Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

The Wollemi Pine – the songlines connection


This article first appeared in the Blue Mountains Independent. A folk history of the discovery of the Wollemi Pine, it celebrates the vital link between the arts, history, botany, and the Blue Mountains. Denis Kevans, the self-styled “poet lorikeet” celebrated his 60th birthday at the Ivanhoe Hotel in Blackheath, and has sadly since passed away.

The only clue to your tale,
Were some leaf prints in the shale,
And we thought you’d come and go
Long years ago, but suddenly what do I see,
A living Wollemi tree,
Where the mountain waters pure and sweet do flow

- The Wollemi Pine, by Denis Kevans and Sonia Bennett

He always said there was something out there. The discovery of something rare, some secret hidden in a deep and wild ravine was inevitable, he said. And he was right. The frond of a fern that lay across Wyn Jones’ desk that frosty mountain morning looked fairly ordinary – and he basically cast it aside. Until Dave mentioned where he’d found it.

Even Dave hadn’t thought too much about the specimen at first. But slowly the significance of his discovery began to sink in. The fern sprouted forth from a towering tree, Dave said to Wyn – like a pine, not a fern. The bark was coarse yet soft, and covered in nobbly cork tips. David Noble’s hike through the Wollemi wilderness in winter 1994 lead him directly across the path of a gargantuan standing patiently, waiting for its ancient tale to be told.

Wyn Jones from National Parks and Wildlife, and Jan Allan from Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens followed Noble back to the site to gather more specimens. The team was struck dumb by what they found. The stand of 30 of 40 mature trees looked like nothing anyone of them had ever seen in all their years of exploring the Mountains wilderness.

Even the head of Sydney’s Botanical Gardens couldn’t identify what David Noble had found. That’s when the idea that that they had a new species on their hands really started to grow. Jan and Wyn pencilled their working title: Wollemi Pine. Weeks later, with the scientific papers writ and the genus certified, the existence of a new species,Wollemia Nobilis., had been proven. Wyn Jones finally had his proof that the wilderness surrounding the Blue Mountains harboured a land-bound leviathan.

The discovery of the Wollemi Pine has become something of a fable in the mountains. And as fables are want to do, the tale has echoed around the mountiains, through the telling and yarning and telling yet again. With each recounting, the tale has fortified its role as a central theme in the folk history of the Blue Mountains. In celebrations of song, poetry and folk – the Wollemi is there, singing the wilderness song of the poets and forest rangers to the world. And so goes the poem written by Denis Kevans and Sonia Bennet, The Wollemi Pine:

There’s a tree that’s so rare, Grows deep in the gorges out there,

Deep in my heart I will sing of the Wollemi Pine,

No preaching words, no angry tones,The Wollemi stands all alone,

One hundred million years of passing time.

To the Mountains folk, poets and conservationists, the Wollemi Pine is a symbol of timelessness. The song lines of poetry and folk express people’s feelings for the bush. Wilderness is a theme which brings in all the names of the Mountains folk movement, like Elizabeth Bowden, who cried over the clearing of Kings Tableland at Wentworth Falls. Or Christine Davies who edits the Conservation Society News – and has recited Kevan’s poetry to her bush-walking groups.

Kevans, who is known as Australia’s ‘Poet Lorikeet’, says singers from all over the world comment on the beguiling charm of the Blue Mountains wilderness – and the power of the Mountains Folk movement. “The beautiful, emotive songs and poetry of the Mountains really get through to people. My work is my life, my heart. We aren’t paid for our work. It’s just our response to our surroundings.”Wollemi, Wollemi, Wollemi, look around you. There’s a tree that’s so rare, Grows deep in the gorges out there, Deep in my heart I will sing of the Wollemi Pine.’

“When the subtlety of the bush moves you, it’s very powerful,” Kevans says. “The spirituality of the bush, the shapes of the rocks, the perspective of the escarpment, the vast presence of the trees – it all gives you a sense of timelessness. It’s the opposite of the sweat that some people seek from exploring the bush.

“The work of the folk singers and poets is important because it links up with the time and song lines of the past. The Blue Mountains is an inspiring place. But despite all our aesthetic feelings, we still have a dedicated bulldozer brigade here. There are 170 waterfalls and creeks now – we may be lucky if there’s 50 left in 50 years time.”

The Jamison Creek at Wentworth Falls may soon face the ‘bulldozer brigade’ Kevans refers to. It’s symptomatic of the misunderstanding many mountains residents have, that land which is undeveloped right now will always remain undisturbed. If current plans go ahead, the stream which trickles its way towards Wentworth Falls village could soon be gone – making way for more houses and shops. There are even vast tracts of the National Park which have never been officially gazetted – and may in time come under threat as well.

“People are under a misconception that the areas dedicated as National Park, through the work of people like Myles Dunphy, are safe. But the work is still incomplete. That’s why linking up the song lines is so important. We feel the power of these songs – but we’re just carrying on from the great pioneers of conservation, and echoing the voices and the songs of men and women who admired the wonders of this world before us.”

When the song lines are sung, their whisper can be heard in the furthest corners of the globe. A tale from beyond the mountains recently returned to Kevans, boomerang style: One of his poems was recited by Aborigines sitting around a camp fire in a remote region of the Northern Territory. Uncannily, a friend of Kevans’ just happened to be there at the time. The same poem has been translated into Spanish. Into German – into Gaelic. Into a message which takes flight from the Mountains, spreading its word throughout far away lands, and returns to its owner with a tale of its own to tell.

…a film is reeling through, My brain, and through my memory,

of our sacred rendez-vous,

Of our meeting, of our parting, of my tears, as sweet as ice,

Of my numb incomprehension of a shattered paradise

- White Man, Have You Any Sacred Sites

A tourist from Meudon, France was strolling down Katoomba Street in January. By chance he stumbled upon Poets at The Parakeet Cafe’, and heard Denis performing his poetry. After returning home, the Frenchman wrote to Denis, describing his evening of Mountain Folk as ‘a moment of sheer unexpected delight…long may the poets of Katoomba flourish.”

Perhaps the Frenchman should have waited around for Denis’ 60th birthday at the Ivanhoe in Blackheath a few weeks later. The place was packed to overflow. Spontaneous poetry recitals and unaccompanied folk singing continued late into the night. Voices of the mountains were there to celebrate, young but mostly old. Old stories, older themes. Young guitarists, old diggers. Voices from olde Ireland; timber cutter and coal miner’s pasts. The song lines reverberated that night, speaking of wars and triumphs, of people and wilderness, the singing heart of the Mountains.

Sonia Bennett set the Wollemi Pine poem to music. It was recorded by the Wollemi Band, featuring Sonia, Denis and Wyn and other local musicians. The tune achieved national recognition when it was included amongst ‘Macca’s top 10′ for 1998 on ABC Radio’s ‘Australia All Over’.

The discovery of the Wollemi Pine has been heralded as the discovery of the century. 13 Wollemi Pines were planted at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens on Arbour day last year, with the assistance of local primary school children.”Wyn’s the central figure. He kept telling people there was something out there,” Denis Kevans recalls.

And there was. For all we know there may be something else. The chance of there being a plant so old, something left behind from the day when ancient Gondwana breathed its last breath, was totally unexpected. The suggestion that Gondwana’s forgotten pine might be found so close to Sydney’s doorstep would simply have been laughable. Yet it was there. The message from the song lines resounds: When wilderness is lost, so are the chances of learning her secrets. Don’t lose the song lines.

Wollemi, Wollemi, Wollemi,Look around you,Keep your eyes open

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