Margaret River: a Portrait in Trees

A gallery of tree species on Wadandi Boodja

Trees hold a special role in the genus loci, or spirit of place.

Margaret River lies in the far south-west of Australia.  A limestone ridge runs along the coast and fades away inland to a sand plain cloaked with forests and swamp. There are a diverse range of habitats and unique ecosystems, which combine to create a unique biodiversity hotspot.

The Leeuwin-Naturaliste region is Wadandi-Pibelmun country, and before European colonisation it was heavily timbered. Indigenous people rarely or never felt the need to fell a large tree, and instead favoured small scale elements such as bark, leaves, roots, flowers, sap, and branches. Many of the tree names we use are Noongar in origin. Karri, Yarri, Marri, Jarrah, Tuart, and Bullitch: ancient names that resonate with the unique spirit of place.

All our trees are endemic to the south-west. Each species has a character all of it’s own: a place, or role in a niche. Each individual tree also has its own personality, or way it has shaped itself into the landscape.

For me, photography gives a purpose for seeking them out, learning their shapes, finding faces, sensing shifting moods at different seasons or times of day. Tree imaging presents a particular array of challenges: tricks with light and shadow in the forest, and issues of scale and representation

This gallery is a personal interaction: an incentive for getting out onto country in a meaningful way by exploring the character of trees. Noongar culture has a long established relationship with them. Likewise, in European culture there is an ancient body of lore that has been accumulating for thousands of years: deep knowledge of the oak, elder, and yew, amongst others. But in Australia, with a diverse array of incoming cultures, we are still building our familiarity with the local spirits of place.

Most people who spend time out on country will have an instinctive impression of the character of trees. By sharing our stories, writings, and art we can express these meanings and build our own tree lore specific to the south-west. By growing our culture of trees, we can create a stronger connection to country and foster sustainability and stewardship into the future.

Karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor)

Karri, with their huge size and gleaming pale trunks, capture the imagination of all who see them. Many 19th century visitors waxed lyrical about this tree: meanwhile the largest of them were being hunted out, measured, felled, and exported for use as sleepers, road pavers, and bridge timbers. Arguably the largest tree ever recorded in Western Australia was the King Karri of Karridale. Located within the bounds of the Davies timber empire, Davies forbade it to be felled and it was shown off to visitors. Tragically, the tree was twisted out of the ground by a tempest that struck in 1900.

The karri of the Margaret River region are a small outlying population compared to the larger forest areas along the south coast. They grow large around Boranup and Karridale, where much of their original range is now cleared farmland. As you travel northwards, the rainfall declines and karri are found mostly along waterways like the Margaret River, Calgardup and Boodjidup Brooks. Apart from a small population at Injidip, they disappear entirely north of Cowaramup.

Not all the karri of Boranup and tall and straight. Some grow into fantastical shapes, a response to the complex underlying soil structure and to environmental conditions.

Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata)

Jarrah grow right across Wadandi Boodja, from the inland forests where they grow tall and stately, to the limestone ridge where they often take on fantastical twisted shapes. Jarrah is the most favoured timber in the south-west: deep red in colour and particularly hard and dense, and their population has suffered as a result.

Most of the the tall straight Jarrah were felled before the 1930s. Regrowth is very slow, and it will be centuries before the return of large strong trees, if climate change and declining rainfall allow. Here and there are ancients that survived logging: twisted, hollow, or burnt out, they are fascinating characters, and the elders of the forest. My first tree gallery is devoted to the Jarrah.

Tree face: I love the red, black and silver of Jarrah, and their elegant angular outlook on life
jarrah

Above: looking out from a Jarrah house. The inside of burnt-out trees have multiple textures, from the crackled glazing of charcoal, through the tempered pale hardwood,  to the living shell of bark that cloaks the deadwood centre of the tree. The living skin of a Jarrah is a deep, flaky red like blood.

Swamp paperbark (Melaleuca preissiana)

Moonah, or the swamp paperbark are the least known of the tree species in the Margaret River region as they grow hidden away on creeklines. They can be quite difficult to access due to the thick swampy thickets surrounding their favourite habitat on sandy coastal plains.

paperbark

Above: the many tangled mouths of the paperbark swamp. Freshwater paperbarks live in micro-climates along creeklines and have a very different outline to the more common saltwater paperbark, and often grow large boles at the base and long winding branches like arms.

paperbark melaleuca pressii

Layer upon papery layer, a multi-dimensional universe of micro habitats. The papery bark has multiple uses, from wraps for preserving and cooking food, to the roofing and flooring of shelters.

Marri (Corymbia calophylla)

Marri are one of the keystone species of the southwest. They grow across a range of rainfall, soil types and plant communities and a play a fundamental role in the food chain for thousands of species, including the endangered black cockatoos. The marri is an abundant provider within the ecosystem, with its sweet white blossoms, bountiful nuts, medicinal red sap, and deeply textured bark.

They are incredibly responsive to environmental conditions – they can grow into tall forest giants, stately rounded shapes or wildly freeflow forms. Each marri is an individual!

marri
An old marri in the Wooditch river valley, all winsome and witchy.

Above: responding to the challenges of life grows character and resilience. This Marri I was almost afraid to approach. It stands on the edge of the Nindup Plain, in cave country.

Other species

There are a few tree species I am still working on imaging: the Bullitch (eucalyptus megacarpa), the Wonang, or Peppermint (Agonis flexuosa), the Yate, (eucalyptus cornuta) and the rare Hamelin Bay Mallee, (eucalyptus calcicola), which grows only in a 15km stretch of coast in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park.

blackbutt
Yarri (Blackbutt, or Eucalyptus patens)
Grasstrees (Xanthorrea pressii) and Yate (Eucalyptus cornuta), Boranup