Preserving ‘story-telling’ scar trees and Aboriginal heritage

July 16th, 2021

With NAIDOC Week celebrated across the country, we are pleased to report on efforts to preserve culturally modified scar trees and Aboriginal cultural heritage at CSIRO Ginninderra.

Protecting  lands, waters, sacred sites and Aboriginal cultural heritage was the focus for the ‘Heal Country’ theme for NAIDOC Week celebrated across the nation and indeed at Ginninderra from 4-11 July.

In tune with this theme, we were recently able to host the ACT Aboriginal Natural Resource Management Facilitator and an expert arborist on the Ginninderra site, to inspect and inform the preservation of culturally modified ‘scar’ trees.

Over recent years we have been working with local Aboriginal Elders and Representative Aboriginal Organisations (RAOs) to identify scar trees and other sites or artefacts of Indigenous cultural heritage and significance and to incorporate these into site heritage planning and conservation.

Scar trees, also called culturally modified trees, are rare and special features within the Australian landscape. They bear distinctive marks that provide a window into the past culture and lifestyle of our First Nations People.

Significant scar trees have been identified among the old twisted gums, and in several other locations at Ginninderra, as explained at our last community shrub planting by local Buru Ngunnawal Elder, custodian and knowledge holder, Wally Bell.

“These trees and this place are significant because they highlight our occupation of the region,” Wally said. “It is telling the story about how we used the natural landscape and its features to survive for thousands of years. This is one part of a much larger story.”

The permanent scars on these trees provide clues and signs about where, how and when Aboriginal people lived and traversed these areas as well as what they used timber for.

“Scar trees are used for many different purposes”, says Wally. “Most of the tree scars here are small in size, indicating the bark has been removed for coolamons to transport various bush tucker. These would have been used to carry acacia seed, yam daisy, chocolate lily and bulbine lily – all of those small tubers and seeds that were important food sources for Aboriginal people.”

Scars of different shapes and sizes can give clues of timber being used for containers, canoes, shields and shelters, for example.

Many of the eucalypts that carry these scars are over 200 years old and in some cases the trees are fully or partly dead, in danger of falling or nearing their end of life.

By inspecting the condition and structure of each of the trees, the ACT Aboriginal Natural Resource Management Facilitator, and an expert arborist are developing advice for the conservation and protection of the trees and their scars.

Some of the trees are in great condition or can be carefully pruned to improve their structural stability and lower the chance of falling and damaging or destroying the scars.  Other dead or partially dead trees are in much higher risk of falling so the experts advice will be able to  recommend ways to preserve the condition of these trees and scars also.

Further consultation with the local Elders and RAOs will be an important part in determining exactly how these trees, their scars and the stories that they tell, can be preserved for generations to come.

A grey tree trunk in a grassy field with a man standing on each side of the tree in conversation. The man on the left is wearing a brown jacket and holding an ipad. The man on the right has a fluro safety vest on.
The ACT Aboriginal Natural Resource Management Facilitator, and an expert arborist, inspecting scar trees and providing advice on preservation at Ginninderra
On the left hand side is a gum tree a male aboriginal elder standing on the right hand side with his hand in the air. He is wearing cap and a colourful shirt.
Buru Ngunnawal Aboriginal Corporation Elder Wally Bell sharing knowledge about the Ginninderra scar trees during a shrub planting event at Ginninderra
A grey tree trunk in a field with a yellow measuring tape around it bring held by a man who leaning over and wearing a fluro safety vest. Behind him is another man watching.
Many of the trees bearing scars are more than 200 years old
A hand on a grey tree trunk.
Different strategies may be needed to preserve scars in dead trees that are in danger of falling