22 Feb 2023
THE STORY OF THE BLACK BEAN TREE
Within the Girringun Indigenous Protected Area, one of the lush and green sacred gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, lies a tree that tells us the truth about the land that surrounds it - the black bean tree.
The Black Bean Tree by Jirrbal artist Beau Pennefather Motlop © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop ()
"The dark sky represents the incoming storms and rain which feeds the rivers and lakes. Which the black bean tree is known to signify. The circular motif patterns on the trunk of the tree represent a strong connection to the land. The circular patterns on the ground represent the spirit of the earth and its connectedness to the trees. The Rainbow bee-eater birds and the Ulysses butterflies symbolise our people’s connection to the sky, and the Dingo and Green tree frog represent our connection to the land."
“We have a tree here called the black bean tree”, explains Jirrbal Traditional Owner Sonya Takau from Girringun Aboriginal Corporation. “It produces a very toxic fruit, but our people knew how to leach the toxins from that. And it was a staple diet for our people”. The black bean tree grows along essentially the entire east coast of Australia. Researchers believe that this is evidence that Indigenous Australians carried the seeds across Country as an important food source.
“Normally, around September through to November, it's supposed to flower into this beautiful orangey-red flower.” But sadly, as Sonya reveals, “The flowers are coming on much later now.”
Castanospermum australe flower © Jan Smith / Wiki CommonsJirrbal People call the black bean tree ‘mirrany’. Sonya confirms Jirrbal People know this is one of the things local mob can ‘read’ from the black bean tree.
“When it does flower at that particular time, when it's supposed to, it tells us that the storm season is approaching.” It also tells Traditional Owners when certain foods are ready to be collected. After thousands of years, local Elders are noticing the tree’s messages are less and less clear.
"I've been talking to my family and the old people, and they're saying it's changing. Something's not right."
Girringun Aboriginal Corporation
“Look, from people that you talk to, from what scientists are saying from the Western perspective, they're saying it's changed. I think for Aboriginal people, it's purely observing nature”, Sonya explains. Diet, travel, hunting and gathering practices change as the species surrounding First Peoples on Country change.
Jirrbal Artist Beau Pennefather Motlop’s depiction of black bean tree flowers and seed pods © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop () “It's the birds, animals and plants, the weather… the way the weather's changing. Nature indicates to us if something's not right within nature”, Sonya says. Nature has functioned as a ‘calendar’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for thousands of years, so for species like the black bean tree to lose their function as a seasonal indicator is a unique and jarring cultural loss.
“Western culture calls 'em calendar trees. We just know it as a particular tree on Country. We know when it flowers, it tells us something. It tells us that it's the right time to go and collect scrub hen eggs, which we dig out from underneath the nest to eat. But all of that's changing”, Sonya reveals. To witness the tree unable to fulfil such a crucial part of its purpose is obvious but difficult to accept.
“Our Elders know it’s supposed to flower at a particular time of the year, and it isn't anymore. It isn’t doing its natural role anymore.” For Sonya, the clearest way forward is to invest in and listen better to nature, and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge in exploring best practice in healing Country.
“[Colonisation] kicked off the first domino. Now a whole lot of dominoes just keep falling, falling, falling, falling when it comes to the subject of the natural environment. Those dominos being the acts of people who’ve got no idea how nature works. Most people don’t know how nature works the way we do.”
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