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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Woods

Women, Art and Weeds of Ash Island

Image Credit: Mangroves of Ash Island by Daz Chandler

The arms of Coquun, the Hunter River, embrace Ash Island on Worimi country on the outskirts of Australia’s old industrial coal city, Newcastle.

If you stand at a place called Scott’s Point, at the island’s north west corner, you see the North and South Arms of the river parting when it flows downstream and cleaving together as the tide thrusts up, pushing ocean water toward coal country. It’s a place of eddies, ambiguity and transformation. Along the road leading to Scott’s Point is an elderly ash tree (Elaeocarpus obovatus). It is, so they tell me, one of eight survivors of the cataclysm that cleared the island of rainforest 150 years ago. Its heartwood was laid down when Ash Island was more island and more magnificent, when it was the home territory of Wambla, a Worimi woman, named by convict water-colourist Richard Browne as the wife of Coola-benn, “Native Chief of Ashe Island.”

Like all weed stories, this is a tale of upheaval, exile and colonisation.

Browne painted Wambla 200 years ago. In one painting, she has a child on her shoulders and a string bag in her hand and both she and the child are grinning. At that time, there were still a dozen or more islands in the Hunter’s magnificent estuary. Ash Island was among the largest. It was a rainforest place, covered with huge old ash trees, rosewoods and strangler figs, fringed by soggy floodplain tea-tree woodland. Its most valuable timber trees had already been plundered by the time Wambla was painted by Richard Browne: the red cedars were the first to go and every one of them along the Hunter River’s low lands was removed within two decades of English invasion.

Six years after Browne painted Wambla’s portrait, Ash Island came under the ownership of a man called Alexander Walker Scott, but it would be years before Scott planted his own roots in the island. The child grinning on Wambla’s shoulders had grown into a young man or woman by the time John and Elizabeth Gould visited the Hunter estuary in 1839. They rowed out and camped in the bush on nearby Moscheto Island. There, Elizabeth recorded the vision splendid of Worimi country:

Found the tent pitched in a cleard spot in the midst of the bush where nature appeared in her wild luxuriance. The Immense parasites twining round the trees taking root some of them at the tops of the trees and hanging down to the ground, others surrounding the trees like a crown—heard the bell bird with his incessant ting ting, the coachwhip bird & co – a heavy shower of rain accompanied by lightning soon cleared up [and] every green thing looked more beautiful for its sprinkling.

Image Credit: A W Scott, M A, Ash Island, Hunter River, NSW.

Elizabeth Gould spent a few days exploring the islands of the estuary and sketching birds while her husband shot them. Spectacular gold and black Regent bowerbirds teemed as a pest in orchards planted in the adjacent Baker’s Island by the squatter John Baker, the first English man to colonise the islands of the estuary. Worimi and Awabakal people still lived on the islands until the middle of the 1830s, but many were murdered on Baker’s Island in 1834.

Seven years after Elizabeth and John’s camping trip, in 1846, Alexander Scott moved to Ash Island with his wife, two daughters and step-daughter. His elder daughter, Harriet, was sixteen and the island was still dominated by rainforest giants. Worimi people, like the cedars, had been driven away or killed. Cocooned for twenty years by elderly colossi a thousand times her size, Hattie spent her youth, with her sister Helena, painting the fleeting, floating moths and butterflies of the island while studying, breeding and dissecting them. In 1864 their labours were published in the landmark book Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations, the notebooks and paintings for which have now been added to Australia’s register for UNESCO’s Memory of the World program.

Image Credit: Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations Volume 1, plate 1 © Australian Museum

Hattie and Helena were compared by Irish botanist William Hardy to Shakespeare’s Miranda - ensconced on an island with a scientific father who taught and nurtured them. Like Prospero, Scott had taken possession of an island in defiance of prior claim. Hattie Scott remained living there until she was forced to leave by her father’s bankruptcy when she was thirty-six. In her wake came destruction: Ash Island was razed and turned into farms. No more Regent bowerbirds. Over the next ninety years, it became a dairy and horticulture community.

When giant trees fall, light pours onto the forest floor from the smashed canopy. Certain characters relish this instability, this rush of resources. Lantana, for example, is “an aggressive invader that has naturalised in eastern Australia under a wide range of climatic conditions.” It is classed as a weed in 60 countries. It smothers other plants and starves them of light. It is allelopathic, spreading toxins in the soil that poison other plants. It increases the intensity of bushfires but can also suppress fire in ecosystems where it is needed for germination. Lantana is the subject of much debate because in the damaged and degraded ecosystems of eastern Australia, it stabilises eroding slopes and provides missing mid-storey habitat, and shade and nitrogen for the re-emergence of rainforests. Once weeds are established, decolonisation becomes complicated.

In February 1955, the Hunter Valley went under in a flood that lasted for days, washing away homes, swamping industry and killing fourteen people. The kikuyu paddocks of Ash Island and its dairy herds were wiped out. Ash Island and the other estuary islands had already been possessed by the Government and earmarked for industry. This transformation continued for twenty years after the flood. Islands were joined to islands, wetlands were filled with harbour silt and industrial spoil and emptied of water by levees and drains. The new mass of land they made was renamed Kooragang Island: in the process, Moscheto Island, Baker’s Island, Dempsey’s Island, Walsh Island, Goat Island and Spectacle Island were subsumed, but Ash Island held onto its distinctive identity. Weeds flourished, industry grew, wetlands persisted.

Where saltwater swamps the land, salt marsh grows. This is the habitat of the migratory shorebirds that come to the Hunter estuary in their thousands from East Asia: Sharp-tailed sandpipers, Black-winged stilts, Marsh sandpipers, Eastern curlews. Swales shelter freshwater wetlands that host scores of spoonbills, swans, teals, ducks and scattered black-necked storks. Between the sodden paddocks, mangrove-fringed creeks and the high voltage power line that bisects the island is a network of pot-holed gravel roads and tracks. A mud map will guide you to ponds named for their inhabitants: Teal waters, Swan pond, Bittern corner.

In 1973, New South Wales’ State Pollution Control Commission undertook an investigation into pollution on Kooragang Island. The inquiry heard testimony from residents of Stockton, across the river, whose homes, gardens and skin were being blanketed in sulphur from the fertiliser factory built there by a company called “Greenleaf” during the sixties industrial expansion. Greenleaf sent young men down into the drains that emptied into the river to chip out solid sulphur accreting on its walls, acid dissolving their shirts as they worked. There was a cement plant, and powdery alumina being loaded at the state dockyard. There were chunks of naphthalene floating down the river from BHP’s coke ovens and part of Kooragang Island was set aside as a dump for BHP’s steel-mill waste. Dead fish came down the river too.

The inquiry recognised the ecological value of the estuary and recommended that “a fairly large part of the presently undisturbed area of the island should be preserved in its natural state.” It made most sense to preserve the entire northern estuary corridor from Hexham Swamp to Fullerton Cove, but the report found that it was “more practical” to reserve only the least disturbed areas. In 1984, Kooragang Island Nature Reserve was created, leaving Ash Island out. That was the year that coal exports started from Kooragang Island. Migrating sandpipers and curlews pick over the mud flats as coal trains arrive from the valley, but their numbers are dwindling. From the port, coal makes its way north under the birds’ flyway to the same countries where they breed, Japan, China, Korea, where wetlands are also filled and drained for industry. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Kooragang Island Nature Reserve was expanded and renamed Hunter Wetlands National Park, including, finally, Ash Island.

Near the site of Harriet and Helena Scott’s old home, bush regenerators and land carers have for a quarter of a century been replanting rainforest. To create a rainforest in an abandoned paddock demands a long-term perspective. It requires some pragmatism about lantana. After lantana dominates and smothers native species, the shaded ground beneath it clears and becomes enriched with nitrogen. These are the conditions rainforest seedlings need. If they grow large, their canopy will cast shade over the lantana, starving it of light.

Mangroves are the weeds of the mudflats. Left to themselves, they would make it a monoculture of their low, grey, muscly limbs, pushing out the shorebirds. The birdwatchers of the Hunter secure permits every three years to pick their way through mud and weed out mangrove seedlings, reaching remote areas by kayak and on foot. Together they have spent ten thousand hours over nearly two decades on this labour, keeping Ash Island ready for the sandpipers.

Image Credit: Sandpipers by Daz Chandler

The returning rainforest of Ash Island is a tribute to the land carers who have patiently gathered seed, reared seedlings and planted them. Germinating the island’s Ash is painstaking work. The seeds must be soaked and scoured and the process is slow. This labour has yielded a narrow strip of twenty-five-year-old rainforest, growing up around a few old survivors. Along the walk, a blessing of bees halo an elderly plum pine. Scarlet honeyeaters draw nectar from the blossoms of young trees. Over 200,000 seedlings of local species have been planted by volunteers since 1996, including reintroduction of 30 missing species that the Scott sisters and other visitors recorded seeing on the island.

Ash Island is the most accessible part of the Hunter Wetlands National Park, an ambivalent place of maimed beauty. Wetland habitat restoration projects on the island are funded by biodiversity offsetting schemes for the coal terminals that grew larger into the first decade of the twenty-first century: conservation and loss, restoration and decay are pushing, turning and retreating there, too. Between the trunks of planted sandpaper figs and quandongs on Ash Island, thistle and kikuyu hog the soil, light and water. The young rainforest needs weeding. The destructive force of colonisation is not one deed and it is not over. Plantings must be tended or restoration will fail and the ten thousand hours will be wasted.

The Island as it appears now is paddocks, boardwalks, ponds full of spoonbills and ibis, clumps of young casuarinas, iridescent rust-coloured mud with gasping mangrove roots poking skyward. The island as it was for Hattie Scott and Elizabeth Gould was luxuriant, teeming with birds and fish, already depleted of its cedars, already stolen from the murdered Worimi. For all times, it is Wambla’s Island, a place of pivoting and contending forces, the upstream corner of an estuary changing for two centuries and still in process.


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