STORY | Tree of Knowledge Memorial

Posted on 26/11/2011

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Turning into the main street of Barcaldine from Blackall, a mysterious black cube appears – it commands attention. While large structures, say silos and mining plants, are not unusual in rural landscapes they are rare in townships. Buildings don’t tend to be larger than the largest tree. In Barcaldine, the largest buildings are the historic hotels lining the main street, some of which housed itinerant workers.

Distinct and strange in the streetscape of tin and timber hotels and shop fronts, the black box disrupts the colonial grid of this typical country town, casting a shadow over the historic railway station and framing its entrance. In the colonial grid, towns turn away from the vast Australian landscape and blinker their eyes to the blurred horizon. In approaching the memorial, the mystery is amplified with this austere and curious screened structure hovering (raised by steel pillars) above the skeletal remains of a twisted tree. Light filters unevenly through the screen giving a slight, almost hallucinatory, appearance of movement. In the daylight, the mostly shaded interior is lightly dappled despite the harsh outback sun. The box is more mysterious, more drawn out, when approaching from Longreach, as it can be seen from 20 kilometres.

The charred timber box is the outer shell of the Tree of Knowledge memorial, an 18-metre square recycled wood and steel structure which protectively encases the void left by the loss of a heritage-listed ghost gum (Eucalyptus Papuana) due to poisoning in 2006. Believed to have been more than 170 years old, much older than the town itself, it was named in recognition of the stream of events that played out beneath its aged branches. A witness to history – if only that tree could talk. The site is recognised as the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party which arose from the prolonged shearers’ strike of 1891. By 1889, Queensland shearers were unionised, stridently demanding better wages and conditions from pastoralists and seeking compliance with union rules. Pastoralists, reaping profits from rising wool prices, not only declared ‘freedom of contract’, they also reduced wages, duly ignoring unions and refusing to negotiate. The Queensland Shearers’ Union and the Queensland Labourers’ Union issued the “Bushmen’s Official Proclamation” to its members in early 1891, stating:

“… [W]e are the men whose labour mainly upholds Queensland. It is our toil that brings rich dividends to banks and fat incomes to squatters and profitable trade to great cities. Yet we have no votes by which we can secure laws to protect us even in our earnings and the squatting companies dream of dragooning us into submission with hordes of police protected blacklegs when we refuse to work under any conditions which profit mongers who fleece us choose to draw up in some bank parlour …”

As the headquarters for the union and the site of the biggest strike camp, Barcaldine hosted strike meetings in the shade of a ghost gum in the town’s main street. From here, the strikers also ‘greeted’ incoming non-union labour arriving at the train station. The town filled with unionists, soldiers and strike breaking labour and by March the population swelled to 4500. The following month, strike leaders were arrested and eventually sentenced to three years hard labour at notorious St Helena Island. The Workers’ Heritage Centre in Barcaldine features a detailed display about the strike and also the trial of the unionists and conditions at St Helena. With resources exhausted, ‘scab’ labour prevalent and leaders imprisoned, the union ended the strike in June 1891. Having lost this battle, they redirected their efforts to the ballot box believing parliamentary representation was the path to labour reforms. Notably, much of the union literature makes reference to the disenfranchisement of workers. Political representation was won for workers the following year in the Barcoo, with the world’s first Labor Government elected in 1899.

This award winning memorial, by project architects Brian Hooper and Ben Vielle, establishes a unique tourist attraction in outback Queensland, where cultural heritage tourism plays an important role in diversifying rural economies and celebrating a sense of place in regions that many regard as the ‘middle of nowhere’. Unveiled for May Day in 2009, the memorial rose on the site amid curiosity and criticism, with mutterings about ‘taxpayers’ money’ and others describing it as ‘bold’. Yet, ask those who have rested in the shade, read the didactic panels, touched the cool and smooth surface of the tree trunk, or arched their backs to photograph the cavernous interior, and they’ll describe a moment of quiet humility in the face of this history. Humility is a fitting tribute to those workers standing their ground in unity against squatter, political and military might: whose organising efforts ultimately changed electoral fortunes. This is not a site to be commemorated by a plaque or secreted into the pages of history books. This memorial is memorable, powerful and evocative.

Cross the wide open threshold to step into the folds of a different geometry that manipulates inner space, yet remains open to expansive horizons. While the centrally situated white tree is gnarled and frail, the memorial preserves its remains to emphasise its former stature as well as the significance of this site in Queensland’s history. The remnants of the lifeless tree have been preserved, the holes in its trunk patched and its few brittle limbs bolted and supporte. The roots have been dug out of the hard red earth, exposed for viewing through an etched glass platform. At night, in a reversal of the day’s play of light, the memorial is illuminated by uplights, the tree is luminescent as light streams outward through the timber veil.

Over the past few decades, surgeries have been performed on the ailing tree which was diagnosed with dieback in 1991. The destruction of the Tree of Knowledge, as a site of homage and veneration, has resulted in an enduring statement built on readable symbolism that evokes the landscape and humanity of this chapter in history. Like the labour movement itself, it persists. Perhaps, though, a reminder that spirit (rather than poison) once imbued Labor and unionism with solidarity. There’s poignancy here too, as the negative space of the memorial outlines the lost canopy of the tree and envelops a spirit that lives on. Looking into the memorial, the depth plays tricks and the tree seems haloed. Once inside, absence is given shape as 3600 chamfer cut hardwood pillars, suspended at various heights from the ceiling, outline the original tree. A passing wind, even the lightest breeze, effortlessly animates those heavy poles; their movement is remiscent of rustling leaves reflecting and filtering light and their sound a flat murmuring. Or just voices from the past – the voices of the many – somehow resonant in the contraries of elemental forces that so shape this country.

This interplay and contradiction of material and immaterial, present and absent, light and dark, harsh and gentle, triggers a transition in the historical and cultural landscape. This memorial offers experience and invites imagination with its hardy aesthetic and fleeting, sensory moments that are meshed into the everyday life of this town. More importantly, though, it demonstrates a deep respect for the story it enshrines, a story that is planted firmly in this ground and marks this place.

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Posted in: architecture, history