Crowd under a spreading old tree

The Darnell Oak, Margaret River

In the heart of a small town in Western Australia there grows an oak. Not a very big oak, just a young tree with a short history, but a very long future …

When Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England in 1953, Margaret River chose to plant a tree at Memorial Park in her honour. The task of planting the tree fell to Bill Darnell, then Chairman of the Road Board (the Shire). When the time came he realised that no-one had thought to supply the tree, so he raced home and dug up the oak recently planted over a pit loo in his backyard. I’m sure the oak meant many things to him, but the story he took such delight in telling me had a larrikin element. I can just imagine him suppressing a laugh while he was filling in the hole.

In Europe, the oak is associated with royalty. The largest are often called “king oaks,” a title here transferred to the jarrah. The symbolism of this goes way beyond the royal family, and speaks of the fundamental character of the tree itself; huge, old, valuable, and revered for a timeframe stretching back thousands of years. Oaks are traditionally the trees under which druids gathered, law meetings were held, documents signed. Was the tree planted in Margaret River an oak by choice, or simply by chance, as the tree that came first to Bill Darnells’ hand?

In England many famous oaks that witnessed important events are registered under the heritage act; most of the ancient trees have been located and documented; many have their own profile and presence on social media. 3400 of them predate the Tudor era, more than in the whole of mainland Europe. Some are older than the English language itself; 117 oaks have been dated at over 800 years.

Despite having a tree planted for her, the Queen herself has made no impression on Margaret River. Bill Darnell, on the other hand, was a pillar of the district. During the depression in the 1930s he kept many of the group settlers alive on credit from his store in Rosa Brook, knowing quite well that people would never be able to pay their account. By the time I worked with him in his Witchcliffe store, he had served the community for over 60 years, was the oldest postmaster in Australia, and knew a bit of something about everybody.

The oak might be an exotic transplant, along with the imported cultures that now have a strong presence here, in Noongar country. But back in Europe, the reverence for trees is very deeply rooted in the ancient tradition of the world tree, or Yggdrasil. In some parts of Norway and Sweden, guardian trees are still maintained at the centre of the farmyard, and represent the binding and nourishment of multiple dimensions within the cosmos. While the tree is unharmed, it acts as a warden for the farm and all who dwell on it.

Given the right conditions, an oak can survive for over 1000 years. The Darnell tree is in a fabulous position to witness a far-flung future for Margaret River that us mere humans can only dream of.

Feature image: Forests for Life rally, 2020.