The stories play out above and around us: vast, full-colour 3D projections that dance across towering gum trees as we walk among them.
Shadows of birds – hundreds of them – fly across the canopy, squawks swarming in surround sound. A serpent the size of 15 trees slithers from my left to my right, and 20-foot-tall numbats scurry and flick their tails, before the playful music turns ominous.
A bushfire sends embers floating across the trees and painted geckos scurrying down their trunks, and then the storm arrives.
Directed by Nigel Jamieson, and developed in collaboration with representatives of the region’s Noongar people alongside scientists, botanists, community groups and school children, the $1 million installation comprises 30 tonnes of equipment, 270 light fixtures and 117 speakers.
The “cathedral of light, sound and imagery” that explores the biodiversity and beauty of south-western Australia begins with a 700-metre avenue of red-flowering gums, transformed with 3D mapped projections and music, poetry and stories in Indigenous languages and English, which tell of the six Noongar seasons.
The six seasons brought thrillingly to life are:
Makuru: The season of fertility and the first rains
Djilba: The second rain, wetlands and conception
Kambarang: Wildflower season, birth and new life
Birak: The first summer, season of youth, warmth and play
Bunuru: The second summer, season of heat, fireand coming of age
Djeran Adulthood: the season of ripeness, knowledge and maturity
Kings Park is home to the Western Australian botanic garden and over 3,000 species of the state’s unique flora, and celebrated conservation biologist Stephen Hopper directed the park for 12 years. He talks about how most of what we know now about south-western Australia – the unique biodiversity; the rising sea levels; the environmental dangers – has been known for hundreds of years.
“Noongar oral history has always been there, and Western science is slowly converging on a similar understanding,” he says. Hopper has been collaborating with Noongar elder Noel Nannup for years, the pair hoping to bring Western and ancient cultures together to work towards their shared aim of preservation.
We hear how the earth was born, how life evolved and how man arrived, from both perspectives. The stories might differ between the cultures, but the theme is the same: the interconnectivity of life brought us to where we are, and it needs to be preserved.
Below another canopy we learn of Jindalee and the Spirit Children, and the creation of the Milky Way which brought colour to the world, of the Yilgarn Craton, one of the first masses of rock to rise out of the sea, which now holds most of Western Australia, including the banksia woodlands.
Glass jars, lit from above, hang from the trees like lanterns, containing threatened species preserved in yellow liquid. A voice lists local wildlife that is now endangered – “the slender tailflower; the bindoon starbush…” – and we hear the voices of farmers and residents who have watched the land change over decades: the swans are gone, the mushrooms are dying, the gum trees have been felled, the dams are dried out.
First we were shown how much the land has given us, and now we’re confronted with how much has been lost.
In the months leading to Boorna Waanginy, around 1,400 school children in Western Australia, along with local community groups, adopted their own totems – endangered species of flora and fauna – to learn about and pledge to protect.
In the grand finale, we land upon a natural amphitheatre spilling with 1,400 lanterns; children involved in the Seeds of Change project had made lanterns to represent their totem and their commitment to protect endangered species, to learn about the land and to embrace both the biological and cultural heritage of where they live. Their faces projected onto a sculpture of a giant native seed, they spoke of what they had learned, and the world they wanted to work towards. It was a welcome and powerful message of hope at the end of another troubling week in the world.
110,000 people attended Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak over the three nights it was performed.
Original article in The Guardian.
Mark Howett and Sean McKernan received a 2017 Helpmann Award nomination for best lighting design for Boorna Waanginy.