Nation salutes the strong, silent type
Bob Beale – Sydney Morning Herald
March 29, 2008
Paul Keating is right: Sydney was tapped on the shoulder by a rainbow when it got its amazing Opera House. We are right to celebrate it and be super-sensitive to its conservation and the integrity of its setting. But the same should apply where the rainbow touched down first – on its next-door neighbours, the Bennelong twins. They may not be so eye-catching but they’re just as central to our culture and heritage.
They’re up there on that little cliff just behind the Opera House on the Bennelong lawn. Of all the places to drink in the iconic vision of the Opera House, the harbour and the bridge, few can beat this peaceful spot.
The twins are the elegant gum trees occupying a prime position on the front edge. They are forest red gums and grow so close that they may be Siamese twins or even one tree with a double trunk. Many a weary tourist has rested on the shady bench here.
They’re not particularly tall but their elevation means their tops rise above the sails of the Opera House. The tree on the left as you face the harbour is the larger, with a smooth, mottled trunk about a metre thick.[vc_column width=”1/2″]They fork early, fanning out to the classic eucalypt open crown, layered in clutches of lank, leathery leaves that yield see-through glimpses of the sky. In winter, they put on a fair show of fluffy white blossom that bursts from funny little pale-green buds that have long pointed caps, like clowns’ hats. They would be otherwise unremarkable except for one thing: botanists are pretty certain that they germinated in the early 1700s. In fact, they’re probably approaching their 300th birthday. Too few of us appreciate what this means.
As saplings, they shared daily life with the original occupants of the area, the Cadigal, who knew Bennelong Point as Tuhbowgule. From there you would have seen smoke from many campfires and women out fishing on the harbour in bark canoes. You would have heard the thud of stone axes, the laughter of children and sometimes the ancient songs of the mysterious kangaroo and dog dance initiation ceremony held at Woccanmagully, now known as Farm Cove.
You would have seen Cadigal men angrily brandishing their spears as the First Fleet dropped anchor, then convict work parties landing, the first tents erected, the British flag flown, gunshots fired into the air and toasts drunk to a nation on the far side of the planet. Soon enough, metal axes rang and trees began falling.
When the Union Jack was first flown on January 26, 1788, it was not a flagpole that held it but a casuarina tree. When troops and convicts gathered for the first Christian thanksgiving on Australian soil a week later, the Reverend Richard Johnson chose “a great spreading tree” – probably a Port Jackson fig – for his church.