River Red Gums

Over the Easter long weekend I unrolled my swag on the banks of the Riverina’s Edward river, along with 5000 others who descend annually on the 1000 acre property for ‘Confest’ - an alternative arts and sustainability festival.

The original Confest (the name, a mix of conference and festival), was initiated by former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns in 1976 as a means of bringing together the subcultures of the alternative movement.

Times have changed, but the original intention remains true. The minimal entry fee includes an honourary two hours volunteering, which can include offering a workshop. The festival schedule therefore, was an ever changing feast scrawled on a black board that required snacks and a water bottle to circumnavigate – everything from acro yoga to rocket stoves, aquaponics to reclaiming anger.

One afternoon I drifted from a Hafiz poetry reading to an outdoor yoga class, then caught a spontaneous singing class before finishing with a fish leather workshop.

As interesting as the classes were, I regularly found my gaze drifting to the personalities outside of the marquees, not to those of the human kind (although there were many curious specimens), but to the majestic river red gums that inhabited the site.

Having limited previous acquaintance with these iconic trees, I was immediately smitten with their presence. Large and stout, they leaned heavily one way or another, seemingly without the uniformity of flood or weather patterns. Limbs were thick and bulbous; the trunks patchworked with rusty bark, like a well loved and mended pair of leggings.

Many a time I opted out of another workshop in lieu of a stroll along the edge of one of the U-shaped lagoons to where the community of river reds fully came into their own - holding the banks together with a quiet calm that extended to all who sat under them.

Alongside them were grey and black box, and yellow box on the plains and higher areas. Other large remnant trees include rosewood (Heterodendrumoleifolium), buloke (Casuarinalittoralis), hooked needlewood (Hakeatephrosperma), willow wattle (Acacia salicina) and gold dust wattle (Acacia acinacea).

The grazing and logging of the past has introduced weeds such as three cornered jacks (you will know if you step on one), pattersons curse, a collection of thistles, box thorn and horehound.

The other obvious imbalance on the landscape was the queasy green of the river, and the ‘warning’ sign alerting swimmers to the blue green algae outbreak that currently plagues the Murray, a result of agricultural runoff.

Last minute I decided to offer a workshop - Introduction to Bird Language - a thinly veiled excuse to share with others a moment with the river and its gums. For half an hour a dozen of us leant against the river reds and shared a quiet appreciation of land - the corellas as they wheeled and turned in raucous collusion, the cormorants returning, and the invisible kekkekkek of the kingfishers. My mind wandered to the changes these trees have witnessed – the clearing of farmland, the siltation and putrefaction of the waters, and now new inhabitants putting trees back into the soil and teaching landcare and permaculture. Perhaps they will see a turning of the tide.