – 2/3rds of it open cut, the rest longwall. No Australian or Queensland environmental law seems strong enough to prevent the mine from going ahead, but there is a chance that poor coal prices will.
The Galilee Basin coal mines may create a few thousand jobs for 30 years or so. In doing so, they will destroy plants, animals, woodlands, heathlands, wetlands and groundwater systems (say nothing of the Great Barrier Reef) that have taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years to evolve. The old trees will be trashed, and the birds will die – there is nowhere else for them to go. The mine will leave an ugly legacy of rape and pillage for many thousands of years into the future, as well as spewing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when the coal is burnt.
Humanity remains in a dark and dangerous state if we think it’s ok to let such lunacy go ahead.
I travelled to Bimblebox as part of this year’s Art, Science, Nature Camp, which would not have been possible without the hard work of Paola Cassoni, Ian Hoch, Jill Sampson, Beth Jackson and many others. Read Artist Camp September 2015 for more about the camp.