Aboriginal people have probably been making marks on trees for tens of thousands of years. The first recording of a scar or scarred tree in the Port Phillip area was from the early to mid-1800s after white settlement. There wasn’t much detailing of this phenomena at first because of the lack of desire to promote Indigenous people as having vast social systems in place. But today you can still find these history books of Indigenous culture across the region if you look hard enough. Find an old river red gum and you’ll probably find a scar on its bark. Dan Turnbull from the Bunurong Land Council reckons there could be about 100 of them left standing on the Peninsula.
Scarred trees represent the understated complexity of a culture’s keen perception on how it and the rest of the world’s living organisms are interconnected. Driven by function and the need to communicate, below is a list of what the scars left behind on these trees represent, and how they tell a story of work, play and an ancient culture’s intricate societal success.
Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words.
SACRED BIRTHING TREES: Big trees were hollowed out for the purpose of birthing. They were hollowed out over time starting when they are only 10 or 20 years old. Each session saw a small fire placed against the base of the tree and afterwards the charcoal was removed. This was repeated many times over. We can see from paintings from the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s that some of the trees could have been 100m tall when you look at the scale of the Aboriginal people sitting beneath them. Indigenous men would wait outside while the women and their mothers would go in to deliver the baby. The scooped-out tree gave the new mum and baby privacy and shelter, but it wasn’t always done this way. Women would often leave together in a group and then return to the camp with a newborn. Sometimes these birthing places were such that men were not allowed. There are birthing trees still to be found on the Peninsula.
BUSH CUPBOARD TREES: Size=specific holes were made according to what people needed to store, whether that be food, tools and so on. The ground could get pretty damp in the wet season, so dry kindling was stored in a bush cupboard with other often heavier tools such as grinding stones, anvils, cores, axes and hammer-stones.
SMOKING TREES: Trees were hollowed out at the base to form a triangle-shaped cavity with just enough space to hang eels at the top above a fire beneath to cook the eel.
MARKING TREES: Symbols were carved into the bark to indicate that a certain area belonged to a particular person and their family. People recognised these marks and understood immediately. This was the system of law put into place. If you didn’t abide by it you’d get one of several possible punishments, such as a spear in the leg; at worst you could be cast out by your mob, which of course nobody wanted because everybody realised you were only as strong as the people around you.
BURIAL TREES: People were sometimes placed inside a hollow tree after passing, or the tree acted as a tombstone.
SHIELDS, COOLAMONS (BOWLS), CANOE TREES: Every fella had an array of wooden weapons such as shields or clubs, and every woman would have had a selection of bowls. All were made from wood or bark, and one person might scar many trees throughout their lifetime. For a bark tool such as a canoe or coolamon, only the exact amount of bark (down to the cambium layer) was taken for each utensil so the tree was left healthy and thriving. Women had a range of bowls from smaller vessels up to 76cm that were sometimes used as cradles for their babies. The long ends of the bowls were left open and they could be rocked. These intricately carved and patterned large bowls were also taken in the river and floated alongside a person as they collected reeds, berries and such.
TOE HOLE TREES: Small marks were made to fit a person’s toes, so a tree could be climbed with the purpose of collecting honey or catching possums.
Once upon a time there could have been tens of thousands of scar trees on Bunurong land. If you keep your eyes open while travelling around this sacred region, absorb what you can from these incredible living history records and leave them as you found them so the story goes on.