Thinking back, standing there in the shadow of the MCG, I had realised that it wasn’t what I was expecting. Not in a bad way, of course. But it was definitely not the awe-inspiring image I had imagined when on a Scar Tree Walk. After quickly researching the Koorie Heritage Trust online, I had anticipated towering, majestic gums; home to a variety of chirping magpies and the occasional possum too far from home. I had imagined something straight out of a movie, an unmissable tree shaped by its hundreds of years left to wildly grow.
Instead I found myself in front of a short bushy gum tree, covered in fresh green branches. It stood alone, surrounded by fresh-cut grass and playing children. The tree was as wide as it was tall and careful effort had to be made to avoid getting hit by a rogue branch released by a more mischievous classmate. Looking back at it, I was genuinely shocked at the look of ‘normalness’ of it. It’s defining feature - its roughly aged scar that had been moulded and reshaped repeatedly over time - was mostly hidden under its dense branches.
Standing there, I had realised just how many times I've been here and not noticed it. It’s a tree I’d walked past nearly every week on the way to work, in the quiet hours of the morning and on weekends, in the afternoon, to cheer on my favourite footy team at the MCG. Blinded by AFL excitement, I’d never glanced at the plaque at its base or admired its trunk’s intricate patterns. I’d never really known it was there.
A couple hundred metres up the hill was another: less-alive-looking but still standing tall over the park. Its days of new greenery are now in the past, but that doesn’t take away from its breathtaking presence. Fenced off and barer than its sibling, this tree looked striking next to the looming concrete of the MCG.
Our guide explained how the scarring was made and how this was the byproduct of an intricate and delicate process of bark removal carried out between 200 to 800 years ago by the aborignial tribes in the area, the Wurundjeri people. These trees, whilst resolute and quiet in their physical presence, told the story of one of the world’s oldest living cultures (Reference).Their bark, once removed so it could be used in everyday life, leaves a recognisable and powerful visual. Without cutting down the tree, local aborignial tribes would harvest the bark to create useful living items such a coolamons, simple water container (Reference), created to make daily life easier for the community.
The location of these lone Gums on the river suggests they were commissioned to create strong canoes, giving the traditional owners of the land easy transports along the closely situated Birrarung (Reference). This opened up travel routes and allowed tribes access to a larger array of resources and livable land.
Listening patiently, I learnt that whilst this is the most documented type of scarring, other forms of this activity also include deliberate marking of trees as border landmarks and holds for climbing to the trees canopy (reference) As the scar grows older, the ‘dry face’ (reference) becomes increased cracked and aged under the dramatically changing Australian climate. Our Sunburnt Country’s intense weather makes both flora and fauna adaptability an integral trait to survival in our scorching heat waves and wild storms. As well as this weathering, tool marks can also be found, still etched into the bark decades after the scarification process.
Whilst they can be found mostly across the east coast of Australia (Reference), some scarification happens naturally, through animal interference or other wild weather, which can sometimes be mistaken for evidence of deliberate cultural scarring (Reference) Authenticating scar trees can be highly challenging and it is difficult to find elders who can confidently identify their original purposes. (Reference)
The look of those scars were so familiar that to be perfectly honest, I had thought they formed naturally like that – which might say something to my own schooling but let’s just move past that! On the rare occasions I somehow need to draw a tree, this is exactly what they look like. I must have seen them so many times in the past at home and not even realised their significance, or the cause of their shapes.
Years of kindergarten-drawn forests all feature that iconic scarring in crayon. Years of bush walks back home, are filled with the spattering of these peaceful gums, lining the river. Years of random tree drawings on the closest piece of paper, whilst on a boring phone call look almost identical to that second looming figure. To me, this is how a tree looks; a canopy of leaves, green branches, a thick trunk and that iconic scarring right in the middle.