In part 1, Lad Sessions gave you a very good technical description – he’s researched the subject in depth, and anything I can add is likely to be shallow. So I’ve made this more anecdotal, instead.
What do we understand about “bark”? First thing I ever understood was that it “doggish” for “hi there pleased to meet you!” But then as I scampered around the garden and further afield, bark opened up a whole new world for me. Climbing trees – picking fruit and nuts from trees – falling out of trees – falling in love with trees – sheltering underneath trees. Chopping branches that had fallen from them, watching the curly golden flames emitted by them as they burned in the grate during cold winter evenings – even my Dobermans loved staring at that!
This is going to be mostly about Australia, because that’s where I’ve spent most time with “trees”.
My view of Australia is atypical – more reminiscent of the impact it had on early scientific expeditions like Baudin’s at the commencement of the 19th century, some 15 years after Britain started filling Sydney Cove with its overflow of convicts and bawdy drunken redcoat soldiers – or the Russian one that followed, some 20 years later.
All my life, I’ve been staring at it – gobsmacked by its natural wonders – a museum of what was, preserved largely intact, until the invasion began, just over 200 years ago. Populated by a people whose heritage stretches back nearly 100,000 years.
Over 60 years ago I did a history assignment in my first year in secondary school, and the teacher apparently expected a history of Australia since the beginning of “white settlement”. I did nothing of the sort – mine was a history from the cooling of the globe we live on and the formation of the oceans, until just BEFORE europeans ventured here. That, to me, was “history”.
And it may surprise some of you to learn that most-but-not-quite-all of the original “continents” was/were/whatever actually at one time a vast super-continent – “Pangaea” – which included (from left to right) South America, Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Australia and Antarctica. Zealandia, Arabia, Madagascar. Even a bite sized chunk of Eurasia. I get kind of lost dipping into it briefly for the purposes of this paper, but that’s enough to give you the idea. At one time, it amounted to most of the surface area of land above sea level. After they all split up and went their separate ways, they often took with them various life forms similar or identical to those found on other fragments of Pangaea. Gum trees included. So Australia’s eucalypts, and other “Australian” trees, do exist elsewhere, quite naturally. I’ll include a couple of rather startling examples of this, further on – the baobab and a pandanus.
As I’ve mentioned to several of you already, my very first photo was of a gum tree. They gave me a distinctly second-hand Kodak Box Brownie camera and a single roll of 620 B&W roll film, for my 10th birthday – I loaded it, and shot straight out to the back door, to take my first ever photo – a tree that had stood there since long before I was born – a tree I’d fallen in love with at first sight – it HAD to be my first photo!
Here’s something vaguely similar – a sunset shot of a gum that lives around the corner from me – the dying glow of the setting sun giving a fiery glow to the branches and the foliage
Gum trees might be aliens for some of you – but not to everyone.
Another fascinating tree is the melaleuca, or paperbark. Eucalypts and paperbarks are related – they’re both members of the myrtle family – not that that means much, zillions of plants are classified as myrtles. Here’s one growing slightly further afield – 200 metres/yards, instead of 100 from my front door – in front of a cottage typical of the workers’ cottages that filled this district a century ago.
A close up of the bark on another specimen will give a better idea of “why ‘paper bark’?” Lad’s article explained to you the endless process that trees undergo as they grow and the perimeter or circumference of the trunk gets larger, year by year. The bark has to split and eventually fall off, as new bark grows underneath it. With the gums, this bark is not as thin, and can be quite hard. With the paper barks it’s extremely thin, just like a sheet of paper – and peels off either as single sheets or as a wad of sheets still sticking together.
The colours are more muted – in keeping with the bark itself, they’re softer and mostly cream or pale grey. You often find sheets of the stuff blowing around in the street, just like bits of paper. If you feel a single sheet of it, it’s like a thickish piece of paper, with a surface that feels like a chamois.
In the end, each of us sees what we choose to. This can be a “good thing” or a “bad thing”, for a photographer. Europeans passing through Australia sometimes seem to think our natural selection of trees is dull and uninteresting – all they “see” is endless vistas of “gum trees” and their brains then process this by comparing what they are looking at with what they are accustomed to back home.
I wonder whether they will sit there, as I am right now, 60 or 70 years later – still dreaming about “their” trees”? The same way I can still see in my mind’s eye the beautiful avenue of sugar gums lining the original road into our family farm – planted by my great-great-grandfather, nearly two centuries ago – with a thick matt of moss across the road, even in the height of the Australian summer?
No doubt a splash of autumn colours on deciduous trees is more spectacular. Nonetheless, gums can be inspiringly beautiful too – if only people know how to “see”. Let’s switch from trees to something else, for a moment. Sunsets are a popular theme for photographs. But how many times do you ever see a photographer looking north? – or south? – or behind himself, to the east? – or, even, straight up above? – to see what else the sunset has to offer, to the discerning or seeing “eye”? There’s a difference between “looking” and “seeing”. There’s a gulf between the superficial aesthetic of “picture postcard” beauty on the one hand, and – on the other – the kind of beauty that is revealed, over and over, by landscape photographers and artists who roll up their shirtsleeves and really immerse themselves in the scene, to identify just exactly what IS the core of what lies before their eyes.
These trees, for instance, are just simply growing in one of the local dog parks. Yet I cannot go there without gazing endlessly at them – feeling their strength and their solitude – soaking up their patterns and their colours, the gentle shades of the eucalypts. Even now, sitting here, years after this photo was taken, my eyes still roam around the image – exploring it endlessly. It actually affects me emotionally.
In terms of things like the rules of composition, it’s perhaps a “nothing” image. Too bad. The pundits can have their views – I’ll still have my own. Anyway, I’m far from being the only person who loves that park – my dog does, and so do countless others.
Before I overdose you on gum trees, try this one:
It’s not the only famous one, but this is a famous baobab, in the north west of the state. I’m cheating a little here – I didn’t take this shot, my wife did. But because I’ve mentioned baobabs earlier, I thought you might enjoy this one. Baobabs only occur in three places, as far as I am aware – 2 species in sub-Saharan Africa, 6 on Madagascar and one in the northwest of Western Australia. ALL places that originally formed part of the Pangaea super-continent!
This one was found by the crew of a small boat which set out from Sydney c. 1820 to complete the mapping of the Australian coastline by charter the section north of Sydney, across the northern coast, and down the top end of Western Australia, till their charts joined up with the ones done around the south by an earlier team. The captain of the ship (“HMC Mermaid”) was the oldest in the crew, and he was an astonishingly young man of only 28! Their boat started taking water just near this tree, so they had to careen it, to carry out running repairs to the hull, before proceeding. And while they were there, the ship’s carpenter carved HMC Mermaid 1820 into the bottle-shaped trunk of the tree.
At the time, the tree was about 300 years old – it’s now 500 years old. And yes, like me, starting to show some signs of aging!
Bark has always interested me – not just the trees that produce it. Bark is what you use to keep champagne in the bottle until you’re ready to drink it. Lad also mentioned that bark from willows was used for several thousand years, to treat wounds – and then developed into aspirin! Bark from trees we knew as kids, as “monkey nut pines (because they produced nuts like the pine nuts used in making pesto in italian kitchens all over the world), was perfect for carving into small boats. The first people used it to make paintings and shields.
A little known secret is that the first people developed a cure for skin cancers – probably the ones caused by sun burn – something like 10,000 years ago. Not from a gum tree as such, but a resinous gum of a similar nature which they took from a bush, and applied to the skin cancer. Which then proceeded to die and fall off. I really don’t know why white settlers dismissed them all as “primitive savages” – throughout my life, I keep coming across things like this which suggest they were anything but “primitive”. Yes their lives were simple in some respects. They lived in a parallel universe – “with” nature, instead of destroying it. In my mind, what I see is a population which was so totally different from European society that Europeans did not, could not, or simply chose not to even try to understand it. “An inconvenient truth”, perhaps!
Here’s a selection of different shots of bark, to highlight the variety that you can find in a relatively small area. I collected several dozen of these shots some years ago, thinking I could make a montage with them. It never happened – I couldn’t find a suitable program to create a montage for a long while, and by the time I did, I had so many shots the end result would have looked more like a page in a stamp album than a photo album! So I put them to one side. This is just a few of them – an indicator of the montage I was struggling to create. All eucalypts (died in the wool, good old “Aussie” gum trees!)
Then there are other more esoteric items.
I’m sorry I can’t produce a photo of one of them for you – but found in 1994, in a closely guarded gully in New South Wales, is a pre-historic tree. Dating from the age of the dinosaurs! Its name is “wollemia nobilis”. A prehistoric pine tree! From 60 million years ago! There was a hell of a fight to save them, during the bushfires in late 2019, spilling over into January 2020. Only 200 specimens remain in the wild, and their location is kept secret to prevent looters or vandals getting near them.
What I can produce, is a picture of a Norfolk Island Pine. Norfolk Island is an Australian territory, and its hallmark pine has symbolised it since mutineers from a British vessel established their new headquarters there. Lad tells me he’s seen them in New Zealand – the pines, not the mutineers! They’re certainly prevalent in most parts of Australia. After the processes of bark peeling off and regrowth that Lad described in Part 1, these trees normally develop a fairly smooth new coating of bark. This ageing specimen clearly thought otherwise! But you can see the smooth bark reappearing in the bottom left corner of the image:
(Pascal should like that one – it was taken at Cottesloe Beach, near the old “Tea Room” & changing rooms). I saved this one till last (well almost the last!) – I love the colours and the patterns – nature at its finest!
Lad mentioned in Part 1 that eucalypts/gums “sometimes have bright colours, including orange”. He might not be familiar with the “rainbow gum” that apparently originates in the Philippines – which are probably another fragment broken away from Pangaea, all those millions of years ago.
In between “changes of clothing”, rainbow gums are much the same as any other (except of course the red gums) – but when their bark peels, as the tree ages and the trunk and branches thicken, they burst into an unbelievable rainbow of colours! Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate a non-copyright photo of one – but there are several
amazing photos of them on this website: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2019/07/who-painted-the-bark-meet-the-magnificent-rainbow-eucalyptus/
So here’s another amazing tree instead – a pandanus tree. These develop an “aerial root system” that, on a fully grown specimen, is large enough for people to climb inside. Several people at once, on a large specimen! Even climb around, once inside it! And certainly a good spot to find shelter from a heavy tropical downpour of rain! (My wife took this photo, too. Never mind – I’ll get my own back, shortly!)
Like the baobab she took earlier, this is an intrusion, amongst the eucalypts – a bit of a break for you.
There are many, many other varieties of gum or eucalyptus trees – I haven’t ventured several hundred miles south, to the jarrah & karri forests, for example – and I haven’t seen the blue gum forests of eastern Australia for a very long time. I haven’t even included a decent shot of any of the red gums in this area. But in my progression from the almost white “ghost gum” of my first-ever photo to these images, and throughout my travels all over Australia, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by their strength and beauty and variety.
And what happens to the bark at the end of its life? Collecting at the foot of its host tree – eventually blowing away in the wind, or rotting into the ground, between the roots at the foot of the tree, with a few fallen leaves to keep it company. Maybe helping to replenish the soil in the forest floor, and re-start the cycle of life, all over again – as nature gives birth to other gum trees, nearby.
FOOTNOTE: my passion for these trees culminated in the plantings in the garden of my previous home, here in Perth, Western Australia. It was originally my mother’s house, but I took over after she died. I planted one gum for her – my brother gave her another – and she allow one to grow from a seed in a nut that had fallen from the one I planted. So the garden at the rear of the house was totally covered by “dappled shade” by the time I took over – and fallen limbs provided a handy source of wood for the combustion stove that heated the house in winter, and fired up the barbecue I built in the back yard – nature going around in circles, net zero carbon emissions – actually MINUS, because I only burned a tiny fraction of what went round in circles!
The first one’s “son” fell victim to a bad storm one evening, while I was at work in the city centre, and normal folk were eating dinner. The top half of the tree blew off – and landed in my neighbour’s back garden. He was a very egotistical and self-opinionated “gentleman”, and threw a fit. My wife rang to tell me he had demanded the instant removal of the mess. I drove home that night, around 9pm, and found him still standing on the sidewalk, waiting for me to appear. When he made similar demands, I told him it was raining, I hadn’t had my dinner yet, and I’d deal with it in the morning! Driving in, and closing the automatic gates behind me, to terminate the conversation.
Next day, after breakfast, I went next door and he showed me through, so that I could me what my tree had done. It was amazing! It filled the entire space, between his house, a separate building he’d built as a home for his father, and the fences that completed the enclosure of his garden. Filled it completely – to a depth of about 3 metres/10 feet! So neatly, that the only thing it broke was a wooden seat!
I was able to have it removed immediately by a local tree lopper. But after that, I used to look out of the window of my office in the centre of the city – on the 20th floor – to where I lived. Where the original gum tree I had planted at the rear of the property had grown into the tallest tree in the entire district – clearly visible from my office, several miles away! And shuddered, whenever there was a strong wind! Thankfully we moved, 20 years ago, and I now have only a small courtyard garden! No more 20 metre tall eucalypts in the garden!
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