To tree or not to tree: Christmas tree debate rages on



TO PUT up, or not put the Christmas tree before the week of Christmas? The eternal debate comes around each festive season and we asked our readers for their opinions.

With Christmas puddings and decorations appearing earlier every year, the debate around whether Christmas trees should appear four weeks before Christmas trundles on.

Our readers are all for the Christmas cheer and getting into the festive spirit after all that 2020 has thrown at us.

Brooke Smith said that no one could be judged over Christmas due to the happiness it brings people.

“Christmas brings happiness and happy memories of past times so no one should judge when you want to do yours on 1st December. I do mine earlier cause it reminds me of good times with my nan,” Ms Smith said.

Lyn Vidler said that after a year which has thrown a pandemic, flood and droughts our way, we deserve to do whatever makes us happy.

“After the year we have had, if putting up your Christmas tree now brightens your day, go for it,” Ms Vidler said.

Ben Griffin encouraged all the Northern Rivers residents to get into the holiday spirit this year.

“If anything, the world needs lots of Christmas cheer this year because of COVID-19, so I encourage everyone to get into the Christmas Spirit and go all out,” Mr Griffin said.





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Albury Girl Guides celebrate decade of giving to Kmart Wishing Tree | The Border Mail


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For the past 10 years the Albury Girl Guides have been putting gifts under the Kmart Wishing Tree. And despite COVID upsetting most of their 2020 service activities, the Christmas tradition lived on this year with each girl guide given $10 to pick a present for someone less fortunate. For 10-year-old Ruby Hilton, being a girl guide is about helping others. “It is good to give a present to someone who might be doing it tough at Christmas,” she said. “Just a small present can make someone smile and if I can help someone smile that is really good.” Guide leader Lorraine Graham said, like all other community groups, 2020 has been a tough year with not many activities going ahead. IN OTHER NEWS: “We haven’t been able to do much this year in terms of service so this is a great way for the girls to give back,” she said. “This is our tenth year giving to the Kmart Wishing Tree and is a great tradition that the girls look forward to each year. “They are given a price limit and are told to buy for all different ages from babies up to grandmas and for both boys and girls so there isn’t 20 gifts for 10-year-old girls under the tree. “It is all about giving back and helping those less fortunate than yourself.”

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Hoot, hoot, hoot! Owl in Rockefeller Center Christmas tree


NEW YORK —
It wasn’t quite a partridge in a pear tree, but a worker helping set up the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree found a holiday surprise — a tiny owl among the massive branches.

The little bird, now named what else but Rockefeller, was discovered on Monday, dehydrated and hungry, but otherwise unharmed, said Ellen Kalish, director and founder of the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, New York, where the bird was taken.

Kalish said the bird is an adult male Saw-whet owl, one of the tiniest owls. It was taken to a veterinarian on Wednesday and got a clean bill of health.

“He’s had a buffet of all-you-can-eat mice, so he’s ready to go,” she said.

She said the plan was to release the owl back to the wild this weekend.

The tree, a 23-metre Norway spruce, had been brought to Manhattan on Saturday from Oneonta, New York, in the central part of the state. The tree is put in place and then decorated over some weeks before being lit for the public in early December.



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Badly malnourished baby owl discovered in Rockefeller Christmas tree


A baby owl has been rescued and rehabilitated after being found roosting in New York City’s Rockefeller Christmas tree. 

On Saturday, an arborist discovered the sickly saw-whet owl hidden on a branch after the tree had been chopped down and transported to Manhattan.  

The worker’s wife contacted the Ravensbeared Wildlife Center in upstate New York to see if she would be bring in the badly malnourished bird so that it could be nursed back to full health.

‘It had been three days since he ate or drank anything,’ the wildlife sanctuary said in a Facebook post.  

A baby owl has been rescued and rehabilitated after being found roosting in New York City’s Rockefeller Christmas tree. Animal lovers are calling the story a ‘Christmas miracle’

On Satiurday, an arborist discovered the sickly saw-whet owl hidden on a branch  in the tree after it had been transported to Manhattan

On Satiurday, an arborist discovered the sickly saw-whet owl hidden on a branch  in the tree after it had been transported to Manhattan 

The tree is pictured being transported into the plaza outside the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan

The tree is pictured being transported into the plaza outside the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan

The shelter started the owl on a steady diet of fluids and mice, and he is now recovering nicely.

‘So far so good, his eyes are bright and seems relatively in good condition with all he’s been through. Once he checks in with the vet and gets a clean bill of health, he’ll be released to continue on his wild and wonderful journey,’ the center said in their Facebook post. 

Many followers responded, calling the story a ‘Christmas miracle’. 

The owl has been aptly named ‘Rockefeller’.  

One of the workers tasked with felling and transporting the tree discovered a baby owl

One of the workers tasked with felling and transporting the tree discovered a baby owl

But while the tale of the owl may have warmed hearts across the country, others were left feeling frosty by the sight of the scraggly Rockefeller tree as it was erected over the weekend. 

Photos of the tree circulated online drawing disparaging remarks from a legion of Scrooges.

‘An accurate representation of 2020,’ wrote Instagram user Liz Eswein, along with a photo of the bedraggled tree.

‘I expected nothing in 2020 to be good nice, or pretty and this tree confirms my dire expectations,’ one Twitter user wrote.

Online Grinches have slammed the 'scraggly' Rockefeller Christmas tree as 'the perfect symbol of 2020'. Above, the tree is seen as it is erected on Saturday

Online Grinches have slammed the ‘scraggly’ Rockefeller Christmas tree as ‘the perfect symbol of 2020’. Above, the tree is seen as it is erected on Saturday

Photos of the tree circulated online soon after it was erected on Saturday morning

Photos of the tree circulated online soon after it was erected on Saturday morning

‘Decorate it with some limbs please,’ another chimed in.

‘This is treeson,’ punned one user.

The Rockefeller Center clapped back in a tweet written in the voice of the tree itself: ‘Wow, you all must look great right after a two-day drive, huh? Just wait until I get my lights on! See you on December 2!’

It follows a similar controversy in Cincinnati, where the tree installed in Fountain Square was panned as a shrub reminiscent of ‘Charlie Brown’. 

Photos of the tree before it was felled and transported show a lush, symmetrical specimen.

By Saturday afternoon scaffolding had already gone up around the tree, and workers were busy coaxing the limbs back into place and stringing some five miles of lights through its branches.

By Sunday scaffolding had already gone up around the tree, and workers were busy coaxing the limbs back into place and stringing some five miles of lights

By Sunday scaffolding had already gone up around the tree, and workers were busy coaxing the limbs back into place and stringing some five miles of lights

By Sunday scaffolding had already gone up around the tree, and workers were busy coaxing the limbs back into place and stringing some five miles of lights

View of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree being set up at Rockefeller Plaza on Sunday

View of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree being set up at Rockefeller Plaza on Sunday

The tree is seen where it stood in Oneonta before it was cut down on Thursday. Homeowner 'Daddy Al' Dick said that while the tree was beloved, he was glad to donate it due to the difficulties it created for yard maintenance

The tree is seen where it stood in Oneonta before it was cut down on Thursday. Homeowner ‘Daddy Al’ Dick said that while the tree was beloved, he was glad to donate it due to the difficulties it created for yard maintenance 

The tree’s annual lighting ceremony will take place on December 2. There will be no public access to the ceremony, though it will be televised nationally on NBC beginning at 7pm Eastern time. 

Visitors should be able to visit the tree during the holiday season — though Mayor Bill de Blasio still hasn’t revealed plans to allow in-person viewing while limiting crowd sizes.

‘Details about how to visit the lit Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be announced in the coming weeks,’ the property managers said in a statement. 

The holiday cheer comes amid a resurgence in the pandemic in New York City and across the country. De Blasio on Wednesday announced that city schools would close indefinitely as new cases surged.

Al Dick (left) of Daddy Al's General Store in Oneonta donated the tree to Rockefeller Center

Al Dick (left) of Daddy Al’s General Store in Oneonta donated the tree to Rockefeller Center

Workers in Oneonta, New York, on Thursday prepare to cut down a 75ft-tall, 11-ton Norway Spruce that was chosen to be the tree that will be displayed at Rockefeller Center this holiday season

Workers in Oneonta, New York, on Thursday prepare to cut down a 75ft-tall, 11-ton Norway Spruce that was chosen to be the tree that will be displayed at Rockefeller Center this holiday season

The tree is estimated to be between 75 and 80 years old, according to the family that owned it

The tree is estimated to be between 75 and 80 years old, according to the family that owned it

Every year, the Rockefeller Center tree is decorated with thousands of lights on a five-mile-long wire and topped with a large star. This year’s star will weigh 900 pounds, made up of some 3 million Swarovski crystals on 70 illuminated spikes.

This year’s tree was donated by Daddy Al’s General Store in Oneonta. ‘Daddy Al’ Dick said he was honored to have his tree erected in Rockefeller Plaza, and glad to be rid of the extra yard work it created.

It will likely remain on display in Rockefeller Center until early next year, at which point the tree will be donated to Habitat for Humanity, which will recycle it for use as lumber.  

The 75-foot tall Norway spruce arrived at Rockefeller Center in the early morning hours accompanied by a police escort along the 185-mile route from Oneonta, New York

The 75-foot tall Norway spruce arrived at Rockefeller Center in the early morning hours accompanied by a police escort along the 185-mile route from Oneonta, New York

In-person spectators will not be allowed at the lighting ceremony, which usually draws hundreds of holiday well-wishers

In-person spectators will not be allowed at the lighting ceremony, which usually draws hundreds of holiday well-wishers

Every year, the Rockefeller Center tree is decorated with thousands of lights on a five-mile-long wire and topped with a large star. It is visited by millions of tourists and residents

Every year, the Rockefeller Center tree is decorated with thousands of lights on a five-mile-long wire and topped with a large star. It is visited by millions of tourists and residents

New York City received a much-need boost on Saturday with the arrival of a giant Christmas tree that marks the unofficial start of the 2020 holiday season

New York City received a much-need boost on Saturday with the arrival of a giant Christmas tree that marks the unofficial start of the 2020 holiday season

Tishman Speyer, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, has said it’s especially proud to keep up the tree tradition this year. 

The pandemic has spurred the cancellation of some other New York holiday customs, such as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

It’s estimated that more than 125 million people typically visit Rockefeller Center during the holidays, but with tourism stalled amid the pandemic, it’s unlikely the usual frenzy will appear this year. 

While this year’s tree measures at a towering 75 feet, the tallest ever spruce to stand in the center was seen in 1999, which was 100 foot tall. The tree that year came from Killingworth, Connecticut.  





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Qld researchers look at ‘tree change’ benefits for aged-care centres


They can then target areas for heat reduction and to track improvements in greenery and heat stress over time.

“This project involves providing leadership and capacity building for climate change adaptation in the aged-care sector,” Professor Baldwin said.

“Reducing heat in aged-care facilities will have multiple health, economic and social benefits for aged-care providers, residents, staff and visitors, as well as contribute to biodiversity.”

Dr Tony Matthews from Griffith University said heat stress is a major risk factor for older people, with heatwaves officially killing more Australians than fires, floods and all other natural disasters combined.

“Elderly people who are living in aged-care are particularly vulnerable to heat stress, and aged-care providers have a major running cost in trying to reduce heat stress through airconditioning and things like that,” Dr Matthews said.

He said they hope to develop a “species palette” that can be used in the future to plan new aged-care facilities as well as modify existing ones.

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“The species palette will involve particular species which can be planted in specific locations where we have observed heavy heat, and we can test for whether those species are doing anything over time to reduce that heat,” he said.

The initial project will run for about 18 months, after which the researchers hope to use their findings to make recommendations for where to plant trees and shrubs, and what type will be best for heat management.

“You have to consider things like location and proximity to buildings, you want to make sure you don’t have root encroachment or branches dropping, fire risk, things like that,” Dr Matthews said.

“At the moment, what we’re leaning towards is shrubs with a morphology of between two and four metres high with broad leaves but with limited density, so not giant trees.

“It’s the first study that we’re aware of that is specifically looking at the capacity to do this sort of management in an aged care setting.”

Dr Matthews said they will also be collecting data about whether the greenery improves residents’ sense of wellbeing, increases visitor numbers and staff happiness, as well as explore whether residents could help tend for the greenery as part of their activities.

Professor Baldwin and Dr Matthews published a paper earlier this year on the matter of urban greenery which was published in the journal Urban Policy and Research.

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Every dog needs a tree: Golden facelift unveiled


EVERYTHING happened at once in Glenreagh this weekend with the town welcoming back visitors for what could be considered its official reopening.

More than six months has passed since the town held its monthly community markets and there was welcome relief from residents eager to get things moving again.

Coinciding with Coffs Harbour City Council’s Shop the Orara Valley initiative, the weekend saw visitors browsing stalls, eating snags from the Lions Club BBQ and nipping into the The Golden Dog Hotel for a beer.

A tree planting ceremony was also held for the official unveiling of the new and improved Golden Dog statue bringing together sponsors and the community to revel in its new look.

Secretary of Heartstart Glenreagh, Faye Neil, said the weekend was significant coming almost exactly one year on from the devastating summer bushfires.

Glenreagh celebrates the official unveiling of the Golden Dog and its new and improved look. Photo: Tim Jarrett

While there wasn’t a strong desire to commemorate the events of November 2019, Ms Neil said it was fitting they should have a reason to come together.

“It’s really positive for the community,” she said.

“Not only is the Golden Dog our iconic landmark, but the Golden Dog Hotel became our community centre this time last year.

“The publican and staff donated time and resources to provide shelter, food, information and support to our community during the bushfire event and the floods that followed.”

Since that time the creation of a community centre for Glenreagh, which sits almost exactly between Grafton and Coffs Harbour, has come into sharper focus.

C.W.A markets in Glenreagh are back. Photo: Tim Jarrett

C.W.A markets in Glenreagh are back. Photo: Tim Jarrett

Glenreagh Heartstart is behind a renewed push to build a multipurpose community hub to service an area which looks set to grow in population in the coming years.

Ms Neil and Heartstart president Noel Backman envisaged a Hub incorporating a doctors office, a computer and study space, meeting rooms and gift shop and information centre.

“It will have more capacity to service the needs of the community, you could have small group training and mental health programs.”

Central to the group’s vision is a vacant block of land adjacent to the Glenreagh Police station.

Owned by the State Government, the hope is to put the site to better use by having members of the community come together to build the Hub themselves – with a relocatable house.

Heartstart secretary Faye Neil at the site where she hopes the new Glenreagh Community Hub will be located. Photo: Tim Jarrett

Heartstart secretary Faye Neil at the site where she hopes the new Glenreagh Community Hub will be located. Photo: Tim Jarrett

And while it may sound like a bold idea, Ms Neil says she has seen it all before in a town she previously lived in – Comboyne.

Similar to Glenreagh, Comboyne is situated right at the edge of the Local Government Area and now has a community centre staffed by volunteers who operate a gift shop, visitor information, health space and IT services.

“The reason we want to go down this path is that it is cost effective and builds ownership, it can be dynamic and change with the needs of the community,” she said.

“The community hub is all about centralising the resources within the community so people can have easy access to them.”

Glenreagh Heartstart are looking for new members and can be contacted at heartstart@glenreagh.org.au.





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Discover your family tree with DNA tests for $99 from 23andMe or $59 from Ancestry


Unlock your DNA and discover where you fall on your family tree with 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry kit.


23andMe

My dad never knew much about his ancestry, so when I was 10 years old we went to North Carolina for summer vacation so he could visit the hall of records where his dad grew up. Unfortunately — true story — it had burned to the ground years earlier. We went home without learning a thing. Many years later, I took a DNA test and learned some truly eye-opening revelations about my real ancestry. Now’s your own chance: 23andMe is having a half-off sale. Right now, you can get the 23andMe Health and Ancestry Service for $99, which is $100 off the regular price.

I’ve taken this test myself and have had the chance to compare my results with Ancestry.com’s DNA test. In my experience, both delivered similar data — they generally agreed on my genetic makeup and health factors, but I preferred 23andMe’s presentation, especially when it came to the ancestry aspects of the report. 23andMe, for example, has a cool family tree that shows known relatives in the appropriate places in your tree, which is a great visual tool for understanding your family’s structure and organization. 

But speaking of Ancestry, the tests there are generally a little cheaper, and right now Ancestry is having its own sale. You can get the AncestryDNA test for $59, down from a regular price of $99.

As I mentioned, I’ve taken both of these tests and they offer similar depth of features, data about your genetic makeup, and convenience via mobile apps. If you’re curious about your family history, genetic health predispositions and inherited conditions, you won’t find better deals for many months, so I suggest you grab one of these now. You might even discover we’re related. Stranger things have happened. 

Read moreBest ancestry tests in 2020  

Originally published earlier this year. Updated with the latest deal. 


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This isn’t just about a tree, it’s about Indigenous recognition


On Tuesday night my heart broke for a second time as I watched 26-year-old Sissy Austin, a staunch and proud Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong DjabWurrung woman, resign from her position as member for south-west on the Victorian Treaty Commission’s First People’s Assembly.

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When she was first elected to the assembly, she gave a powerful speech, in which she said the decision the Andrews government makes in regards to the Western Highway duplication project will make or break the Victorian Aboriginal communities’ trust in terms of treaty. For many of us, it has.

“That trust is broken, and more importantly our hearts are broken. We are traumatised by losing an element of country that we will never see again,” Sissy said via a Facebook live video, with tears streaming down her face.

“I will not be part of something that doesn’t reflect the heart, the soul and the spirit of my community.”

What Sissy did in standing up for her values as a strong black woman is what integrity looks like, and that’s something that Daniel Andrews and his government are clearly lacking when it comes to Aboriginal affairs in this state.

On Wednesday, my Victorian Greens colleagues took a motion to and raised questions in Victorian Parliament to the Premier on behalf of DjabWurrung, demanding the government recognise that the tree they destroyed was a sacred ancestor tree, and that the continued destruction of DjabWurrung country for a highway was an act of cultural genocide.

But the only acknowledgement to be made by other members of Parliament was one of jeering, showing just how little they care.

This isn’t just about a tree. I’ve received calls from members of my community who are mourning and deeply affected by this. Aboriginal people have been custodians of this land for tens of thousands of years. The health of our country and our connection to it is directly proportional to our health and wellbeing, and this government has shown a complete disregard for us.

The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act gives the government permission to commit cultural genocide and it needs to be abolished. The act doesn’t protect our people, our lands or our culture. It has been problematic from the outset. It is an instrument that provides manufactured consent to destroy the lands of this country’s first people.

Both the state and federal governments have worked together to commit this act of cultural genocide and colonial violence. It’s worth noting that the federal government played a part in this, too. Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley refused to step in when plans were being assessed for cultural heritage protection. She was happy to put heritage protection over a satellite dish, but not these culturally significant trees. It is DjabWurrung blood on their hands.

Aboriginal people have lost faith in the Andrews Labor government, and in the Victorian treaty process.

We have a lot of work to do if we are to unite as a community in Victoria, and as a nation. I am desperately sad that we took a big step backward this week. First nations people are hurting.

The work involves facing hard truths, and people, the Premier included, need to face up to the truth about the ongoing dispossession of our culture, community, and country.

Lidia Thorpe is a Victorian Greens senator.

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Playwright Angus Cerini on how theatre saved him, and examining Australian masculinity in Wonnangatta, The Bleeding Tree


The year 1996 was one of those ‘best of times, worst of times’ for Angus Cerini. In perhaps its defining moment, he was beaten up on a train by a group of young men after intervening when they harassed a couple of older women.

A first-year creative arts student at Melbourne University, he’d stopped smoking weed in order to get his head together to play a war criminal in a Student Union production of Daniel Keene’s Because You Are Mine, about the civil war and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia — ongoing at the time.

“I thought ‘I’m going to get off the bongs and really do this play well’. And it was when I got off the bongs that I think everything I’d been blocking out came in,” he says.

A confluence of the physical trauma of being beaten up and the withdrawals — Cerini had what he describes as a “psychotic” episode: “I looped out, it was pretty bad,” he says.

And then while he was recovering in hospital, something fateful happened. Friends — young men — who came to visit him shared their own experiences of violence.

“They started telling me these stories; and the stories were quite full on.”

He wrote some of these down, and that became Recidivist — his first play — which debuted at the university’s Muddy Shorts festival in 1997. That’s how Cerini met playwright Lally Katz, who also had a work in the festival — and they’ve been friends (and sometime-colleagues) ever since.

“I’d been unwell for years, but undiagnosed, and then I got bashed — and [in this theatre scene] I was allowed to be who and what I was, or could be, in an environment that was full of odd and amazing and brilliant people.

“I’m really lucky to have ended up there.”

Cerini is best known for works that turn a lens on men and their behaviour – such as Wretch, which premiered at Melbourne’s La Mama theatre in 2009.(Supplied: Ponch Hawkes)

The week we talk, Parliament is set to consider legislation that will increase the cost of arts and humanities degrees (after we talk, the bill is passed) — something that is not lost on Cerini.

“You know, what good is a Bachelor of Creative Arts? It doesn’t really do anything — you can’t be an engineer. But for me, it sort of saved me, right? If I hadn’t had that, I don’t know where I would have ended up, and what that would have cost society,” he says.

Eventually, and after many other plays, that creative arts degree gave rise to Cerini’s 2014 play The Bleeding Tree, a startlingly poetic revenge drama about domestic violence and murder in a “bone-dry” small-town country community.

Three women wearing dresses on stage surrounded by darkness.
The Bleeding Tree premiered at Griffin Theatre Company in 2015, and went on to win multiple awards. This year, the play is on in Hobart and Adelaide.(Supplied: Griffin Theatre Company/Brett Boardman)

It contained one of the best sequences in recent Australian theatre history, delivered by a middle-aged wife and mother, and her two daughters:

MOTHER: Girls, I think your father’s dead.
DAUGHTER 1: I knocked his knees out.
DAUGHTER 2: I conked his head.
MOTHER: I shot that house-clown in the neck.

The Bleeding Tree won the 2014 Griffin Award for new Australian plays, and premiered at Griffin Theatre Company in 2015. It went on to win the Helpmann Award for best play, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, two Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, a Sydney Theatre Award and a Green Room Award.

And it was picked up by Sydney Theatre Company for its 2017 season — which is where Hugo Weaving saw it, and decided he’d like to be in a Cerini play.

Darkened stage with Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair standing on curved set.
Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair are starring in Cerini’s play Wonnangatta, at Sydney Theatre Company.(Supplied: STC/Prudence Upton)

Dogs, dingoes and dead bodies

Weaving is currently performing in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Cerini’s newest play, Wonnangatta, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Walsh Bay (STC’s first production since the pandemic-induced Australia-wide theatre shutdown in March).

“It’s a classic piece, already,” Weaving told The Stage Show the week after the show opened.

Wonnangatta is a two-hander set in Victoria’s alpine high country in early 1918. Weaving co-stars with Wayne Blair; the two play middle-aged men Harry and Riggall — who, as the play opens, have arrived at the remote cattle station of Wonnangatta to see what has happened to its manager, Jim Barclay, who is missing.

An historic black and white photo of a young man in a suit leaning against a tree.
James Barclay was the manager at Wonnangatta Station, one of the most isolated homesteads in Victoria, when he was murdered.(Supplied: East Gippsland Historical Society)

Barclay’s dog is starving and neglected; the station cook, a man named Bamford, is nowhere to be seen; the dingoes are howling outside.

Wonnangatta is inspired by a real life double homicide that was never solved; Weaving’s character is based on a close friend of Jim Barclay’s who found the body: Harry Smith.

Blair’s character is a composite of several real people, and named after William Riggall, who helped Smith raise the alarm when Barclay went missing.

Angus Cerini wearing checked shirt and akubra crouches in front of garlic field, looking at camera.
Five years ago, Angus Cerini bought a property in Victoria’s high country; recently, he has developed it into a garlic farm.(Supplied: Angus Cerini)

Australian gothic

Jessica Arthur, directing Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Wonnangatta, writes in her program note: “It seems to me that if The Bleeding Tree dramatises the outcome of the brutalising way we socialise men in this country, then Wonnangatta shows us the root of that process.”

For while Cerini’s play is ostensibly about two blokes hunting a missing person and a murderer in the bush, the greater threat is nature itself.

As Harry and Riggall grapple against the dense scrub, vertiginous terrain and wild weather, they are transformed.

In the dark of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Weaving and Blair’s heads often seem to float mid-air, suspended in darkness — thanks to Nick Schlieper’s lighting design.

Hugo Weaving (left) and Wayne Blair (right) lit up on an empty stage, surrounded by darkness.
Wonnangatta is playing in a 900-seat theatre, but only 247 audience members a a night can see it due to COVID-related social-distancing regulations.(Supplied: STC/Prudence Upton)

Combined with Jacob Nash’s austere production design (a single, crescent-shaped wafer of metal, corrugated like tin, on which the men stand), and a reduced, socially-distanced audience, there’s the sense of ‘campfire ghost story’ to the occasion.

The actors flip between telling the story to the audience and being ‘in character’; when in character, sometimes the two men are having a conversation — but other times they appear stuck in their own heads, processing the action as it unfolds.

As in The Bleeding Tree, Cerini writes in a poetic vernacular; Harry and Riggall’s expressions are authentically ‘country Australia’, but their words are arranged with a rhythm and rhyme that is like verse.

HARRY: Note still scrawled in chalk on the door.
RIGGALL: Mail sitting unopened just like before.
HARRY: Two days difficult ride and the homestead untouched, just like before.
RIGGALL: “Home tonight’
HARRY: Is what it reads.
RIGGALL: Same as before?
HARRY: Same as before.

The two actors are on stage for about 90 minutes, talking almost non-stop — and tasked with hitting the rhythm and cadence of the script.

“It’s been a very complex, very challenging process of getting on top of the text — but a thrilling one,” said Weaving.

Blair said every show is “a mini grand final”.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done!” he told The Stage Show.

‘A love story to Australia’

The alpine high country depicted in Wonnangatta is close to Cerini’s heart: growing up, he spent a lot of time in the north-east of Victoria, and “most school holidays [and] every second weekend at least” in the town of Jamieson, where his family had an old miner’s shack.

“That’s where I would have first heard the story of the Wonnangatta mystery,” Cerini says.

He and his three siblings played by the Jamieson River, and went on long bushwalks with their father.

During one of these, he had an experience that remains vivid in his memory — and inspired a climactic scene in Wonnangatta.

“I was only I think in about grade 4 or 5, and we went to a place called Lake Tali Karng, a natural lake deep in the high country. As we were bushwalking, the weather was nice — and then within a couple of hours, it was snowing, and so foggy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face — it was quite terrifying. We ended up in this cattleman’s hut.”

With hindsight, he says, perhaps he was more scared than he needed to be — but his child’s perspective of awe at the natural environment has remained.

“What I love is the power of that environment,” he says.

“Soldier-settlers were told after the war [World War I], if you take this land and clear it — chop down everything and start being productive — we’ll give it to you. But if you don’t chop the trees down, you’ve gotta give it back. So you see this environmental savagery on an enormous scale — on a continent-wide scale.”

He feels that between droughts, floods, bushfires and the pandemic, nature’s dominance is more evident now than ever.

“It doesn’t matter whether we think climate change is real or not, or whether we think we should do more backburning or more tree clearing to change bushfire behaviour — all of that’s kind of irrelevant, because at the end of the day, we persistently refuse to accept that the planet, and nature, will do whatever the f*** she wants,” says Cerini.

And in his play, nature does indeed seem to fight back.

“It’s maybe a little bit of a love story to Australia.”

Angus Cerini crouching outdoors with native plants behind him, looking at camera, smiling.
“I feel very lucky that my play is actually going on, when most shows this year have been cancelled,” says Cerini.(ABC Arts: Zan Wimberley)

‘Difficult second album’

In 2017, Cerini was living in Victoria’s high country — on his remote property in Strathbogie Ranges, north of Melbourne.

“I live on 50 acres at the end of a no-through road, surrounded by bush and paddocks, with the closest house over a kilometre away,” he says.

He moved there because it was affordable, and he is working on developing it into a garlic farm — with the dream of a reliable income flow. But it also seems to suit him temperamentally.

“I literally see no-one, and that’s how I like it,” he says.

When STC came calling for a follow-up to The Bleeding Tree, it was gratifying — but Cerini quickly found himself in “difficult second album” territory, and slightly gobsmacked by Weaving’s interest.

Then his father, who had moved to the Strathbogie Ranges at the age of 60, got sick.

“We started talking, and I borrowed one of his books — Cattlemen and Huts of the High Plains, by Harry Stephenson — and it was then that I read, again, about the Wonnangatta murders,” he recalls.

He dug deeper into that niche, buying books, researching further.

In August 2018, something clicked into place: “In half an hour, I wrote the first 30 pages”.

STC’s literary manager, Polly Rowe, was keen, and Cerini proposed using the development-funding portion of the David Williamson Prize, which he had won in 2016 for The Bleeding Tree, towards getting the play up at STC.

Rowe came on as dramaturg, helping to shape the script with Cerini, and across two years, three ‘developments’ of the work occurred; Arthur was attached to direct, then Weaving to star, followed by Blair.

Wayne Blair and director Jessica Arthur in rehearsals
Director Jessica Arthur (seen here in rehearsals for Wonnangatta) was a student of Cerini’s.(Supplied: Sydney Theatre Company/Prudence Upton)

(He’d never seen either actor perform live before).

“At one point, I just stayed in Sydney in this weird, awful hotel room — those environments are great to write in, because it’s just brown. And so I punched out a complete draft.”

While Cerini was writing, his father died, and he moved back in with his mum, in Melbourne.

“It was a weird time,” he says.

Whereas the first draft of The Bleeding Tree had been — astoundingly — written in a few hours (in bed one morning, no less), Wonnangatta has been “the hardest thing I’ve done,” says Cerini.

Ballet and Aussie blokes

Cerini made his name with works about violent young men — from Recidivist in 1997 and its follow-ups Dennis is Dead and Fuckwit (1998), to the award-winning Wretch (2009).

Most of his works have in one way or another put the darker aspects of male behaviour under the lens, from child abuse (Saving Henry) to the particularly male urges that fuel trade in sex, drugs and guns (Resplendence).

And then there was The Bleeding Tree, in which a community comes together around the murder of a wife-beater.

To watch these plays, or listen to him talk, you wouldn’t suspect that Cerini studied ballet from age 6 to 16 — or that he advocates government funding for classical ballet and opera (not so much for Shakespeare, however).

He grew up the youngest of four kids, none of them into sport. His older sister wanted to do ballet — and then his older brothers felt they should be included. At six, Cerini was signed up by default.

The incident on the train, in 1996, was clearly a catalyst to him writing — and writing about violence, and men.

But he’d also done a lot of living between ballet at 16 and the creative arts degree in 1996.

Here’s how he summarises those in-between years: “I just smoked a lot of bongs, got into quite a bit of trouble, and then went to uni [an arts degree at Monash] and lasted a semester, and then flipped steaks for three years, and smoked a lot more bongs.”

He laughs through this checklist, but also speaks with seriousness about the intersection of mental health issues and drugs in young people: “We [need to] say to people hey listen, if you have history in your family of mental illness, maybe be careful smashing cones — because you’ve got a propensity.”

Once he discovered theatre and writing, and once he opened the pandora’s box of male violence, it proved a rich seam: homophobic violence, sexual violence, self-violence.

I ask him why he keeps turning a lens on the worst parts of men’s behaviour, and he says: “Maybe we want to be better. Maybe I want to be better.”

Poetry and masculinity

Growing up in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Vermont (right at the edge of the city, where the map turns from grey to a green expanse) Cerini says he felt outside ‘Australian masculinity’ — as one might imagine of someone into ballet, not sport.

“But I also know that I have at times been in that masculinity,” he adds.

This inside/outside-ness is writ large in the characters of Harry and Riggall: one is a capable, confident country bloke who is all about action and taking control and getting on with it; the other is more circumspect, less sure — more wary of danger, and more questioning.

These two modes of masculinity rub up against each other, not always comfortably — and shape the action of Wonnangatta.

“And maybe these two [characters] are trying to articulate a way of communicating.”

For Weaving and Blair, one of the biggest acts of magic Cerini has undertaken is to give voice — literally — to these men.

Weaving describes Harry as a “man who doesn’t really need much other than himself; he relies on his own wits, and he relies on his own experience, and he’d rather not talk … [but] we do talk a lot, we talk endlessly [in the play].”

He compares Cerini’s use of language to bush poets like Banjo Patterson and C.J. Dennis.

“There’s a real beauty in the zen Aussie man, when he gets to express what he feels — and I think Angus taps into that really beautifully, and that’s the thrilling aspect of this — the poetry that’s inside these fairly [withheld men].”

A different kind of theatre

Ballet has been crucial to how Cerini makes and writes theatre; even when he’s not on stage performing, it’s somehow embedded in the words he is writing.

“I’m really into dance — I love it. In many ways I prefer it to plays,” he admits.

“Dance gives you this thing to figure out yourself … it’s not definite, it could mean lots of things, and that’s what’s beautiful about it … the physicality is the thing. Whereas in a play, you’ve got a whole lot of stipulations so you know exactly what’s going on — they’re telling you everything.”

“That’s quite prescriptive — you don’t get that chance to really dream or imagine, as you do in dance.”

In 2011, he parlayed his dissatisfaction with main-stage theatre into the play Save for Crying, which he describes as an experiment.

He explains: “I see a lot of plays that are people chatting on stage in a lounge room — and to me, that’s the death of art … It doesn’t embrace performance, right? It may as well be on TV.

“So I set about trying to create language that would be specifically for the live performance. So in that way, it’s a bit of a dance and a bit of theatre … you’re kind of enjoying the words for the qualities of the words, not just what they mean.”

If Save for Crying was an experiment, it seems to have been successful. Cerini’s next play was The Bleeding Tree.

The show must go on

The year 2020 has been another of those ‘best and worst of times’ for Cerini: he missed attending the biggest opening night of his career, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and quarantine procedures.

He lost income from productions of The Bleeding Tree that were scheduled and then cancelled in Adelaide and Hobart (although at time of writing, a production was in rehearsals and preparing to open at Hobart’s Theatre Royal, and Adelaide’s Theatre Republic are set to open their production in December — both later than scheduled).

But he also opened the biggest show of his career, on one of the biggest theatre stages, with one of the country’s premier theatre companies, with Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair.

“What do you do after that?” he says, incredulous. “It’s big. It’s awesome. It’s gobsmacking.”

“My mother is very proud.”

Wonnangatta is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until October 31.

The Bleeding Tree is at Hobart’s Theatre Royal from November 12-28; and Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute (Adelaide) from December 9-19.



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