Three years ago (August 2011), my son and I were driving to his father-in-law’s home in Ross Creek. The sun was low in the ‘golden hour’ of afternoon sky when I saw this tree on Henderson Road. We stopped to photograph. Back in Canada, I processed the image. I worked with it again and again, but could not bring out in the image the magic of that moment. Returning to Australia in December, I knew I wanted to go back and photograph the tree. We waited for the sun to descend before heading back to Henderson Road. I think now, that maybe we waited a bit too long, which is to say that I’m more satisfied with the image, but not completely. Most probably, I never will be.
I’ve come to love the landscape of Victoria State because of the trees, particularly the Eucalyptus, more commonly known as gum. The ‘Tree on Henderson Road” is a gum, but I wanted a more precise answer. Without an arborist, the answer may be hard to come by because there are about 800 species. Australian writer Murray Bail isn’t one to waste that fact. In his modern-day fairy tale Eucalyptus (1998), a widower named Holland busies himself planting trees. Lots of trees. Lots of varieties. When his only child, Ellen comes of age and beauty, he informs her that she can only marry the first man to correctly identify each and every tree on the farm. I’ll be looking for Eucalyptus, winner of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and a New York Times Notable Book of 1998.
To say that the trees have character is an understatement; they have spirit. I’m not the first photographer to believe in trees.
In 1937 Harold Cazneaux photographed a River Red gum tree in the Flinder’s Ranges. An Eucalyptus camaldulensis, he titled his image of it “The Spirit of Endurance,” and it became known as the Cazneaux Tree. He later wrote:
This giant gum tree stands in solitary grandeur on a lonely plateau in the arid Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where it has grown up from a sapling through the years, and long before the shade from its giant limbs ever gave shelter from heat to white men. The passing of the years has left it scarred and marked by the elements – storm, fire, water, – unconquered, it speaks to us from a Spirit of Endurance. Although aged, its widespread limbs speak of a vitality that will carry on for many more years. One day, when the sun shone hot and strong, I stood before this giant in silent wonder and admiration. The hot wind stirred its leafy boughs, and some of the living elements of this tree passed to me in understanding and friendliness expressing The Spirit of Australia.
The photo of the Cazneaux Tree has become an Australian icon. Reportedly the tree is still standing.
The Herbig Tree is another River Red Gum, significant in the history of Australia. In 1855 Johann Friedrich Herbig arrived as a settler in the colony of South Australia. He secured work on a farm and took up residence in the hollow trunk of a tree said to be 6 meters in diameter at its widest point. Conveniently, the opening to the hollow faced away from the prevailing winds and the rain. Three years later Herbig married. Johann and his wife and first child lived in the tree until 1860 when a second child arrived. I can almost hear Mrs. Herbig, “Johann, we simply can’t continue … It’s either the tree or me.“
Three years ago, my wife and I climbed Mount Buninyong. It was foggy and rainy, and an image I took during that hike won a prize in the annual PEI Photo Show the next year. This December we hiked it again. It was a hot sunny day, and the summer air was perfumed with eucalyptus. The species may have been Eucalypus aromaphloia or scent-bark. (Also known as the Creswich Apple-Box)
My son and his family now lives in a suburb of Ballarat. There is a park across the street from his house, and in the park is a River Red Gum tree with a hollow trunk. A spirited tree, bees were swarming near the opening to its trunk. I couldn’t resist another photograph.