I started to understand the Wurundjeri people’s love for ‘Country’ whilst my wife, Dedrie and our Chihuahua, Little B, walked along tracks by the Yarra River during late winter and early spring. These delightful tracks pass through unspoiled bushland in the middle of the Melbourne CBD.
These tracks tell stories of a Victoria of the past and the ruin of the Wurundjeri people, who occupied the Yarra River Valley before British colonisation. The Yarra is also known as ‘Birrarung’ or ‘river-of-mists’ by the remnants of the Wurundjeri people.
Whilst walking along the Birrarung on a misty, rainy July day, I rounded a corner on the muddy path. I stumbled onto an early flowering wattle, flowering so prolifically that the feathery, purply grey foliage could only peek out under a covering of yellow gold. Mirrored in the reflective brown of Birrarung was a perfect replica of that wattle. Amongst the slumbering grey bush, this spurt of brilliant yellow heralded new life whilst everything else was still asleep.
When I see them flowering so joyfully, I am reminded of the ‘Blue Bush Paddock’ – or in our native Afrikaans language – ‘Blouboskraal’; a farm in the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) in South Africa. There, although an introduced ‘pest’ from Australia, Black Wattles would always bloom in spring and early summer, unashamedly bursting into the most delightful display of yellow-gold flowers!
D.H. Lawrence mirrored my feelings when he wrote joyfully in 1922 in his book Kangaroo: ‘…all at once, in spring, the most delicate feathery yellow of plumes and plumes and plumes and trees and bushes of wattle, as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here, in the Australian bush.’
As spring advanced and visits to Birrarung became more frequent as the weather improved, we’d take paths that meandered through a carpet of wildflowers that spread under the eucalypts and wattles. We would wade through chocolate ‘lilies’, white ‘milkmaids’, blue ‘pincushions’ and the purple ‘coral-peas’. I would be reminded of our ancestral family farm, Alexander, in Mpumalanga, where the cosmos flowers provided a never-ending tapestry of white, pink, crimson and red along the farm roads and tracks.
Along those Birrarung paths, the Wurundjeri people would have sat, partly concealed, between the wattles, gums, flowers and rocks on the riverbank. If a stranger came along, they would be challenged, and if friendly, they would smile, revealing their stunningly white teeth and nod their heads in welcome. They would talk as the golden sunlight reflected on the still water, on which floated myriads of these blossoms, deposited there by the brisk, chilly wind.
I googled ‘wattles in July’. The result – much helpful information from the internet! One of the ‘best known late winter-flowerers’ I learned was the Cootamundra Wattle, which starts blossoming in July; others were the Silver and Golden Wattles. It had to be one of the three. I hoped it was not a ‘Cootamundra’ – this was an introduced pest from New South Wales. But, according to the picture on Google, it became clear that it was a Golden Wattle, Australia’s floral emblem! The fit was perfect in form, colour, flowers, branches, and leaves.
In many ways, a sprig of wattle symbolised Australia, going back to the days when wattle sprigs were collected and sold to raise money for the war effort. These origins are celebrated on National Wattle Day, the first day of spring, September 1.
World War I diggers were buried with a wattle sprig; the Order of Australia’s insignia contains the wattle flower. Wattles have heralded new life to Australians, from the first Indigenous people, who used the tree for many things over thousands of years, to those who have adopted the green and gold – the foliage and the bloom – as national colours.
A plaque in the ‘Australian Garden” in Cranbourne, Victoria, says that a significant thing about the Australian landscape with the magnificent colours and forms of the flowers, grasses, and trees were the scents – including the scent of a flowering wattle. Australian plants are said to be the most aromatic in the world. It is said that Diggers returning home after the 1st WW could smell the mainland whilst at sea!
Nicolas Rothwell says, ‘All at once, I felt it: I saw the trees, the flowers, the mauve hills and yellow spinifex; I saw the way the features of the landscape held together and had their balance.
The Pilbara had claimed me. That’s the tree that tells you beauty comes from being in the landscape: it’s not the tree alone that makes the spectacle, but everything around it, the totality. You aren’t anything without the country that provides the backdrop; it needs you just as you need it.’
Trees, such as wattles, feature strongly in the history of all inhabitants of Australia. ‘Wattle Day’ is being proposed to replace Australia Day – the day many Aboriginal people believe they were ‘invaded’.
We learned to love ‘Country’ walking along those tracks!