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U3A Writing: The Red Gum Tree

Mima Fisher tells of the passing of the red gum tree.

Over a great passage of time, and before white men settled the area, the Wimmera River flowed north from the Grampians Mountains towards the Murray River. Its course wended its way through the Wimmera plains and into the mallee scrub-covered sandy dunes.

It filled the large Hindmarsh Lake and the smaller Albacutya Lake, flowing on by the Outlet Creek to fill many smaller lakes and ponds until it was lost among the ridges of sandy scrubland. The flows were cyclical, filling many lakes in wet seasons and having long periods of drought during which the waters dried up.

Along the banks of the stream and lakes red gum trees grew. They were habitat for the many native birds of the area. There were colourful parrots and cockatoos, and kookaburras greeting the new day with their raucous laughter. When the lakes were filled, the waterbirds multiplied. Ducks of many kinds, pelicans and often black swans visited. Common little finches and honeyeaters feasted on the wild flowers and undergrowth. The red gum tree saw it all.

Aboriginal tribes came, seeking the kangaroo, emu and other tempting additions to their diet. All was peaceful and most times a paradise for the inhabitants. Flora, fauna and fish in the waters made life very pleasant and easy. The gum trees gave shelter from the heat, their hollows homes to the nesting birds. The red gum tree loved it all.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, changes came. White men began to make the area their home. They brought flocks of sheep to the country to graze on the grasses of the plains and scrubland. Sometimes the trees were resting places for the shepherds and their horses as they tended the flocks. Big stations were the centres for these operations. Gradually the land was opened to farming folk who came to cultivate the land and grow various grain crops. Houses were built for the families. The red gum tree wondered about it all.

The farmers needed shelter for the teams of horses they used to till the fields. They looked at the great trees, came with axes and cross-cut saws to get the timbers they used to build stables.

The structures were lined and covered with brush thatching to keep out weather, making them comfortable for the horses. Chaff sheds, bins for oats and other extras, mangers for feeding and racks for harness were added. Each stall had its own occupant, and each horse knew where to find his place. His bridle was hung on the red gum post by his feeder.

Other farm animals came to the stables, and the farm sheep dogs found a good sleeping spot. The farm cats came too, to feast on the mice and sparrows darting among the bins and in the roof thatch. The red gum tree was part of the new environment.

Much different from the peace of the open country were the noises and bustle of the life in the stables. In the early hours of the day the farmer's lantern bobbed around as he filled the feeders for his horses. Their whinneys of anticipation greeted him as he moved along, whistling cheerily, grooming and harnessing each of his team readying them for the day's work in the paddocks.

The litter of puppies, hidden behind the food bins, whined as their mother left to follow the farmer. The ginger tomcat, ever alert to catch a scurrying mouse, sat purring on the manger of his horsey friend.

Small boys came, laughing and calling to one another, as they climbed the thatched roof, seeking sparrows’ eggs, for which they got pocket money from the farmer. The red gum tree heard no sound.

For several decades life on the land followed a pattern of good seasons and bad. Farming methods changed, new ways of tilling were found and the horse was replaced by tractors.

The stables were no longer used. The thatched roofs rotted away leaving unsightly rubbish around the homesteads. The sturdy posts were often sawn up for firewood if no other use could be found for them. The red gum tree had passed.

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