Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bunya Pine, Araucaria bidwillii

Araucaria bidwillii
Tall and stately, able to be recognised from afar because of their unmistakably sh
aped crowns, bunya trees are also prickly monsters. They are usually considered too large and too unfriendly for all but the largest gardens. The dagger-sharp dark-green leaves remind us that these survivors of the age of the dinosaurs had to fight for their existence with leaf-eating reptiles. The fallen branchlets remind small barefoot children that their grandparents did tell them to put their shoes on before they went out to play! Public planting of these trees has been restricted, in this age of litigation-phobia, because of the risk to passers-by of being hit by a falling cone. Bunya pines were often planted in the Victorian era, when a “pinetum” containing a collection of pines from around the world was a common feature of botanical gardens - and some of the more ambitious private gardens - in Britain, Europe, and the colonies. Of course our local gardeners were unlikely to ignore such a noble and fashionable local specimen, and soon discovered that this tree of the redsoils and rainforests also thrived in the heavy clay blacksoil on the frosty, windy plains. Grand old trees can be seen nowadays marking the sites of long-gone farms, or in avenues at some of our older homesteads.
The characteristic double crown is formed as a result of the plant’s habit of dropping its oldest branches. In a forest setting the trunks then remain bare, but when bunya trees are grown in the open they protect their naked trunks by growing new branches from the points where the old ones were shed. The newest branches on a tree are to be seen in two places - at the tip, and immediately below the longest branches of the top crown.
Bunya pine cones are as large as your head, and contain highly nutritious seeds, with a flavour somewhat like a chestnut. Properly cooked they are delicious. We may yet see plantations where the long-term plan for an income from the timber is partnered with exploitation of the quicker return from nuts, which are used in the bushfoods industry.
  • Moderately fast-growing
  • Frost hardy
  • Drought resistant
  • Suitable for blacksoil

The Bunya Festivals

A famous food of Aboriginal Australians, the high calorie, nutritious bunya nuts, ripen every year in high summer. Before white settlement, the trees grew in great forests stretching from the Sunshine Coast westwards to the place now known as the Bunya Mountains. The harvest varied from year to year, but approximately every three years there was a glorious over-supply.
Aboriginal people used to take advantage of seasonal events resulting in a greater food supply than local people could consume. Suddenly, they had the ability to feed a crowd, so they would invite their neighbours in. As with the Bogong moth hatchings down south and the winter mullet runs in Moreton Bay, the ripening of the bunya nuts enabled tribes from the Bunya territories to host large gatherings. Their guests came from as far away as the Carnarvon Ranges, Moreton Island, the Clarence River Valley, New England, and the Maranoa district.
At the bunya festivals, corroborees (songs, stories and dances, often by famous composers) were performed, religious ceremonies held, trading done and law cases settled. They were an important mainstay of pre-white culture in this district.
The last substantial bunya festival in southern Queensland was probably the one of 1875, at Mt. Mowbullan. After this date, the exploitation of timber on the northern edge of the Darling Downs meant that the remaining bunya trees no longer provided their previous largesse. This happened at a time when the Aboriginal population of the local tribes and of their traditional guests had dropped sharply, and cultural practices were dropping out of use
Smaller gatherings persisted until at least 1903, but the great days of the bunya festivals were over.

Historical accounts of the festivals differ in matters of detail.
For example, estimates of the number of people attending festivals in the Mowbullan area range from 5000 - an estimate made in the 1840s - to an 1870 estimate of 20,000.
There is also not complete agreement as to just which tribe, or sub-tribal groups, hosted the festivals. There were even different accounts of whether Aborigines would cut notches in the trees to help them climb up to pick the unripe cones, with their succulent nuts, or whether this was regarded as a shocking practice, harmful to the tree.
These discrepancies can probably be explained by the fact that the period, during which the white newcomers to the land recorded what they knew of the bunya festivals, was a time of great change for the original aboriginal owners of the land. Apparently contradictory "facts" may simply reflect this change.
The first accounts of  “Bunya Mountains” and the festivals held there refer not to the place which is currently known by that name, but to the district near Maleny which we now call the Blackall Range. In the days of early white settlement the coastal tribes went to a meeting place  on Obi Obi Creek Their festival hosts were members of the Gubbi Gubbi tribe. However the Gubbi Gubbi were driven out of those particular "Bunya Mountains" between 1838, when Brisbane was opened to free settlers, and 1861. All the larger bunya trees had been cut down by 1866.

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales (which in those days included all of what is now Queensland) attempted to prevent the process by declaring the bunya-growing areas out of bounds for timbergetting in 1842, thereby creating an unofficial safe zone where Aboriginal people could continue their traditional activities. However it was reported that the timbergetters themselves resented and largely ignored the new law. The area was still being fiercely defended fiercely by Aboriginal people in 1845 or 1846 when fourteen-year-old Tom Petrie attended a bunya festival there, but this state of affairs may not have lasted for much longer.
In 1860 the new governor of the new colony of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, pleased his local constituents, all white men of course, by repealing the law. He reported in 1861 that Aboriginal people had been completely cleared out of the Blackall Range district. Perhaps the reason it was done so quickly was that, by then, there were few Aboriginal people left there to defend what remained of their precious bunya trees?
Many of the them would have been killed, but no doubt there were others who sought new territory where they could continue to live their traditional lifestyle in peace. Meanwhile those far-flung travellers whose habit it was to attend the bunya festival in the Blackall Range probably adapted to the change, going where the trees survived and the nuts continued to provide a triennial feast.  "Our" Bunya Mountains (the ones now in the Bunya Mountains National Park) would almost certainly have received an increased number of triennial visitors. They may even have changed hands as displaced Gubbi Gubbi people sought a new homeland and tribal borders shifted accordingly.

For us, it means that truly accurate knowledge of Aboriginal activities in the Bunya Mountains, before the area's invasion by the white newcomers, may be lost to us forever.


Bunya Trees for Timber

What a fuss this tree created when it was first shown by aborigines to a white man in 1838! Andrew Petrie heard of it from an aboriginal friend. He asked to be shown it, and was taken to Mt Beerwah. Recognising instantly that the tree he saw was new species of great potential value, he took a hatchet and chopped out a sample of the timber, to the great distress of his friend. Bunya trees were regarded by the aborigines as highly valuable for the food they produced, and were personally owned by individual men.
Botanists were delighted with the new discovery. In1843 Ludwig Leichhardt wrote of it: ‘The Bunya-Bunya tree is noble and gigantic, and its umbrella-like head overtowers all the trees of the Brush.’ Again, the next year he noted: ”Bunyas lift their majestic heads, like pillars of the blue vault of heaven.”
The excitement among the timbergetters was even greater. Petrie noted that the average diameter of the trees at that time was four feet, and this rich supply of creamy-yellow, easily worked timber appeared to be theirs for the taking. They didn’t have things all their own way, however. In 1842 Governor Gipps, recognising the tree’s importance to the aborigines, proclaimed that no licences would be granted for logging of the lands bearing bunya pines. Settlement in these areas was also prohibited. In theory, this should have resulted in a de facto aboriginal reserve on the Sunshine Coast and the wide bay areas, and their hinterland. In practice, the New South Wales Government was a long way away, and its less popular laws were winked at in the faraway colony of Moreton Bay.
In our own district, hand-cutting and milling of bunya trees on a small scale probably began soon after the area was opened up by squatters in 1840. The original range of these magnificent trees is no longer known. Remnants and regrowth show that it came close to Toowoomba in the north. It could well have once included the city area, the nearby escarpment, and perhaps further south. However in 1851 Christopher Rolleston, the Darling Downs commissioner for crown lands, reported that settlers were deliberately destroying the trees with the aim of “keeping the blacks from the neighbourhood”. It would be impossible nowadays to say from how great an area the plants were completely exterminated.
When the new colony of Queensland was created in 1859, one of it’s government’s first acts was to rescind Gipps’s proclamation. By 1861 Governor Bowen could report with satisfaction that aborigines had been driven out of the Blackall Range. Timbergetters were encouraged to make full use of any timber they could find. Inland, records show that timbergetters were working in the Bunya Mountains in the 1860s.
By 1865 it again became impossible to get a licence to cut bunya pines - this time in recognition that they had been over-cut. It doesn’t seem to have stopped the “harvest”, however, and in 1878 girth limits of eighteen inches were imposed in an attempt to give the smaller trees time to grow and ensure a future for the industry. There were still large trees in the Bunya Mountains, which were more remote from easy transport, but in that year the land was thrown open for settlement, and the settlers attacked “their” trees with enthusiasm. Then in 1883, the Great Bunya Sawmill was opened. It dealt with those trees to such effect that the sawmill could no longer operate at a profit a mere nine years later.
By 1900, the bunya forests of the Blackall Range - originally much greater in extent than those of the Bunya Mountains - were a thing of the past. The Bunya Mountains themselves had fared better, and still contained enough forest country for some citizens to consider it worth persuading the government to reserve 9000 hectares as Queensland’s second national park. It was gazetted in 1908, but timber continued to be cut from it until 1917. The big old trees we see there now are ones which were rejected then as being too small to be worth cutting, or trees which have grown up since that date. Outside the fringes of the national park, a timber industry continued until 1945, when at last there was insufficient timber for it to continue.
The nineteeth century belief that our timber resources were so large as to be virtually unlimited was sadly proven wrong in a very short space of time. The twenty-first century does not mourn the passing of our great forests just for their own beautiful sakes, however. Nor does it merely deplore the careless waste of a resource which could still, had it been better managed, be a large and profitable industry. There is a growing awareness that the reckless destruction of trees all over the world is having a disastrous effect on its climate. Revegetation, once seen as the romantic endeavour appealing only to “greenies’ now seems a worthwhile mainstream activity.
What a great thing it would be, if this motivation led to the re-establishment of the great bunya forests.