What draws us across these climes, hopping from one place to the other, sticking bits of time together into some kind of scrapbook autobiography? It’s most likely that the Araucaria, fabled descendant of the Glossopteris fern, was once a global phenomenon, those spiny, almost scaly branches common to countless climates. Like the petrified residue of a long-dispersed echo, Glossopteris fossils are found in all the southern continents: when that enormous mass known as Gondwanaland split apart, its fragments took the fern around the planet. These days the Glossopteris fossil can be found in South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, along with India, New Zealand, Madagascar and parts of the Middle East. The members of the Araucaria family, however, are its only surviving ancestors. They remain in the forests of southern Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and in large stands in New Caledonia, New Guinea and Australia, including Norfolk Island.
So Araucaria species have a highly disjunct distribution. Some consider their occurrence in both Australia and South America the sign of an intriguing vicariance but, considering the tree’s ancient lineage and its former abundance in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be that these two locations are but the remains of a much larger distribution. That the name exists across two such distant continents, however, is anything but relictual. Australia and the western edge of South America have been edging towards each other ever since they detached from the mega-continent; what’s more, recent nomenclative ties—what are barely pricks in the fabric of geological time—have brought them into neighbourly relation virtually instantaneously.
The problem of form, and who sees it … when is a line no longer a line, but the leaning trunk of a tree, of a pine?
Australia and Chile were on opposite sides of Gondwana when it started to separate. They split off in opposite directions, and have been heading towards one another ever since. Unsurprisingly, though, once we leave the vast scales of geology and focus on the last couple of hundred years, there’s only a smattering of historical linkages between the two nations. Although the links are incredibly tenuous, they are there, and they date from the earliest moments of Australia’s colonial history.
At the start of the nineteenth century, British brigs were being built at a penal settlement on Sarah Island, in western Tasmania’s remote Macquarie Harbour. The settlement was short-lived; malnutrition, dysentery and scurvy were rampant, and it was so unproductive that all food had to be shipped in. By the mid 1830s the settlement was closed down and most of the convicts were relocated to Port Arthur. Twelve, however, under the supervision of several soldiers and a master shipwright, remained behind to fit out the last brig, the Frederick. In January of 1834 they had the 121-tonne ship ready to sail to Hobart.
As the Frederick was preparing to launch, ten of the convicts seized her. They leapt aboard, left the soldiers and the shipwright on the beach, along with half of the supplies, and set sail towards the south of New Zealand. But Australia’s colonial cousin wasn’t far enough; when they neared the South Island the convicts decided to sail the Frederick yet further, on towards the coast of South America.
Six weeks later they could see the endless, olive-green coast of southern Chile from the bow. It’s uncertain how much work the convicts had done on their stolen vessel while they were fitting her out in Tasmania; perhaps it led to the karmic retribution that followed. For while they were largely unscathed, the Frederick herself had sprung a leak in the tremendous gales screaming up from the Antarctic. The men had to abandon ship and row the whaleboat the remaining 80 kilometres to shore. They arrived in the Araucanian river town of Valdivia in March of 1834, and were promptly arrested by Chilean authorities under suspicion of being pirates.
Between Tasmania and Chile we can trace a number of Gondwanan connections. In the fossil record, for example, there is the recent discovery, near Cradle Mountain, of fossilised foliage from the giant conifer Fitzroya tasmanensis. These days we find this tree alive only in southern Chile. Another common Chilean tree, however, is the myrtle or southern beech (Northofagus); it’s abundant in Tasmania as well. Perhaps the most startling link is to be found hidden in Tasmania’s caves: if we look carefully, one of the world’s oldest spider species might emerge; the Tasmanian cave spider (Hickmania troglodytesis) is the only member of its family outside Chile.
On the other hand, there’s the way two bodies in completely different places will still grow according to the same principles. And in those principles, is there a deep, primordial call for collusion? For the universal?
This is the way we do things, we do them this way.
The way of things is us.
Things have a way, it’s us.
The coast is dark, rugged, windswept … Everything: wet, windswept, green, rugged. We parked the car on a muddy flat then proceeded to walk to the community. Rain stung my face. We slipped in the mud …
This constant rain is starting to become too much. The lack of sun and the sleepy, grey light wears me down.
—From my journal notes, during a visit to Valdivia and a local Mapuche community, 26 August 2008
Released under observation while the Chilean authorities in Valdivia sought further information, six of the men decided to escape further into the Americas. Fleeing north, they journeyed towards the Caribbean, which they crossed to get to Jamaica.
The remaining four, however, were rather taken by Valdivia, this strange, small town surrounded by rivers, and by the forests, lakes and volcanoes that spread in all directions into the lands of Araucanía, and they decided to stay.
The Araucaria pine has many varieties, far too many to be able to isolate a single origin. But the genus’s name comes from the very part of Chile in which the Australian convicts landed. Araucaria comes from Araucanía, the country’s ninth administrative region, which lies just to the north of Valdivia. Araucanía was the land of the Araucanos, fierce warriors who were immortalised in Alonso de Ercilla’s famous epic poem La Araucana (1589), and who resisted Spanish invasion for hundreds of years. La Araucana was the colonists’ term, however; the name the indigenous people used to define themselves was, and is, Mapuche.
Once upon a time, the Mapuches’ heroism and valour in battle fuelled nationalist sentiment among Chileans as they strove for independence from Spain. By the early nineteenth century, however, around the time the convicts from the Frederick arrived, things were changing. The Mapuches’ fabled, ferocious resistance of Incan and then Spanish invasion was slowly to acquire a new hue in the eyes of the nascent Chilean republic: first, they were refigured by popular conception as something of a nuisance and then, as they continued to resist the incursion of newly independent Chilean (though still very European) forces, their resistance was transformed into an unforgiveable act of national betrayal. Mapuches had prevented the invasion of their lands for centuries with an efficacy unseen elsewhere, but the invasive tides from the north grew too strong; the Chileans took control of much of their territory by the early twentieth century.
While the Mapuches would go on to suffer decades and decades of abuse, discrimination and segregation, that misnomer, Araucanía, would become enshrined on maps as one of the country’s fifteen regions, and the trees that grew there would eventually become a national symbol.
The Araucaria particular to the region of Araucanía is the Araucaria araucana, though it’s more commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree, or pehuén (a word from the Mapuches’ language, Mapudungun). An evergreen that grows to heights of around 40 metres, it is fitting that the A. araucana is the hardiest species in the genus—it is indomitable like the Mapuches, whose territory gave it a name. It’s also true that the A. araucana is sometimes described as a living fossil; in Australia, who can pretend that it wasn’t so long ago when it was common to talk about Aboriginal people and their cultures in the same way?
A. araucana’s closest relatives are in southern Brazil, though the pine has a familial line that stretches across the Pacific. Heading towards Australia, we encounter the first, distant relative on the eponymous island of the Norfolk Island pine, and the second on the mainland, where grow Wollemi pines in New South Wales’ largest national park.
A moth’s shadow slides across the page. When I try to think of a single araucaria, of its Jurassic, scaled chest cracked up in long ridges of crust, I can think of no one tree. I can only see lines across an ocean, and the way that lines form paragraphs. The paragraphs seem to talk to one another but how they do this isn’t clear. I can’t shake the idea that each of them makes sense only in relation to one person.
The four remaining convicts from the Frederick married local women and became part of the Valdivian frontier community, but British law would ultimately find them. They were arrested once more, sent to England, charged with piracy, and then returned to Hobart in 1837 for trial. England–Tasmania–Chile–England–Tasmania … Having crossed the globe again, only to land back in colonial Hobart Town, it was expected that they would be sentenced to death.
But as the Frederick had never been registered, the men couldn’t be convicted of stealing a legally recognised ship. Further-more, because the brig had been seized in the enclosed waters of Macquarie Harbour, and not on the high seas, the men could not be convicted of piracy. Legal technicalities proved the men’s salvation, and saved them from death on Hobart’s gallows. Instead, the fugitives were transported to the Norfolk Island penal settlement for life.
The Norfolk Island pine, or Araucaria heterophylla, is another member of this ancient, scattered Araucaria family. As the vernacular name implies, the tree is endemic to the island, that tiny blip in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand. Thirteen of its close relatives can be found about 700 kilometres to the north, too, on the long, thin main island of New Caledonia, Grande Terre.
Sometimes the tree is also referred to as a star pine, a triangle tree or a living Christmas tree, due to its symmetrical shape as a sapling. If you look online, a lot of information will point out that it is not a ‘true’ pine, as if its pine-like shape were a disguise, and it were a mere pretender next to the real pines of the Northern Hemisphere. Trees, like people, can be colonial subjects.
The Norfolk Island pine can grow to heights of 50–65 metres. Their trunks remain straight and vertical in the face of incessant onshore winds that end up contorting most other species. Like many Araucarias, they have thick, scaly leaves, like thousands of small, rubbery nails. Their cones are squat and globose, and disintegrate at maturity to release nutty, edible seeds.
James Cook was the first European known to have sighted Norfolk Island. In 1774, during his second voyage to the South Pacific in the HMS Resolution, Cook noted that the island’s large forests of tall, straight trees appeared to be suitable for use as masts and yards for sailing ships. However, when the island was occupied some years later, in 1788 by convicts transported from Britain, the colonists were disappointed. The trees were not resilient enough for such uses, and the industry had been long abandoned by the time the convicts from the Frederick were delivered.
Australia’s third prime minister, and the Labor Party’s first, was Chilean. At least, Chris Watson began life in Chile. John Christian Tanck was born in the seaside town of Valparaíso, about 1000 kilometres to the north of Valdivia, in 1867. His father was a Chilean citizen of German origin, and his mother was from New Zealand. In 1868 his parents separated, and in 1869 his mother married a man named George Watson, whose surname young Chris then took. Interestingly, none of these facts became known until after the prime minister’s death (Watson had always maintained that George was his father).
Trees are written as books are written. As history is written. As one rises another is felled. But what rises escapes nothing, its roots sunk deep in the language of the earth. Half a century before Watson was born, an English explorer and botanist named Allan Cunningham was traipsing up and down Australia’s east coast in search of new and exotic species for London’s Kew Gardens. In 1814, on the recommendation of Joseph Banks, Cunningham went in the opposite direction to Watson, across the Pacific from Australia to South America, and journeyed onwards to Brazil.
It was in Brazil that Cunningham first encountered a species of the Araucaria pine, the Araucaria angustifolia, or Paraná pine, common to southern Brazil and to north-eastern Argentina. Tall and broad-based like other Araucarias, the Paraná differs from its southern relatives primarily in its narrower leaves. It can dominate landscapes with its wide, petrified explosions of green at the end of each branch.
On return to Australia in 1816, with these encounters still fresh in his mind, Cunningham ventured back up the east coast to identify and collect the first specimens of what would become known as Araucaria cunninghamii. We call this Araucaria of Cunningham’s the hoop pine, but its other names, colonial pine and Queensland pine, along with its family name, are echoes of invasion. Botanies of invasion: as Cunningham is an echo of Banks, so is the Araucaria cunninghamii an echo of the first Araucaria.
Hoop pines aren’t found only on Australia’s east coast, however. They extend from drier rainforests in New South Wales and Queensland right up into New Guinea. They live up to 450 years and can grow as tall as 60 metres. They are the ancient remnants of a trans-Pacific arboreal network, but their fragile filaments surged with the fresh energy of a cry heard by colonists in Araucanía. That cry travelled north-east across the southern cone before reaching back to distant family on the other side of the world.
Los Araucanos, La Araucanía, Las Araucarias, Terra Australis, Araucaria cunninghamii …
Mapuche: ‘people (che) of the earth (mapu)’
Mapudungun: ‘language of the earth’
The southern Chilean town of Arauco means ‘chalky water’ in Mapudungun. It also lies a few kilometres west of the site of the fabled Arauco War, where Spanish settle-ments were razed by Mapuche warriors, before being rebuilt, and then razed again, throughout the sixteenth century. These days Arauco is also the mantle of a large multinational corporation. Arauco, a giant Chilean forestry company, is responsible for the destruction of vast stands of native forest systems across Chile and Argentina. In their place the company has planted hundreds of thousands of hectares of eucalyptus and araucaria pine. Entire ecosystems have been transformed into plantation monocultures, and streams adjacent to the plantations, once vital to local communities, have been sucked dry by those ever-thirsty Australian exports. The streams of chalky water have been drained. The profits tumble into accounts under a name that, spoken by its people, once signified pure resistance to capitalist expansion.
The Pehuenches, the Mapuche tribes who lived most closely with the forests of Araucaria araucanas, ate the seeds, or piñones. They waited for ripe seeds to fall before eating them, lest they offend the trees’ spirits. In Australia, the Yugambeh people used the resin of A. cunninghamii as cement, and the seeds, released from disintegrating, ovoid cones, were also an important food source.
When I try to think of a single araucaria, of its Jurassic, scaled chest cracked up in long ridges of crust, I can only think of a photo of the hoop pine that I took with my phone. I’ve lost the phone but I know, were I to find it again, what the photo would look like.
In Australia and Papua New Guinea, most pre-colonial stands of hoop pine have been depleted by logging. Nowadays it is mainly found on timber plantations, where the wood is harvested for furniture, flooring and boat-building. The species continues to thrive, however, in protected areas; Lamington National Park, in south-east Queensland, contains the world’s largest remaining stand.
A reserve of remarkable variation, Lamington National Park lies on the slopes of the giant, eroded shield of the Mt Warning volcano. It is a distinctively subtropical bioregion; as warm wind blows down the northern slopes of the park, rainfall and humidity decrease. The warm temperatures and the rich, basaltic soil encourage a vibrant rainforest with extremely high species diversity. Wrangled, dark plants with large leaves, plants such as strangler figs and black booyongs are abundant. Further north, as rainfall decreases, plants that can tolerate drier conditions start to dominate. It is here, in this parched rainforest, that the hoop pine takes over. As you keep going north and the elevation drops further, hoop pines are replaced by open eucalypt forest, the brush box, forest oak and yellow box that signal a complete shift in species from the other side of the park.
In that more northern section of the park, after you’ve walked a few kilometres down the main track, you come across a detour to the Araucaria lookout. The Araucaria track snakes through dripping forest; your clothes will be soaked by the time you get to the lookout. From there, the Araucarias look like thin, shadowy forms on the mountain side, like dark strokes in an impressionist’s swirl. They are mostly higher up, near the ridges, as if to make sure they are in the best place to catch those familial echoes as they come rolling in from the Pacific.
That whole ridge, that weathered shield of the volcano, could be the outer edge of a far, far larger amphitheatre, one whose nadir might be all the way over in Araucanía, the land of the Araucos, of myriad volcanos, that hidden node. When walking through Lamington you can get that sense if you search for it a little: to the east, out beyond the strip of spindly skyscrapers and suburbs on the coast, the vast, oceanic field seems to suck you over the hump of the horizon, to compel you towards what can’t be seen on the other side.
There’s also another story to mention here, which has been running under the surface of the others. It is to do with a young boy who, prior to leaving his continent, had no sense of the world as anything but seamlessly whole. With time, however, he was drawn to other countries, where he would fall in love, experience delirious heights of happiness and, perhaps most seductively of all, feel as if he were truly unusual. With more time he became addicted to these sensations and found that, as much as he was happy to return to Australia, not long would pass before he would again begin to feel that he didn’t fit, as if parts of him were missing, as if these parts were scattered all over the world.
Of all these places, he left more of himself in Chile than in any other. There, time and memory seemed to be snagged on the sharp tips of the Andes so that, even years after he had left, he found himself constantly journeying back there in his thoughts. He got a job on the Gold Coast and moved there. He could have been in paradise, but he would venture to Lamington National Park and, from the height of that old volcano, he would look back out over the thin city and across the Pacific Ocean.
In a way he had an explorer’s mentality, in that he was always searching for more, for new possibilities. But in another way, far from being unusual, it was as if he was more typically Australian—more typically of Australian history—than he would ever admit. It was as if he had inherited some kind of recurring, colonial program: while others had settled, and then forgotten about how they had arrived or about the possibility of journeying onwards, here he was, stuck on the edge of things, unsure of where to go, looking back for signs of where the journey began.