Ironbarks, as their name suggests, are tough trees. Their outer covering is thick, rough and deeply furrowed. Dead bark is not shed but accumulates. As it dies, it is infused with kino, a dark red sap or gum. The kino ensures the bark is impervious to fire and heat, protecting the living tissue within: one of the many fire adaptations of eucalypts.
It is this infusion of kino that gives the bark its dark colour, almost black. As if the trunks have already been burned. Or belong to another time. In places, deep red oozes through, like blood. Ironbarks grow in tough country, tolerating the dry. Their grey-green narrow leaves, turned sideways to the sun, are one of the features of the Australian landscape that early white explorers and settlers found so dreary and monotonous.
Ironbarks are my heartwood. They cling to the hilltops and paddock edges in the dry land of my childhood, in Central West New South Wales. Much of my family’s property is flat or gently rolling: wheat, cattle and sheep country. Most winters, the paddocks still run soft and green. Ghosts of big old yellowbox linger in the paddocks, dropping limbs.
The countryside was once covered with dense scrub and tall trees. By the 1890s, tree cover had receded to the hills, a part of the property we have always called ‘Up the Back’. It is stony and steep, which makes for poor farming, but thick with ironbarks, cyprus pine, wildflowers and wildlife. It was to these hills I was drawn as a child.
From twelve or thirteen, I camped out alone with the rocks, trees and stars. I would carry in everything I needed – at first on foot and, later, on my motorbike. To reach my campsite, I had to cross the main road and the neighbour’s paddocks, negotiating three difficult gates. The final leg was a tough climb over logs and rocks.
There was a flattish site for a tent and a large stone fireplace, overlooking crop and grazing land; straight boundary fences and lanes transecting the curves of tree-lined creekbeds and ridgelines. After sundown, my ironbark sentinels faded into the dark. The sky was bright and vast, sounds carried from far off, and I could just make out the glow of the next town.
By day I wandered, collecting itchy seedpod boats from beneath kurrajongs to sail on the dam, interrupting mistletoe-infected trees admiring their own reflections. Or sketching the delicate bluebells that appeared, as if from nowhere, in spring and summer. Below my campsite, on the cool side of the hill, there were a handful of boulders. They lay as if scattered by a giant. No matter how carefully I climbed down, the black wallabies thumped away at the first snap of a twig or scrape of my boot, leaving me to explore the ferns and mosses and orchids: a secret world of green.
I am made of ironbark. Formed on hills scraped back to their bones. It is to hills I have returned: a subtropical hinterland thick with trees and loud with birdsong. At first, blinded by chaotic green, I didn’t notice the ironbarks. After heavy rain, I recognised their black trunks standing among the brushbox, tallowwoods, bloodwoods, grey gums, and flooded gums.
These ironbarks are not the straggling things I first knew, eking out a living. They grow dead straight and tall. Saplings shoot up, gangly, competing for light. I cannot see their foliage unless I crane my neck and squint; they are all trunk. A verdigris of lichen clings to their southern sides.
Sometimes I see them with my father’s eye, calculating their diameter, the quantity of timber within, or dimensions of a bowl turned from a cross-section. There is one outside the bay windows of the lounge room, halfway down the slope to the dam, which must be sixty feet tall, and without a branch or blemish until at least thirty-five feet up.
It is by the big ironbarks that I orient myself, get my bearings. There are three around the studio, in a triangle, as if securing it to the slope. From the deck, there is a giant at twelve o’clock, at the end of our ‘garden’, looking towards the mountain range. It is the first tree I see from the loft in the morning, its dark trunk coming into focus before the others.
Australian nature writer, Alec Chisholm, saw something else in the ironbarks on his property, a shadow of its original owners and an expression of the ambivalence we all carry in relation to the Australian landscape:
This was the unhappy case, chiefly, when dusk enveloped the ridges and gullies on dull days in winter. The ironbarks had now shed their friendliness. They were, perhaps, revengeful phantoms of the black men who had once frequented these forests. Especially was I uneasy when passing a spot on a ridge top in which white pipeclay contrasted with the sombre colour of the trees (1964: 64).