When I whisper, ‘River Red Gum’

Old red gum 1

Whisper ‘river red gum’—what do you see? Close your eyes, fill your lungs and dream for a moment. How many stories and images can we conjure from one extraordinary tree?

Some see a picture as bright as a holiday on the river: kids swinging from a rope, adults laughing in the shade, cockatoos screeching high above; scenes to relive as we poke the coals of the evening campfire.

Others prefer an internal view. Perhaps you see a table; bread baking in a wood-fired stove; golden honey, rich in nectar. Table, bread and honey: with red gum, we make them all.

Nature’s images can be darker—logs swirling in a flood; the stick-nests of egrets tottering over a rising lake; black-water billabongs steeped in tannins; a huntsman spider under the bark. The shudder of a falling branch: the widow maker.

But perhaps your scene is pastoral? A postcard, a painting, sunbeams in the dust; sheep camped in the thin shade; a trestle bridge; rough-hewn beams in the shearing shed. Farmland trees, woodland trees, river red gums.

Do you see the timber in the trees? Stumps cut by axe and saw; the circular blade; a battered hand: two fingers, a thumb; sleepers and firewood, $130 a cubic metre; a 6×4 trailer piled high with chips.

There is history in the charcoal of the shell middens, in canoe scars and shield trees. Old red gums bear witness to rich Indigenous cultures. And there are stories to be told from the twisted roots that bind the river bank, of dead trees in deep pools that shelter cod and golden perch.

So many visions of red gum are yet to be born. Breathe again. You have time enough to coax a new image from a red gum: a sculpture, a livelihood, a painting… a future.

When we whisper, ‘river red gum’, we each have a story to share. Our art and our stories—like the birds and the fish in the flooding forests—they grow from trees. We see them most clearly when we slow down and breathe.

Whisper ‘river red gum’—what can you see?


I wrote this piece for the catalogue for the wonderful Red Gum Art + Ecology exhibition that’s currently showing at Wangaratta Art Gallery. The exhibition showcases extraordinary works by the artists Penny Algar, Lorraine Connelly-Northey and Damien Wright plus music, guided bush walks, school holiday activities and talks on art, writing and ecology. Please check out the online program and take a trip to Wangaratta to enjoy them all.

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5 thoughts

  1. When I think of a river red gum I think of my precocious Jack Russell Terrier who chased a rabbit up the hollow centre of a mighty old tree. His unhappy face appeared in a hollow 4 meters above the ground and that was just the beginning of the story.

  2. River Redgums conjure images of the rivers and creeks we frequent in summer. From Walwa in the Upper Murray to Lake Mulwala there is hardly a stretch of water we haven’t paddled
    Dave Breedon - the canoe guy - at the helm
    And of course the wildlife platypus water rats roos gliding possums and fruit bats and heaps of birds from the tiny swallows and bees eaters kingfishers to swans and sea Eagles are regulars. Fallen giants provide wonderful habitat for fish 30 years ago we were pulling them out and now we are putting them back. The Murray is starting to mend!

  3. I think of the first day of school holidays when I used to climb a river redgum near the creek on our farm and lie on the warm branches watching columns of ants marching up the trunk and hearing screeching cockatoos above. I used to pretend the tree was an ant city and I was watching peak hour ant traffic.

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