When my plane taxied across the tarmac at Canberra Airport on Thursday morning, the thirsty jet engine warmed up for the northward flight, and I started reading Ray Kerkhove’s extraordinary document. Bunia Gathering: Early Record. This compilation of stories and memories of Bunia trees in southeastern Queensland captures and conveys the power of these majestic rainforest creatures. They have the ability to attract people to their towering trunks and huge canopies, and regularly enjoy rich nutrients. And delicious nuts, to celebrate and Respect the lively bonds that bind and nourish us. As the plane accelerated to the sky, I realized that it was Bunya who was pulling me northward, into its shadows and stories, and into the Blackall Mountains of Kabi Kabi Country.
We are visiting the mountains to start a conversation about bunya. Is it appropriate to showcase this powerful species in our new environmental history gallery? How can its form and meaning be reflected in the exhibition? Who can speak for this tree? Can this tree speak?
Braving the drizzle, Aunt Beverly Hand, bunya guardian and Kabi Kabi woman, led our small group into the rainforest and stood in front of a huge bunya. I put my hand on the wet, wavy tree trunk and noticed that the tiny leaves of the epiphytic ferns were gathering water droplets, glowing like polished green gems. 170 years ago, Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt experienced “a strange sense of joy” in this forest and described “trunks like pillars supporting the majestic tree of the sky.”
Leichhardt is not the first white man to feel and respond to the power and majesty of bunya. Our host Tamsin Kerr, Kurura Institute, Explained that botanist John Bidwell lived in the area a few years ago in Lake Hart. Bidwill was so fascinated by bunya and its forests that when the local gold deposit was discovered, botanists remained silent, worried that the gold rush would cause ecological damage in the mountains. In 1841, Bidwill sailed back to England to take care of the bunya seedlings to show them to Sir William Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens.This tree has an ancient lineage that can be traced back by Araucaria, Now bears the name of Bidwill, AraucariaThe sturdy bunyas next to ancient homesteads in southern Australia, and their ancient presence in botanical gardens around the world, document the ability of conifers to bind people in close, sensitive relationships.
In 1842, the New South Wales government banned livestock farming and forestry in the Blackall Mountains, acknowledging the profound significance of bunya to the Kabi Kabi tribe and other indigenous groups. Thousands of people from far and near continued their traditional pilgrimage, attracted by the Bunya people, enjoyed their big nuts, traded and held ceremonies. The protective proclamation was cancelled when the new Queensland Parliament was established in 1859. The settlers regarded the steep hills and Bunia forest as a base for terrorism. As the war spread, the local police forces targeted Bunya gatherings. By the 1890s, forestry companies had wiped out the Bunia Forest, which once covered the Blackell Mountains and the Bunia Mountains to the west, despite repeated protests by indigenous guardians (see Raymond Evans, “Against Grain: Colonialism and Cloth The demise of the Niya”) Gathering’, Queensland Review,volume. 9. No. 2, November 2002).
Driving on the winding roads of the Blacker Mountains, it seems that Bunia’s revival is beginning. The recently planted bunya saplings are planted along fence lines and farm driveways. The characteristic shapes of bunya trees and cones are decorated with the logos of local businesses. Aunt Beverly is leading the revival of bunya gatherings, a community event she calls “Bunya Dreaming”. If the rainfall in the mountains is enough for the bunyas to harvest a good harvest, the party will be held on (or around) the Australian National Day public holiday. When we talk to people who know and love bunya trees—those who know how to germinate and care for bunya seedlings, how to bake bunya nut brownies, how to cut down a bunya tree while maintaining the integrity of the old plantation, How to respect the ancient meaning and story of conifers-the cultural energy in the human/bunia relationship is obvious.
is called We visited the Garden of Eden in October last yearOn the southern coast of New South Wales, the long-term connection between humans and whales, as well as the cultural significance of the migration pathways of humpback whales and other baleen whale species, have powerfully shaped the imagination and identity of people and communities. In these lasting relationships that cross the barriers between species, there is a kind of vitality, a kind of precious force. In Australia, the human body and mind have long been nourished by their association with Bunia fish, whales, saltwater crocodiles, black swans, Murray cod, red kangaroos, mountain ash, shortfin eels and countless other species. How to respect these relationships in the museum’s new environmental history gallery, how to express and convey non-human forms and expressiveness, and how to make visitors perceive and respond to these forces are some exciting challenges we are now facing.
Above: Bunia Mountains National Park, December 2015, Flickr Creative Commons