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Lone Pine: The tree of memories

Lone Pine: The tree of memories

One of Norfolk’s celebrity pines, Lone Pine is a venerable Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) standing some 45 metres in height, perched on the rocky limestone cliff at Seta Setter’s Point or Point Hunter on the southern head to Emily Bay. The Lone Pine has stood here for some 650 years, withstanding constant salt-laden winds, storms and droughts, as well as a nearby rubbish tip in the 1970s and well-meaning attempts to grow successive trees under its spreading branches.

The Lone Pine was just a little sapling in about the year 1350, with its roots still exploring the cracks in the cliff and getting a foothold, when there was a little village across the bay. Canoes crisscrossed the lagoon or lay on the shore in front of the village. Women harvested flax for making cloth from the nearby swamps, and men fished the waters. The marae at the centre of the village was just behind the dunes, and the glow from fires in the evening danced across the pine forest and was reflected in the water lapping at the cliffs below Lone Pine. Children played on the beach, men made harpoons from turtle shell, women prepared taro and tended banana groves, dogs barked: the sounds of the village drifted across the bay to the young Lone Pine.

Then one day the villagers packed their canoes with their possessions and sailed out to sea. They never returned, and the bay fell silent for the next 400 years. No one saw the Lone Pine in its youth, its firm young branches becoming greener and darker as they thrust towards the sky. Whales passed by year after year, but only the sound of the waves and the wind broke the silence of the bay. Birds roosted and nested in the Lone Pine’s branches, and generations of terns fertilised and nurtured the rocky soil around the Lone Pine’s base. There were many more trees around then, on the cliff and out on Nepean Island, with the spore from the cones on the female trees taking root each season, sometimes in the spaces made when ancient trees fell in a storm. Today, the Lone Pine is the last survivor of the primeval forest in this part of the island.

The view from Lone Pine now looks straight across the lagoon to the pier and Flagstaff Hill. When the British came in 1788 they sailed around and around the island for days, trying to find a place to land. A bit like Captain Cook and the Comte de la Perouse had before them. Eventually, the boats landed on the little beach that used to exist under Flagstaff, and after setting up camp they ran up their flag of red, white and blue. It stood out against the greenery of the forests, as did their signal flags of yellow and blue. It didn’t take long before they began to cut down the forests, and the slopes under Flagstaff changed from green too brown. Thus began Norfolk’s convict era.

The settlers always had trouble getting in across the reef and through the lagoon. They had a ship named after a guiding star, HMS Sirius. Unfortunately, the colourful and complex system of signal flags could not save that ship from a storm, and the Sirius became stuck on the reef in rough seas. It took a few years for the wreck to break up, slowly disintegrating under the pounding seas. They built a causeway out to the wreck to rescue its cargo, and the causeway ruins can still be seen when the tide is low, even from a distance of one kilometre away at the Lone Pine.

One hundred and twenty years afterwards later generations of Islanders built a ship in the bay below the Lone Pine. They felled their Norfolk Island Pine and other timbers and cured and shaped them for the boat, which was named The Resolution. It was a conscious emulation of Captain Cook’s vessel in which he named the island, and also a statement about their ability to survive and prosper in this remote place. The Lone Pine was already a lone tree by that time. They used dynamite to blast a channel through the reef just in front of the Lone Pine so they could get the boat out. The cliff shook and vibrated with each blast, but the Lone Pine remained standing. The Resolution only made one return voyage to Kingston, the hope invested in its building not matched by the commercial realities of maritime trade. The channel can still be seen at low tide, and the bent iron posts in the reef that mark its course remain buffeted by the surf.

The view from Lone Pine also takes in the creek through what is now called Kingston Common. When the British first arrived the common was a large swamp, and the creek meandered through it from side to side before it soaked into the sand at the place they soon called Chimney Hill. They cut away a lot of the hill to use the stone for buildings and to make lime for mortar. A Norfolk Island Pine is now growing out of the side of that cut-away hill. Its bonsai size belies its age of over 100 years, and shows the resilience of a species always ready to re-colonise its former territory. First they began to cut down the trees around the swamp, and then they built a drain through the swamp, and through the sand hills so that the water flowed straight into the bay. They built a lot of buildings around here, and roads and bridges.

Over a period of sixty years the town grew and sprawled from the Flagstaff and around the common towards Emily Bay. As the town grew the buildings got bigger and bigger, and more and more people came so that they were never big enough. They actually went away for a few years between 1814 and 1825, and the trees started to grow back. Perhaps some of the Lone Pine spore fertilised the seeds that grew in the ruins. But the people did come back, cleared away the saplings and regrowth, and built even more buildings and brought even more people with them. During the 1840s and 50s there was always about a thousand people in the town, and more again in the countryside. The ruins of the convict era town can be seen from Lone Pine, now often framed or veiled by planted, younger, maturing Norfolk Island Pines.

In the mid-1850s the convicts became fewer and fewer until there was just a handful left. They looked after the buildings and the gardens, until in 1856 other boats came. It was a stormy, rainy day when they landed at the pier, and a little while later the last of the convicts sailed away, leaving the new settlers alone. These new settlers spoke a new language that hadn’t been heard before on Norfolk. These were the Pitcairners, emigrating from another island 5,000 kilometres to the north east.

The Pitcairners moved into the smaller buildings, drawing lots for the houses, and using some of the others for their communal needs such as a school room. They did not need all the big buildings, and they started to quarry them for other buildings, such as St Barnabas Chapel at the Mission Lands. They didn’t need to dig any more stone out of the ground, although they kept on cutting down the trees.

The name Lone Pine was not used during the convict era, but is a name from the second or third generations of the Pitcairners. People might have given the tree other names before that, but if they did, they do not seem to have been recorded. The name came into use around about the time The Resolution was built in 1925, and about the time the Cenotaph was built in 1927, which in those days could be seen from Lone Pine directly across the lagoon and the common.

The obvious explanation for the tree’s naming at this time was to remember a conflict of much greater viciousness and destruction than anything that happened here. The Great War. The War To End All Wars. The names of 77 of Norfolk’s men are inscribed on the Cenotaph in Kingston. They went to fight in that war, for the Empire of the red, white and blue flag. Thirteen of them never returned: nearly a fifth of the men in a generation, reflecting the toll in communities all over Australia and New Zealand.

One of those men was Trooper George Rawdon French Nobbs. He enlisted in the 1st Light Horse Brigade of the Australian Imperial Forces in 1914, and landed at Gallipoli only two weeks after the first landings on 25th April 1915. Three months later he was shipped to hospital in Malta disabled by a gastric infection. Upon his recovery he was shipped to Egypt and took part in the Battle of Bir El Abd in August 1916 when Anzac and British forces repelled an attempt by the Turks to capture the Suez Canal. He was killed in the battle and buried on the battlefield. Trooper Nobbs’ possessions – a wallet, bible, silk handkerchief, a pipe and some photos – were sent to his mother on Norfolk, and in 1925 his body was located and reburied in Kantara war cemetery in Egypt. He was posthumously mentioned in despatches, awarded a Military Cross and inducted into the Distinguished Service Order.

So how did this tree come to symbolise, in its form and name, that great loss? There was a great battle at Gallipoli. Several battles. Many men were killed; many more were injured and maimed. At the beginning there was a single pine tree growing on a ridge the soldiers had to capture. By the end of the battle the tree had been destroyed, but its memory remained and lived on in the name. The soldiers named the tree after a song they used to sing called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

That was a fictional Lonesome Pine, a love story, a novel, from which the song came, and which was later made into a movie. It was made real in 1915 when the soldiers gave the name Lonesome Pine to their battlefield landmark, which they quickly shortened to Lone Pine, as they huddled in their trenches fearing death by battle or disease, longing for their sweethearts and families far away in the south. One of the soldiers wrote a poem about it, with the heart-felt refrain “Lone Pine, Lone Pine”, and another wrote, when recovering in hospital from the battles at Lone Pine, the stanza “I’m lonely and lonelier still for the sweet, brief touch of soft finger-tips”. The name Lone Pine came to stand for the loneliness of every soldier even while surrounded by thousands of men and the thunder of war. Like every war memorial it also came to represent the faraway grave that families could rarely visit in those days. Loved ones alone in a foreign land.

There was an Administrator of Norfolk Island between 1937 and 1945, the longest serving ever, named Sir Charles Rosenthal. He was a veteran of The Great War, had fought at Gallipoli and Lone Pine, and was wounded there twice. He was a very brave man, and widely revered by veterans of the war. He is also said to have been the inspiration for DH Lawrence’s authoritarian character, Kangaroo. Perhaps he also had something to do with Lone Pine’s name. In those days he would have been able to see the tree every day from Government House. Perhaps there were still, silent mornings when he woke in a sweat, trembling with the memories of battle, and came out onto the verandah to see the silhouetted tree against the dawn. Perhaps it reminded him of those dreadful days, of that first day on the 25th April 1915 when the Anzacs were quietly sailing to their landing place, their hearts sinking as the cliffs of Gallipoli slowly began to show themselves and the distant lonesome pine silently hove into view.

The name Lone Pine wraps this ancient tree in the memories of those awful times. It is a living monument to that time of death. But, as a living tree Lone Pine also brings life to those memories, and with life there is hope and the capacity for reflection. Today people often walk or drive up to the point and stop awhile, perhaps sitting in the shade of the tree, just looking out to sea or across the lagoon, contemplating the waters or the landscapes or the sky; the colours or shapes or the wind. perhaps the name as a war memorial also fitted with a tradition of coming here for some space, some sanctuary, to just be alone with one’s thoughts. Alice Buffett’s Norfolk language dictionary uses the name to illustrate
the Norfolk-language word:

‘loen’: “lone, solitary, as in Lone Pine at Point Hunter. Ai law’ draiw aut aa loen pain stideya lornges wieh ai laik en jes aata orn evrithing faayes wieh ai el see (I love to drive out to the lone pine at Point Hunter and admire all the scenery as far as I can see and for as long as I can stay).”

If the Lone Pine could talk it would no doubt have a richer and more exciting tale to tell than the words on these pages. Perhaps, after standing here for so long, after having witnessed so much of Norfolk’s history, and now bearing the weight of a community’s memories of a still-traumatic past, its response to any question may well be a suitably enigmatic “I am the Lone Pine. I am what I am.”


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V2 Iss1, 2009. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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