The White-Barked Sentinel

The old man looked up to his hill of dreams as he drove, headed to the shops, that quiet and normal Sunday morn. As he did so he spotted it – a feature he hadn’t noticed till this time. It stood out – really stood out as he observed more closely – as closely as possible whilst still concentrating on the task at hand. Pale-trunked, it seemed to be exceedingly tall, towering above the eucalypts around it – its colouring distinguishing from the dun green surrounds. This, the old man thought, was possibly a tree for the ages. Over the following weeks the old man thought and thought about the White-Barked Sentinel – wondering if what he imagined could be its story – a tale about this fine old gum on a ridge above the little city on the river. He wondered and wondered if what he could make of it would be special enough. He determined he would make it concrete and discover if his efforts would measure up.

White-Barked Sentinel could now rest. It would die easy, of its own accord – as nature intended, not as white human man determined. WBS need not fear any longer. Its white human girl/woman had seen to that.

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For WBS those early years had now dimmed, such was its great age. More than three centuries had passed since the seed containing the nub of WBS had germinated and grown to be a sapling amongst the gums on Kunanyi’s foothilled northern flank. It already realised it was different from the others of its ilk. Whereas their bark was dark, WBS’s shone with luminescence in its stand. Gradually WBS reached for the sky with such vigour it outstretched the tallest of the older eucalypts. It could now embrace the sights to be discerned above and below. Up behind WBS there was the mountain, beyond which distant peaks seemed to go on forever to the shore of the sea of ice floes. Down below was the slow flowing tidal river – Raagapayarranne to the black human people who roamed the land. In these early years of WBS’s pomp that land was mainly whisper silent, at peace with itself – a far cry from the noisy world of the mature WBS. This special tree was proud that possum and parrot sought out its branches as their home and playground. It was proud that the winter pelted black human men gathered at the base of its trunk; it being a meeting place for warriors. Its role as a sentinel was in place. WBS knew that as winter receded so those pelts would be dispensed with as the black human clans made their way up to the high country to hunt bird and marsupial close to the battlements of Kunanyi. It knew their position from the thin slivers of smoke from their campfires rising above the canopy. Those wisps were a far cry from the form of smoke driven down the valley by the roaring forties at that time of the seasons. That forewarned of the bushblaze to follow – always destructive, but also of the cycle of the environment. It was not to be feared for the sap fed flames could damage, but never destroy. The land would sprout anew after the passing of the inferno – it was the forest’s way of rejuvenation. WBS knew the black human people used the flames to tame the land to their liking. With firestick clutched, it often saw them in passing, off to create new pasture or cooking fires. Down below, on the river, WBS could espy the reed canoes the black human men used to reach the opposite shore. With them they could also spear fish and catch water fowl whilst their womenfolk gathered shellfish in the shallows, filling their dilly-bags. The black human females were as sleek and as playful as the seals that came upriver in those days. In their nudity they were as innocent as that first Eve, whispered on the wind. The river provided much bounty – black swan, native duck for the black human diet. On special occasions WBS would discern spouts of water indicating a great creature was in residence, resting on a long journey to and from the land of ice. This animal, as placid as it was majestic, was impervious to the hunting instincts of the black human tribes. But it was another animal that WBS prized even more than the cetacean giants. A sacred place for it was held in its memory bank – a stealthy, prowling, stiff-gaited, striped marsupial wolf, of ramrod tail, lolloping through the ferny under-storey, often as day became night. It was rarely sighted, but WBS could discern its distant yelps – so ethereal compared to the snarling frenzies of the frenetic devils. The wolf was the master of its world as the emu and roo dominated the savannah country and the wedgetail eagle the thermals above. BWS only sees the latter two species rarely these days, the former two – never. They have been vanquished from the planet. Now a new species totally dominates the landscape and WBS yearns for the simplicity and peace of bygone times. Back then the black human males were the alpha animals, but they too have gone the way of thylacine and Tasmanian emu.

It was well into WBS’s second hundred years when, from on high, the tree spotted that initial strange vessel moving up the river. It was a thing of ramrod masts with white cloth a-flapping in the light breeze. After a while it turned and went back downstream. Some numerous months later there came another, but this one did not leave – it stayed, anchored off the opposite shore. Soon, across from that side there arose smoke that didn’t change location after a day or two, as well as solid structures no black human man had ever made. Then came the sharp retorts that a clan firestick also never caused, as well as a boom from something much bigger – something much more sinister. Quickly those structures disappeared from across Raagapayarranne, but not so those new and perplexing river craft. As with the black human people, they took the waterfowl and fish, but also crudely took the whale. WBS knew that on these boats were men of a different nature to those it was familiar with. From so far away the tiny figures on the craft were no bigger than ants to WBS, but soon they could be viewed at closer quarters from the near shore. WBS was able to discern two types – one clan were bedraggled, dressed in rags, connected to each other by tethers. The others were dressed in layers of clothing in reds and blue, no matter the heat, carrying firesticks not like in the experience of this land. Soon these strangely cloaked white human men were rampaging through the forest with massive, salivating dogs. In numbers they were chasing down the kangaroo and wallaby, clubbing the life from them once they were coralled by the ferocious canine. WBS wondered, unlike as with the black human people, why there were no women and girls. None were apparent for many a year.

Gradually the landscape afore WBS changed too. Trees down by the riverbank were felled by axe and saw, being replaced by a track – muddy in winter, dusty in summer. White human men rode along it on another creature foreign to BWS. With this women were indeed observed – never naked like the black human girls of experience, but covered so thoroughly barely any skin was visible. BWS noticed that the whale and seal no longer frequented the water, with the fires of the black human clanspeople now far distant and then – then there was nothing of them. They had succumbed to dog fang, lethal firestick and unknown convulsive distempers. Soon, as well, no more did the thylacine slink by, nor was its yowl heard by moonlight.

Upriver the chained white human men lugged rock to create a pathway across the river as wood and stone structures started to crowd the shoreline thoroughfare – not so muddy or dusty now. Boats plied across the river from bank to bank and as more trees disappeared, other strange creatures came into the presence of WBS – cow, sheep and pig.

The decades passed and sail was replaced by steam funnel on the river. The number of horses dwindled to be replaced by various forms of horseless carriage on the ever widening track around to where there was now a bridge at the end of the causeway the white human tethered men had laboured on. Their ilk had long vanished too. More and more white human structures took over the land in the view of WBS – beginning their long march up towards the huge pale tree on the hill of dreams. Unlike the flimsy structures of the vanquished black human people, these constructions had a permanence about them. WBS knew down to the core they would outlast the time remaining to anything else living. They were built for a sedentary life, not a nomadic one. The thickly covered lower hills of WBS’s youth were no more.

The sound of axe and saw eating into gum tree was also now a noise from long ago, replaced by machines that could demolish huge swathes of forest in an afternoon. It wasn’t long before the clearance had reached almost to the base of WBS’s massive frame. The white humans were now nibbling at the very extent of its spreading root stock. A structure in red oblong stone and green roof appeared beneath the most extended of the tree’s branches and soon the white human girl made her first appearance. One fateful day she was a presence at the base of WBS’s trunk, accompanied by a fully grown white human man and woman. She was very little then, merely a white human child. She and her mother watched as the white human man nailed a step-way into that trunk. Then, on the lowest branch, he proceeded to build a wooden structure resembling all the others down on the streets below – only smaller. He worked and worked, sweltering through a week of days till one culminating summer dusk. Then was heard the white human female’s call, ‘Tessa Tiger come and look up. Your Daddy’s finished. See what he’s built for you. It’s a cubby. Do you like it?’ WBS saw the white human child nod her head vigorously and cry with glee, ‘I love it Daddy. I will play in it forever!’

The next morning, as soon as it was light, there came a rushing blur though the gate that separated the white human little family’s garden and the bush around WBS – it was the tiny girl pounding her legs as fast as they would go to get to her cubby on the lowest branch. All day long she moved back and forward to BWS, bringing out her treasures to carefully place in an abode created just for her. For WBS these were days of joy as it witnessed wee Tessa Tiger’s delight with her new mini-world. WBS felt her move around inside the cubby and it seemed as good as anything during that long experience. WBS also knew that to the two fully grown white humans this small, white human child was more precious than life itself – and they entrusted her so readily to the care and embrace of the giant gum. From the tips of its very leaves to the life channels of its roots and trunk the ancient tree, WBS, was proud that this should be so. Tessa Tiger had found a safe haven within its mighty timbers, along with possum and parrot. As the strident summer merged into softer autumn she came most days. On other days the child went off with her white human father to return to her mother in the mid-afternoon. Soon WBS knew she’d be out amongst its branches and leaves, for every day till dusk, she climbed up and around – exploring to discover all the tree’s secret places. Now the presence of the white human child made WBS feel complete – her absence, somewhat bereft.

The times when the white human father and daughter were not present in the house, WBS loved to observe the white human woman day after day plucking away at something with her fingers, seated at a table where she could observe the bush, as well as the presence of the familiar eucalypt. WBS noticed the pure joy on the white woman’s face when Tessa Tiger returned to her each day – the talk and the laughter that would flow between them. Often the mother would walk the girl out to the base of her steps to the cubby and she seemed to delight in watching her daughter’s antics once up in the foliage – up into WBS’s embrace.

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Most days Tessa was in her cubby alone. WBS listened as she talked in white human words to herself as she made up convoluted games and read aloud her treasured books. WBS tingled with the joyousness of his favourite temporary lodger. WBS knew the girl child valued books as she bought armful after armful up into the sanctuary of her cubby on the lowest branch. In fair weather she took them even higher, up to favourite reading spots with a wide view of the world around. On memorable days Tessa Tiger would bring other children to share the specialness of her little construction in the leaves. WBS swelled with the sheer pleasure of these occasions that were a testament to the strength of the boughs the tiny girls romped around on. Their laughter, loud chatter and robust play filled WBS with the importance of simply being.

WBS innately knew that human people, both black and white, grew from child to adult – that these wondrous times could not last – and they didn’t. Rarer and rarer were the occasions Tessa Tiger visited and the old gum knew this was the way of things – but lamented nonetheless. It still watched her come and go from the construction across the bordering fence – saw her grow from child to teenager to finally a white human girl woman. Sadly there came a time when she was no longer a constant presence, just a visitor now and again. BWS felt this deprivation as much as it felt the loss of the black clans, whale, emu and thylacine. Something, it felt, had been removed from its very inner core.

One day WBS’s reverie was broken by a gathering of men in hard hats down below, around its trunk’s base. The venerable gum had seen this occur before. White human men in yellow hats had come to meet and gesticulate before in the surrounding bush. Soon after would come the fellers, with the result that areas of treelessness would be created, soon built on with constructions. The grand tree realised its fate would be be soon – quickly over by metal incision.

Tree fellers duly arrived and wandered around, pointing to and shrugging their shoulders at the old cubby that still remained. Soon a little vehicle came speedily up the street and out of it hopped, at pace, the white human girl woman BWS knew to be Tessa. She rushed out to the white human men in hard hats, still in discussion below, pointing her finger upwards and saying human words in a stentorian manner. The tree knew for humans this meant anger. White human Tessa Tiger was soon speaking into a little box held to her ear. Then they arrived – her friends of old – and more. Some climbed the still strong old palings to the cubby and perched on branches. Others joined hands and surrounded its trunk. Much loud white human language was raised. Then came some white humans all in blue who stood around, but with them came a quietening of tone. A single man came with a roll of white paper that was unfurled and pointed to, then slowly the humans started to leave. All that were left were the white human girl woman, her friends, her mother and father. There was laughter and much joy in their language. Later came music and some bottles of fizzy water that went ‘pop’ when they were opened. As day turned to night, the white humans departed, leaving WBS to ponder what would happen on the morrow. Sure enough, the human hard hats returned and started up their noisy felling machines. All around the oldest gum fellow trees fell so that, at the end of the day, the white-barked eucalypt could survey a field of unholy destruction. Over time new constructions built up, trailing up to the hill’s ridge, but WBS continued to be last gum standing. And so it remained, through the days and years of its existence until, eventually, the sentinel would be taken away, as nature returned WBS to mother earth.

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The old man finished penning his tale and looked out his kitchen window, across the water, over towards Kunanyi. His beloved Tessa Tiger was on the cusp of her third year of existence. He hoped that one day she would read his story, in amongst all that literature she devoured and perhaps look back to the times she went adventuring with the old man. Maybe she would also remember the day she herself stood on the very summit of Kunanyi, in tiger hat, held by her father’s safe hand and looked down onto her grandfather’s hill of dreams.

 

 

 

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