TRUNK bent by the prevailing westerlies, my gnarled and much-branched Messmate is the sole survivor of a copse which witnessed Wonthaggi emerge from serried ranks of tents through miner-built cottages to an expanding Gippsland town.
Well over a century old, it has endured cattle from The Clump, lashing salt-laden winds, the smoke of heathland bushfires and black-coal chimneys and the decimation of its kind locally. Prior to closer settlement, it would have known eastern grey kangaroos, swamp wallabies, koalas, echidnas, bandicoots, swamp antechinus, brush-tailed and ringtailed possums in its site swampside and near a sand ridge.
My mother could recall koalas in its branches during her childhood. I've also known quite a few of its denizens and visitors; a brush-tail possum regularly visits the tree and small bats swoop at dusk during summer.
Birds feed, shelter or roost in its widespread branches, over the past year including eastern spinebill, red and little wattlebirds, new-holland-, white-eared-, white-naped-, white-plumed- and crescent honeyeaters, Australian raven, kookaburra, magpie, mudlark, grey shrike thrush, grey butcherbird, black-faced cuckoo-shrike, golden and rufous whistlers, striated and spotted pardalotes, silvereye, willie wagtail, grey fantail, crested shrike-tit, brown and striated thornbills, eastern rosella ...
Insects, too, inhabit the monarch; christmas beetle, scarab, small bronze beetle, plague beetle, ladybird, nectar scarab, stick insect, leaf hopper, praying mantis, robber fly, hoverfly, cupmoth, case moth, Saunder's case moth, autumn gum moth, emperor gum moth, bullant and sugar ant. Huntsman spiders hide under the bark, leafcurling-spiders dangle and there is a skittering of skinks tracks across the gnarled bark.
Generations of children have played within its confines: on swings from its branches, setting up shops using its seeds and leaves, climbing it, using it as a fort or crow's nest, collecting ants trailing over it. Its shade has seen picnics and games, its shelter a niche for the coal heap, its twigs ready morning's wood. Cubbies have been built on its branches, books read while seated in its forks.
The Messmate's wood, of brown open texture and relatively light yet fairly strong and durable, made it one of the most important hardwoods in Australia for pulp production, split palings, posts and shingles, general construction and for fuel. No doubt many local specimens went into pit props in the mines. As well, its honey is one of the darkest, particularly so in wet localities.
Found in the cooler more temperate parts of south-eastern Australia, Eucalyptus obliqua was the first eucalypt discovered and described, giving its name to the genus. In January 1777 "Resolution" and "Discovery", part of Cook's third voyage, anchored in Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, for four days, botanist William Anderson and his assistant David Nelson collecting botanical specimens. This material was lodged at Kew herbarium and described by French botanist L'Heretierde Brutellein 1788 using the word Eucalyptus for the genus and obliqua for the species in reference to the asymmetric shape of the leaf. The pleasant vernacular name Messmate is said to have arisen from the fact that it is usually found associated or "messmates" with other stringybarks.
And the genus name? “Eucalyptus is admirable alike in euphony and conception. It has a noble sound, and by its derivation connotes a rare character possessed by few other trees. The actual bloom of the Eucalyptus is surmounted by a lid or operculum’, which seals the flower until thrown off in the process of opening; the reproductive organs of the tree are then exposed for the process of fertilization. By this ‘lid’ the essential organs are so well covered as to justify a generic name derived from the Greek roots eu (meaning ‘well’) and calyptos ('covered').”
In a paper about Tasmanian timbers read before the Royal Society of Tasmania in August 1902, AD Green said of Eucalyptus obliqua: 'In appearance brown Stringy Bark is somewhat like Oak, and it would be a difficult matter for most people to distinguish a picture frame made of Stringy Bark from one made of Oak ... It is the most general timber for all sorts of constructive works in this State. It makes excellent piles, especially for fresh water, but it is not considered quite so good as Blue Gum for salt water, being more subject to the attacks of the Teredo.
“It is also used for shipbuilding, the construction of wharves and bridges, and for railway sleepers; for the dado, flooring, and fitting of houses, and for furniture; it is also an excellent wheelwright's wood. When polished it very much resembles Oak, but has a more sparkling grain; it has a very pretty effect when used for a ballroom floor or for wainscotting. Besides being sawn for almost every purpose, Stringy Bark is split into fence rails, palings and shingles. It is certain that if this wood and the Blue Gum, properly prepared, were exported to London, a ready sale would be found for it for the construction of carts and vans. It would very well take the place of English Oak and Ash used for this purpose, which are every year becoming scarcer.
“In the Tasmanian International Exhibition before-mentioned a Stringy Bark sleeper was shown by the Government that had been twenty-five years under traffic. The usual life of this timber in bridges is from twenty to twenty-five years; sleepers average about fourteen years, and none of the Government Railway Buildings – some of which were built twenty-seven years ago, chiefly of this timber – have yet been renewed.
“The Stringy Bark of Tasmania is especially suited for wood paving. It is preferable to Jarrah, being quite as durable, gives a better surface, and is also lighter in weight. If properly laid on a good foundation Stringy Bark blocks will wear out two sets of the Deal or Beech blocks which are largely used in European cities.”
My Messmate has produced zillions of seeds during its lifetime, but recently due to dry conditions and possibly the near proximity of three Pittosporum undulatum, it has suffered a major gall attack - stressed beyond endurance. Fortunately, with the removal of the pittosporum it is slowIy regaining its health. Long live Messmate.
- Grimwade, R, An Anthography of the Eucalypts. Angus and Robertson, 1930, pp60-61 lbid ppxiii-xiv.
- AD Green, "Tasmanian Timbers", Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1901, pp44-
August 29, 2015
Terri Allen's biography of a tree was most interesting reading. We need to be reminded of isthe significance of trees in our human lives. As zoologist and philosopher Colin Tudge writes in the Secret Life of Trees "... trees are of course at the heart of things. How could it be otherwise? The human lineage began in trees. We have left our ancestors far behind but we are creatures of the forest still." And as Terri Allen points out so much life, so many creatures besides us, need trees, young and old.
Thanks, too, to Bob Middleton for his tender story about a wounded bird. Lovely, penetrating insights into life's frailties and resilience.
Linda Gordon, Wonthaggi