March 2010

The Nation Reviewed

The tree people

By Arnold Zable
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A year on from the Black Saturday fires, there’s a perverse beauty in the burnt forests, a striking interplay of black and green. The scorched eucalypts are fringed by halos of young leaves; epicormic growth, it is called – nature’s stopgap measure to revive stressed trees.

Flowerdale, located 80 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, was one of the hamlets besieged by the fires. The first front came from the south in the late afternoon, hours later another followed from the west and in the pre-dawn hours a third came from the east. Two hundred and one of its 324 homes were destroyed and 13 residents were killed defending their properties or attempting to flee. Many more died in nearby towns.

“Black and green are the colours of our new bushfire logo,” says resident Odette Hunter. Designed by artist Jessica Mason, the logo was unveiled at a Flowerdale memorial service on 17 May last year, just 14 weeks after the fires.

Shortly after this, Odette drove down to Vic Market Tattoos in North Melbourne, where tattoo artist Olivia Brumen applied the logo to her forearm. Odette rolls up her sleeve to show me. The tattoo is striking in its simplicity – a single leaf protruding from the trunk of a blackened tree.

Upon hearing Odette’s story, Olivia offered to apply the tattoo free of charge to others in the community. “I was blown away by the image,” Olivia says. “That one little tree, the one leaf, the emotion behind it.” Odette placed a notice in the local paper and has since been overwhelmed by the response.

It took time for some survivors to summon the will to make the journey. For months after the blaze, they did not venture far from Flowerdale, fearful of confronting the devastation the fires had wrought. But the idea eventually caught on, and every Tuesday for a period of months, a 12-seat community bus ferried residents to the tattoo parlour. More than 70 survivors have taken up the offer so far.

It’s just a minute’s walk from the parlour to the corner pub, where the “tree people”, as they’ve been dubbed, relax while waiting their turn. I join them one Tuesday afternoon and watch Olivia work. First she shaves the chosen area, then applies a stencil of the logo and confirms its placement. People have chosen to have the tree etched on their forearm, wrist, the back of the neck, ankle and foot, and on the chest over the heart. Olivia loves the elegance of the design. “It’s like a fan of veins, spindly, organic,” she says.

“I never dreamt I would allow my body to be tattooed,” says Odette. “But the fires marked us deeply. I knew I had to have it done as soon as I saw the image.” Annie Robertson, who has lived in Flowerdale for 16 years, admits: “It took me a long time to become brave enough to do it. Now I love it and what it represents. I guess the thought of a tattoo is not so hard to accept if you have been seared by flames.”

Sharon Collins and her partner, musician Michael Minten, lost their home in the fires just five weeks after they had settled in. Michael’s tattoo is topped and tailed by scrolls inscribed with the place and date of the fires. At first, Sharon was not permitted to get the tattoo because she was pregnant; within weeks of giving birth she had it applied to her left foot in the form of an anklet.

Mick Dunn, who has lived in Flowerdale for 23 years, lost five neighbours in the fires. “I got the tattoo for them, for the memory of our many years together,” he says. Like many survivors, Mick has a deep love for the town, for its sense of community and physical beauty. “We call it ‘the valley of a thousand hills’,” he says. “When the fog rolls in, it looks like a white ocean with many islands.”

While Olivia’s skill and generosity have been significant contributions to the community, the experience has also deepened her appreciation of the art form: “For a long time I was merely concerned with aesthetics, placement, the image. The people of Flowerdale have reminded me that something symbolic and simple can be beautiful and meaningful on skin. It has taught me to really listen to what people want.”

She has been particularly moved by the older people who have chosen to get the tattoo, as well as the families who have received it together: a mother and father with their two daughters, and parents with a boy of 18. “It made them feel strong, like they were achieving something,” she observes. “The tattoo was a new stage in their lives. It was about staying together, staying in Flowerdale and coming together as a community.”

Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is an educator and a human rights advocate. He has written several books, including Cafe Scheherazade, Jewels and Ashes, The Fig Tree, Scraps of Heaven and Sea of Many Returns.

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