Ruth Forsythe investigates the “extra” in the ordinary as she shares a contemporary tale of a Worimi artist, grandfather to 58 children, story teller and custodian of the Guardian Healing Tree, charged with the cultural obligations inherent in the law and “lore” to protect both the Tree and his traditional lands from destruction. Worimi Worobung Custodian’s decade long struggle with the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority's attempts to move the Pacific Highway diversion to the west of Bulahdelah, instead of through the Worimi Nation’s most sacred site, continues.
The death and resurrection
of Worimi Worobung Custodian —
a man “of high degree”
In the recounting of this story about a traditional modern day Aboriginal custodian, Uncle Worimi, readers are invited to stay open minded as we travel on a linguistic journey, with this Aboriginal man, his responsibilities, his art and the Tree. This story describes a fascinating modern day parallel of what anthropologists Spencer and Gillen, in their book The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904), called Australian Aboriginal shamans "clever men" or "men of high degree” as people who share similar accounts of initiation known world- wide as the shamanic "experience of death and rising again".
In 1996, Worimi, an ordinary unassuming middle aged Aboriginal artist from Raymond Terrace awoke from a coma in a bed in a Newcastle Hospital following a bypass operation and subsequently discovered that he now possessed an extra-ordinary talent. Already an acknowledged Australian painter, Worimi was selected in 1993 to represent Koori culture as an ambassador and travel to Japan to present the Japanese Prime Minister with his painting entitled Story of Creation.
However, a new Gift revealed itself to him shortly after the still vivid post-death experience of his consciousness leaving and then returning to his body.
Uncle Worimi shares how he awoke and found it was all black and he wondered where he was; then he saw the earth and stars and felt drawn toward the light of the moon.
“It was wonderful. I wanted to travel toward the light, at the same time I realised I had more to complete as I was not yet perfect and after a period of perhaps 30 minutes I found myself back in the hospital room. I could see the nurse sitting on a chair in the corner and I saw the machines and my form lying on the bed, then I felt myself slip into and become trapped within the tight constraints of my body."
As he gradually regained his mobility, Worimi spent increasing amounts of time alone, wandering through the forests that surrounded and protected Boolah-Dillah (the rock) the centre piece of his people’s ancestral lands.
During one of these walks, Worimi discovered a mysterious ability to see living beings in the twisted and straight fallen limbs of the trees. Filled with a passion and a renewed zest for life after his near death experience, Worimi thus begins in earnest to carve the pieces of wood he finds and, in doing so, his newfound skill reveals myriad innate forms that emerge, clear and beautifully apparent to all.
Goanna, snakes, birds and all manner of creatures emerged from his seeing hands. The most spectacular carving was a spiritual work, the carved image of a giant Red Ash. The spectacular carving is, in effect, a three dimensional physical sister to the Guardian Healing Tree of Boolah-Dillah — allegedly, the largest species of its kind on the Eastern seaboard of Australia.
It was in 2008 that I first saw a photograph of the Guardian Healing Tree on the front page of a newspaper. I stared at it, transfixed. Many faces on the Tree looked back at me from the page, and I agreed with the caption on the photo which stated that the Tree's most prominent feature was "...a protruding bole in the shape of a head and face of an Aboriginal woman".
Like many other humanitarians, I felt drawn repeatedly to travel the 1,100 km round trip from Byron to Bulahdelah to visit the Tree — and got to spend many precious times with Worimi Worobung Custodian, his wife and family, and the Tree. Others who also had the unique experience of being guided to visit the Guardian Healing Tree were always graciously accompanied on the walk to the site by the custodian Uncle Worimi. The diversity amongst the visitors was truly astounding. People from Aboriginal communities around Australia, Japanese tourists, university students and backpackers, journalists, botanists, families, human rights advocates, flora experts, fauna experts, heritage experts, environmentalists, locals, a German tree surgeon, and, of course, the regular 7,000 yearly highway travellers that stopped at the park seeking a refresher break.
This, more often than not, became a break that extended into a cuppa at the communal kitchen and could be followed by anything from the offer of meal to an overnight stay in an empty tent, to stories around nightly fires and surprise guests, cultural and music activities. It became a small R & R stop for regular travellers; an ever changing eco-cultural festival just off from the highway. The local Chamber of Commerce members in Bulahdelah were also benefiting from the increase in spending in the town’s local businesses.
Each time I visited I observed – and never ceased to be amazed – at the profound transformation in people after had spent a little time at the Tree. From appearing stressed, or overly talkative, flat, curious, agitated or bombastic, they all came back quietly, calmer, simpler, seemingly filled with a different world view. One young New Zealand school teacher shared with me her experience of sensing and hearing unseen children running past her in the forest on the ascent to the tree, their childish voices pealing with joy filled bubbles of laughter.
Whilst at the Tree, groups of twenty or more could easily surround the base and all seemed to have enough private access to touch, smell and feel silently one with her pure earthiness, safely encased within the slow rhythmic pulsation that simultaneously seemed to emanate from and stay vibrating within the surrounding air. I was intrigued by the numerous accounts of direct personal healing experiences on emotional, spiritual and physical levels that occurred.
Uncle Worimi would share historical glimpses on his past; like so many generations before him, his first time being especially poignant, when he was brought to the Tree as a small child by his grandfather. The Tree felt like a timeless space, peaceful and welcoming; no wonder it attracted so many visitors, endlessly arriving, it seemed, as though on pilgrimage to pay homage.
On a crisp morning, sitting in a circle on the grass at the base of the Sacred Rock, Uncle Worimi handed me an article from a battered plastic folder of clippings. The article was entitled “Artist and conservationist Worimi Dates – honoured by NSW Governor”; it tells how, in “much pomp and ceremony”, Worimi Dates carving of the “Guardian Tree” was officially launched by Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Governor of New South Wales, at Raymond Terrace Botanical Gardens on Thursday, 18 October, 2007.
In response to my question about his remuneration, I heard that he received no payment for the art work, but receives a minimal royalty payment each year of around $100.
To some of the local Original people, the Tree is the guardian of “Boolah-Dillah”, a sacred rock that is sacred to the Worimi nation — a kin to that other great rock, “Uluru”, the largest monolith and one of our most well-known of scared sites on the planet.
Research undertaken by Maureen Brannan into the Bula tradition (compiled for her thesis on the Songlines for Southern Cross University’s Indigenous Studies) may help us to understand the Worimi Custodian’s perspective. Maureen found that Bula is believed to be under the ground at various sites across Australia. Those sites are said to be linked beneath the surface of the earth.
“The analogy used was telegraph wires. If Bula is disturbed at any of these sites by major earthworks, this will unleash widespread natural disasters, which will cause great damage."
The sharing of this knowledge by Jawoyn custodian’s was the primary factor in the decision of the Australian Government not to allow mining to proceed at Coronation Hill (which the Jawoyn call Guratba), as the site was part of the network of sacred sites across the continent that make up the story of Bula Dima, or Bula.
Responding to criticism of the decision, Mr Hawke, Prime Minister at the time, said that
"…it was remarkable in a Christian society that Australians were contemptuous of other people's beliefs. I mean, where is our God? It was wrong to criticise the Jawoyn's belief that disturbing Bula would unleash destruction." (The Age, 18.6.91).
Mr Hawke did not actually give reasons for the decision, simply stating that Jawoyn religion should not be criticised because, like Christianity, "…it is founded on a bundle of mysteries."
The sacredness of particular trees, water streams, and mountains is not just unique to Australia. The tree has held an archetypal cross-cultural significance across all major religions and cultural traditions in human history, predominately as a as a symbol of life, growth and development. From a material perspective, trees also provide us all with air, water, food, soil and energy, habitat and beauty.
Brannan’s research concluded that
“All indigenous cultures say that significant old-growth trees are channels of Earth’s magnetic energy that work through humans to teach them about the natural world around them. The Guardian Healing Tree was a major transmitter of these formidable yet subtle planetary/cosmic forces/flows of energy carrying information, as is Frog Rock, as were the other 20 identified trees of significance, to a lesser degree maybe but equally important in the overall job they performed in balancing the plant, animal and mineral components of the Bula telluric ‘super-computer’, and keeping all in equilibrium. Bula sites can be seen as major nodes in a network that is embedded in the continental body, all linked underground as the fruiting bodies of mushrooms, linked by mycelium into one entity. The Bula tradition is on a par with the Wandjina in its importance in maintaining the equilibrium of ecology, including, and especially, humanity’s part within it. I am praying that Bula’s major site on this continent will not be mindlessly and unnecessarily destroyed beyond redemption by the NSW state and federal governments whose ignorance and arrogance know no bounds”.Maureen Brannan, S>A>N>E> (Save Australia's Native Ecology).
Less than 18 months after the Art launch by the Governor of NSW, and a few days prior to Christmas 2009, I heard news that Uncle Worimi had been granted an interview on a commercial Television news show; unfortunately, it appears to have since been deleted from NBN Channel Nine’s News archives. (A request has been lodged on 19 Feb to the NBN for this footage to be made available). Apparently, a clearly emotional Worimi, normally modestly shy with the media, spoke courageously — an impassioned plea imploring a reprieve from the upcoming death of the majestic Guardian Tree – along with the healing stream, numerous scar trees, and an ochre pit – which will be destroyed to make way for a six lane bypass. In the interview, he endeavours to explain to the Australian public the importance of the preservation of this area for everyone.
The custodian ended his brief interview by suggesting the use of the “option A route”, thereby diverting the ludicrous decision to put a six lane highway over the Tree and under the shadow of “Boolah-Dillah” — colloquially named “Alum Mountain”, due to its delicate alumite geological formation.
Option A would instead divert the Highway to the West of Bulahdelah away from the school, aged care facility, houses and, thus, protect all environmental, safety and cultural concerns.
Local people in Bulahdelah have also repeatedly expressed alarm at the ongoing threat to their lives as daily, during the years of construction. Long time local campaigner to save the area Adele Carrall said an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 cubic metres of rock will be blasted out of the iconic mountain, exposing the residents to volcanic rock dust which is over 50 per cent toxic (Silica 18.10% and Sulphuric Acid 32.30%), windblown acid-sulphate soils (which can kill marine life), some five million litres of diesel fuel, used by construction vehicles, and regular landslide and other ‘slope failure’ hazards. The RTA’s own documentation (the EIS) shows that, with this route, road users’ lives would also be put at risk from landslides and rock fall hazards, plus crashes due to the lack of space to build climbing lanes for slow-moving vehicles.
However, my pride at hearing of Uncle Worimi’s action was shortly lived as the next day I read an email that simply stated that: On Wednesday, 23rd December, 2009, the Sacred Aboriginal Site, the Guardian- Healing-Tree, was destroyed.Scrolling down the email,graphic photography showedthe original Tree that had inspired the beautiful carving’s inception; the guardian of the sacred rock, lying torn, her roots ripped brutally from the earth, then a photo of a Sherlock Holmes like figure, a local historian at the murder scene, after a nine year battle, he views the Tree as it lay cut and sliced into large pieces in the mud. Her hidden dwelling in her embrace, crashing, with her, then sliding and tumbling on to the path below.
Although the Tree was callously slaughtered, without appreciation given for either its majestic age or cultural significance to the Worimi nation, after the incident the mercenaries employed had already severed the head of the beautiful Aboriginal woman from her main body, along with the limbs to be ritualistically entombed.
NSW Road Traffic Authority (RTA) sources confirm that the tree lies safely wrapped, stored with the utmost care, a “sacred relic” in a NSW government department warehouse.
Since the death of the Guardian Healing Tree, Worimi has been contacted by the Botanical Gardens with a plea to help fix the Tree he carved in its honour. The carving has since turned black and the Grass Tree beside it has also died. Worimi has said that he believes that
“...this blackening of the tree is a sign of the death of the Guardian Tree and of the subsequent disrespect of the Australian Government putting the Guardian in an RTA Depot in Bulahdelah. This is mocking the Law of Creation and spiritual beliefs of man in the keeping of Mother Earth and her Trees."
I caught up with Worimi Worobung Custodian on 21.02.2012 and he shared with me photos of his current project of life size carvings containing 15 points of Law that he would like to place in an outdoor gallery on the Mountain together with the remains of the sacred tree when they returned into his custody.
If you would like to view one of the paintings of this great artist, the Housing Department’s second floor main office at Coffs Harbour has one they removed from the wall of his lounge room due to rent arrears in the mid-nineties. Why? Well that’s another story.
An extract from the letter sent to NSW Premier, NSW Aboriginal Heritage Minister, PM, Federal Aboriginal Heritage Minister and the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, from Maureen Brannan on 14 July 2011:
When the Great Creator Bula had gone through the throes of creation that had formed the landscape, he entered stone and water as he settled into his final resting place in a sacred mountain .... and slept. He has been sleeping there ever since, in peace and serenity throughout the millennia. The First People came to know him as 'The Sleeping Giant', the genius loci of their country. They came to his mountain to bathe in the healing energies that emanated from the slumbering entity, to purify mind, body and soul in his crystal clear streams. When the people passed away, ancient tree shrines standing sentinel at the base of mountain guarding Bula’s domain, accepted their mortal remains on platforms erected in their branches – in due course, the ancestors’ ochred bones were reverently carried to the top of the mountain and secretly interred deep inside caves. Women came here to give birth beneath their special tree, eating the herbs that grew around it to ease their pains. They brought their children here to be initiated into deeper and ever more profound gnosis of the Land; to teach them the ways of the bush that had sustained them through hundreds of generations, the immutable, sacred Law that Bula had laid down about the myriad plants and animals, their life cycles, how they interact, how to conduct the source and increase ceremonies to manage them so they thrived, the seasonal changes and fluctuations of water flows and how to integrate their totemic and kinship structures into all of that natural world. His formidable telluric presence has been diffusing through the water and stones, through the cells of plants, through the bodies of all that lived upon him, since the time of creation.
The mountain is the 'capital' of the Worimi nation, the great hub of their homelands where songlines converge from the four directions. At this power site, senior men and women of the tribe tap into his primordial substance and bring it forth into the present in acts of perpetual re-creation. The all-powerful resident of the mountain warned his people never to disturb him, that doing so may cause sickness or natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes.
Then along came the RTA.
- This article was compiled over a four year discussion with Worimi Worobung Custodian.
- For people who wish to increase their understanding and help save this significant part of Australia, an incredible wealth of information written by locals and experts about the Bulahdelah Mountain and the Guardian Healing Tree of Boolah-Dillah click here.
- Click here to visit the ‘Save the Alum Sacred Mountain, Bulahdelah’ Facebook Group.
- For NSW Highway Upgrades click here.
- Read more about the protestors bid to stop the axing of the sacred tree in The Age (28 September 2011)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License