About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Ghost Gums; spirits of the desert

Of all the things that thrill me when I go to central Australia - and there are many - the first sight of a Ghost Gum is particularly special. Like many Australians - I'd like to think most of us, but that may be optimistic - I knew of Ghost Gums before I saw them, courtesy of the truly great Arrernte Australian artist Albert Namatjira. (An image search on your favourite search engine for 'Namatjira ghost gum' will give you lots of examples.)

Their superbly white trunks, powdery to the touch, against red cliffs or vast dry plains catch at the breath and the heart every time.

Roadside Ghost Gum, west of Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Coming from the south-east, this is one of the first examples you'll encounter.
For much of my life I knew them as Eucalyptus papuana, but two things happened then. Firstly, the respected botanist Lawrie Johnson of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney grasped a very large and forbidding nettle indeed when he tackled the problem of what to do about Eucalyptus. The problem, in a gum-nut shell, is that the differences between Eucalyptus and Angophora are no greater than between the various sub-groups of Eucalyptus. Logic demanded either incorporating Angophora into Eucalyptus, or splitting Eucalyptus; Lawrie boldly chose the latter. Before his sad death from cancer in 1997 he had got as far as separating out the bloodwoods, spotted gums and ghost gums as Corymbia; they remain in most books now as the only other non-Eucalyptus eucalypt. This is an interesting enough subject in itself, but I'll leave it at that for now.

The other development was the realisation that 'Eucalyptus/Corymbia papuana' in fact comprised several closely related species. The species was based on a specimen described by Ferdinand von Mueller from New Guinea; as now recognised that species is limited to New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, so the others needed their own names. The central Australian one, our subject today, growing cross the harsh central deserts from eastern Western Australia to central Queensland, was delightfully called E. (or Corymbia) aparrerinja, that being a name used by the central desert peoples.

But thereby hangs a tale, for which I am very grateful to David Nash (see below in Comments, under 'Unknown' - that's due to a glitch in Blogger). David is a highly regarded authority on Northern Territory languages and I can do no better than quote him. "How aparrerinja came to be applied is a bit mysterious. It was recorded as the word for 'Ghost Gum' only by Basedow (in 1925 near Gosse's Bluff). In his orthography nj is the palatal nasal. It is not understood why he did not record the common Arrernte ‘Ghost Gum’ word ilwempe, and why instead his term is built on the ‘River Red Gum’ term apere (in modern orthography), meaning "similar to apere". Note that the River Red Gum is commonly considered in central Australia to be the most similar tree to the Ghost Gum." It doesn't seem that this one is soluble, but it's good to know the questions at least.

Uses recorded by indigenous people (which may include other closely related Ghost Gums) include its value as a very good firewood, resistant even to rain; gum was used further north as a leech repellant, and more generally as antiseptic and topical relief for burns; bark infusions were drunk to assist in fighting chest infections, and to bathe sore eyes.

You're most likely to first encounter Ghost Gums on the plains.
Ghost Gums towering over the plains near Simpsons Gap, MacDonnell Ranges.

Ghost Gums by the Plenty Highway, far eastern Northern Territory.
Ghost Gum estimated to be 300 years old (by the Northern Territory Parks Service)
near Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges.
However to my eye, it is among the rocks, in the gorges and on the cliffs of the ranges that Ghost Gums are at their most dramatic and striking. It is remarkable where such big trees can gain a toehold, and the white trunk against red rock and bluest sky is just stunning.
Above and below, Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Ranges.


Kings Canyon Rim Walk, George Gill Range, central Australia.
Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges.
In the film Man From Snowy River, the famous ride down the precipitous mountain was purportedly filmed by sticking smallish trees into the ground at an angle, then tilting the footage to make it look steep. No such trickery is necessary for this amazing tree, though it takes a while to persuade the eyes what they are seeing!
As you will have divined, I love Ghost Gums; please go and see for yourself one day.

BACK ON FRIDAY

8 comments:

Susan said...

They are extremely photogenic and evocative. I bet I have photos of a couple of the same trees (the Kings Canyon one probably, and maybe others).

David Nash said...

I agree.
How aparrerinja came to be applied is a bit mysterious. It was recorded as the word for 'Ghost Gum' only by Basedow (in 1925 near Gosse's Bluff). In his orthography nj is the palatal nasal. It is not understood why he did not record the common Arrernte ‘Ghost Gum’ word ilwempe, and why instead his term is built on the ‘River Red Gum’ term apere (in modern orthography), meaning "similar to apere". Note that the River Red Gum is commonly considered in central Australia to be the most similar tree to the Ghost Gum.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Susan - they are special all right.
'Unknown' - I wish I could thank you by name for that very useful and interesting contribution. I'm no linguist (certainly not with regard to indigenous languages) and I tried and failed to find aparrerinja in any other context than the species name. I was unaware of Basedow's contribution and am grateful to you for taking the time and trouble to comment.

David Nash said...

Sorry, I did 'Choose an identity' and it linked from 'Unknown'; this time should be less anonymous.
A better translation of aparrerinja (= aper-arenye) could be 'around apere', or 'living around apere'. We can speculate that it was a circumlocution reflecting the circumstances in which Basedow elicited the term.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks again for that David - it's much more satisfying having a name to talk to! I find it fascinating that Basedow's informants chose to define the tree in such an indirect way. No reason for you to have reread the posting, so just letting you know that I've updated it to incorporate your input - and I'll update again to give you proper credit!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hi Ian,
I am a watercolour artist and came across your picture Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Ranges and wondered if I could get your permission to use it as a subject for a painting?

Ian Fraser said...

Hello. It would be nice to know your name, but of course you can use my photo as the basis of your painting. Ultimately I guess the ownership lies with the tree! Send me a picture of it when you’re done if you like, at calochilus51@internode.on.net
Have fun!