Jilnguungga: Flash Fiction
‘…A tree is only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.’The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The undergrowth crackles deliciously under Jaany’s bare feet. Each step is practised, honed by the teachings of her uncles and aunties, guided by the ancestors with whom she walks. Her steps are light yet sure. Beneath her carefree exterior is a knowing – a mindfulness, a respect for Country, an ability to leave no trace. She walks the same land that her people, the Gumbaynggirr, have lived upon and nurtured for tens of thousands of years. The land of Boorimbah. The land of the Big River.
From her vantage point on the tree-cloaked hill, she catches glimpses of Boorimbah snaking its way through the landscape below. Pure and plentiful, Boorimbah flows through valleys flanked by rugged peaks and dense forests, calm and unhurried as if time itself has slowed to match its laidback rhythm. Jaany and her family camp on its banks in nguura made of bark and boughs. Highly attuned to nature’s signals, they follow the seasons and the food. A simple blossom or other change will tell them that it’s time to gather at the coast and fish for buluunggal on their annual run or that wirriiga are at their best for eating. This is the way of her people.
By the river, the old folk yarn and the aunties weave ngulany made from grass and the bark of the maluga. This morning, Jaany had suggested she go look for raspberries – none of them could refuse the sweet treat. It wasn’t that Jaany avoided hard work, there was just nowhere she’d rather be than among the trees.
She ventures further into the bush and draws a deep breath, letting the aromatic blend of eucalyptus and the earthy scents from the forest floor fill her lungs. A dreamy smile comes to her lips.
A chorus of birdsongs embraces her with the melody of warbling ngaambul and chattering lorikeets, accompanied by the constant hum of dugaburiny. Her smile widens into a grin.
The gentle breath of the wind caresses the canopy above releasing a shower of leaves. They swirl in a graceful descent like the ice that sometimes falls from the sky further up the mountains in Gumbaynggirr country. Jaany’s hand glides across the bark of a wuruuman.ga, its oozing blood-red sap a valuable antiseptic and dye. She winces as her little finger catches on the tree’s scaly skin, and her chest swells with pride.
Jaany stares down at where the tip of her little finger used to be. As is the tradition of her people when a girl comes of age, cobweb was tightly wound around her finger for a month or so until the tip was severed.
It is a physical declaration of her place in the tribe and her belonging. Coupled with her connection to Country and community, Jaany’s heart is full. She feels complete.
Everything is as it’s always been and always will be.
A flutter of black and white feathers bursts into view and a ganyjarr-ganyjarr lands on the ground. Jaany’s heart stills for a moment. The ganyjarr-ganyjarr is her mob’s messenger bird. Its chirping and dancing a message from the ancestors. It’s a bringer of news. Sometimes good news. Sometimes…
The ganyjarr-ganyjarr dances for her. There is an urgency in its movement. It speaks to her with an insistent ‘chit-chit-chit’. A sudden chill threads through her spine.
Jaany stands taller. Alert. She trains her eyes and ears to the forest. She spots nothing amiss.
Cautiously, carefully, she goes deeper into the forest, away from the ganyjarr-ganyjarr who watches her in silence now the message has been delivered. She doesn’t notice as he bows his head and heaves a protracted breath before flying in the opposite direction.
With each step, the birdsongs fade away into an eerie nothingness. Only the hum of dugaburiny remains. Just when Jaany can’t bear the quiet for a moment longer a sharp noise splinters the air. Then another and another in quick succession. Abrupt thuds are followed by creaking and cracking in a haunting cadence that is not of this place.
Jaany presses forward, creeping through the tangled forest growth. She follows a trail of broken twigs and disturbed grass toward the source of the sound.
An otherworldly scene unfolds in front of her, stealing the air from her chest.
From her hiding spot among the trees, Jaany sees three men dressed in strange clothing that covers every limb, a stark contrast to the simple possum skin apron she sometimes wears. But this isn’t the oddest thing about their appearance. The men’s skin is as white as the feathers of the gayaarr and they wear hair on their faces. One of them has hair as gold as the gayaarr’s crest.
Jaany has heard the stories from mobs downriver of the pale-faced men who sailed up the Boorimbah in gigantic rumbling boats with posts supporting masses of billowing cloth and at their centre hollow trunks that spewed smoke into the air. They came in search of the jilnguungga and its prized timber.
The jilnguungga! It is the source of the noise.
The trio of men are felling one of the giants of the forest. A tree whose lifetime has spanned generations of Jaany’s family. Above the buttressed roots that rise beyond the height of the nearest man, they have cut wedges from the tree trunk and inserted timber planks to stand on. Two of them stand on the planks swinging what looks like axes, but different to the stone-bladed tools Jaany is familiar with. The blades of these axes glint in the sun, their sharp edges carving through the trunk with ease. They make notch after notch until the man on the ground signals for one of the men to descend. The remaining man on the plank delivers the final blow.
The jilnguungga crashes through the branches of its neighbours hitting the ground with an earth-shattering thud. The sound reverberates through the forest echoing the shudders in Jaany’s heart. In that moment she is acutely aware that something more than the jilnguungga’s life has ended. She also knows that with every ending, there is always a beginning.
The above story is a fictional account inspired by my great-great-great grandmother, Jenny Olive. Jenny was a Gumbaynggirr woman with ties also to the Bundjalung people. We know very little of Jenny and don’t know what her Aboriginal name was. So I have taken the liberty of giving her a Gumbaynggirr name for this story. Jaany means ‘some’ and is the base form of the word ‘someone’.
Jenny (Jaany) is someone to me. She is where I will start my personal family history book and is key to a novel I am working on that is inspired by this history.
The facts that I base the above story on are that other than a handful of escaped convicts, the first white people that came to the Clarence were timber getters in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Jenny would most likely have been a teenager or young woman at the time the timber getters reached the upper Clarence where her mob lived.
I have no reason to believe Jenny encountered timber getters in the way I have described but I chose this fictional event as a significant turning point not just in the history of the Clarence Valley but also my own family history.
Among my ancestors I count the Gumbaynggirr, Bundjalung and Kamilaroi people, but also English settlers, farmers, former convicts and a French miner, all who were drawn to the area by thriving industries and opportunities that began with the discovery of Australian red cedar, jilnguungga. Referred to as red gold, jilnguungga was strong, durable and resistant to pests and rot. It was used for boat-building, fencing, furniture and formation work under roadways.
Simply put, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the jilnguungga. As a result, my family history like this country’s history is complicated. This story is my way of honouring where I have come from and Jenny Olive who I wish I knew more about.
Many elements of the story are based on fact, my own research and contemporary accounts including the descriptions of how the Gumbaynggirr people lived in the Yulgilbar area in the 1840s, what they ate, what they hunted and the signals they followed in nature and the seasons.
The reference to Jaany’s little finger being severed and the technique used to do so comes from an Aboriginal cultural heritage study and a record of an interview with the grandson of Mary Olive (Jenny Olive’s daughter), which describes in detail this initiation practice. The record confirms that Mary had undergone this initiation.
The ganyjarr-ganyjarr is considered to be a messenger bird by the Gumbaynggirr people and an Elder described to me that the news being delivered is considered good or bad based on whether the bird’s dancing and chattering appeared agitated or not.
I have drawn the Gumbaynggirr words from The Gumbaynggirr Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar (Bijaarr Jandaygam, Ngaawa Gugaarrigam) by Steve Morelli and published by Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Cultural Co-operative.
Below you will find the English words for the Gumbaynggirr language I have used in this story. Please note the word I have used for the Clarence River or Big River, Boorimbah, is a Bundjalung word not Gumbaynggirr. The Clarence River traverses Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaygirr country. Muurrbay advised me that the Gumbaynggirr word for the Clarence River has been lost, but is known by many other names and variations of spellings including Breimba, Boorimbah, Biirrinba, Ngunitji and Booryimba.
Any factual errors in this story or my account, are my own oversight or because I have taken some artistic licence.
Jilnguungga – Australian red cedar
Nguura – huts
Buluunggal – mullet
Wirriiga – goanna
Ngulany – dilly-bags)
Maluga – cottonwood hibiscus
Ngaambul – magpies
Dugaburiny – cicadas
Wuruuman.ga – red bloodwood tree
Ganyjarr-ganyjarr – willy wagtail
Gayaarr – sulphur-crested cockatoo
To stay in the know about my books and to receive content like this, sign up here.
Photos of the Clarence River by Simon Hughes and reproduced with the photographer’s permission.