Photo Ian Hobbs Media

“Dhalawala – Forest Country” 2022 commisioned by Cementa Festival of Contemporary Art

A forest of big native Cypress trees was killed in the Black Summer fire. Sensitised by our own recent experience of bushfire, we wanted to make a work with one of these beautiful black trees. We sought permission and involvement from local Dabee Wiradjuri people, Peter Swain and Emma Syme. Like the symbiotic relationships of mycorrhizal fungi and trees that we had been researching, connections with people began to multiply, from Cementa, the landholder, and on outwards. So we discovered the symbiotic network in a forest could be a meaningful metaphor for human interdependence and mutual support, especially after fire.

We felled the Tree gently to the ground. Working in the forest with saw, chisel and drill, I sectioned it and made the joints that would allow it to be rebuilt it in the Community Hall. I felled smaller trees that had also died ( Cypress does not regenerate from epicormic shoots like Eucalypts but must regrow from seed). These younger trees I would make into 16 trestles or horses that would support the Mother Tree on their shoulders. I hewed posts in halves for legs, using an ingenius jig designed by a friend to accurately cut the leg lengths. There were many weeks of charcoal and  soot, noise and sudden silence as work progressed in the forest.

We sought around for seedling trees in the ashes, then found that the local native plant nursery run by NE Wiradjuri Centre had gathered seed from the same forest. They raised 50 seedlings for us.

Boyd worked at his solarpowered computer in an old bus in the forest, composing a song to the tree. The words were are in Latin, the language of botany and colonialism, and also the language of praise. Some mornings he would rise at dawn to record birdsong to build into a soundtrack for our installation. He connected with the Bathurst community choir Eclectica, who began to rehearse his song. In a rock shelter he recorded two Wiradjuri speakers, Emma and Crackers, as they spoke words for country, for forest and funghi, for community, for care.

We invited Emma to lead a procession to the Hall where the Choir would sing his ode to the Tree. Boyd imagined the Band Rotunda in town, with its domed roof, as the mushroom or fruiting body of a secret mycorrhizal funghi running beneath the town – so it was the starting place for the procession. Emma made message sticks of cypress wood pyrographically inscribed in Wiradjuri and English to help people learn the words and phrases she and Crackers had recorded with Boyd for the soundtrack for the Tree.

The Tree was laid out in the Hall. I had spent much of Covid lockdown making a metallic version of a mycorrhizal network, reaching into the roots of the Tree and delving and branching across the room, connecting it to the 50 seedlings brought by the processionists.

Wiradjuri Language resounded up the main street of town, as the procession followed Emma in a joyful call and response, ascending into the Hall. The Choir sang the song “Arboresco ( to become a tree)” in sombre yet hopeful plainsong. Then Emma spontaneously led a cacophony of Wiradjuri Language, in praise of the Tree and its interspecies networks, raising the roof.

When the spring comes, we will come together again to plant the seedlings back into their Country. We hope they will flourish.


Artist Profile Issue 63 Essay by Ian Milliss