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Blacksmiths’ Tree takes root
A large crowd turned out in Whittlesea in late November for the unveiling of the magnificent Blacksmiths’ Tree.
The two and a half tonne, 9.8 metre tall stainless steel and copper gum tree bears 3,500 leaves wrought by amateur and professional blacksmiths from across Australia and the world.
Cliff Overton – a member at Seymour District 12 headquarters brigade, former CFA employee and current manager of Corporate Planning and Sustainability at MFB – got involved very early on.
“I volunteered at the Whittlesea Fire Station on Black Saturday and went out on the Diamond Creek truck the next day,” said Cliff. “I then spent time out in the fire-affected areas recording the losses while the fires burnt.
“About a week into the fires, I saw a leaflet advertising the Tree Project. I didn’t know anything about working a forge then, but the idea grabbed me.”
In fact, the idea was sparked in a blacksmiths’ internet forum although the initial plan was to create just a shrub. The enormous worldwide interest, however, turned the shrub into a representative gum tree with some artistic interpretations of gum leaves by overseas makers utterly unfamiliar with the species.
Many leaves have a name or a message stamped on them. Some are the names of people, cats, dogs and horses who died while others were sponsored by fire-affected people, offering messages of hope and support.
“I learned how to be a blacksmith by meeting other blacksmiths,” continued Cliff. “It’s one of those romantic primitive crafts, but it’s really the art of blacksmithing that appealed to me; making something beautiful rather than practical.”
Cliff has gone on to make many leaves including one for each CFA area before boundary re-alignment.
Of course the tree is laden with symbolism: something beautiful has been created – not destroyed – by fire. Messages of strength, support and hope are inscribed on the branches. The trunk was sponsored by the Bendigo Bank and some branches were sponsored by the MFB and the Fire Services Commissioner.
“I suppose it’s also a symbol of sector reform,” said Cliff. “All the services are welded together.
“It’s also been part of the process of renewal and recovery for the community. It’s a massively connected structure, supported by people generous with their skills and time - like local council people involved in recovery and Regional Arts Victoria.
“And every time I turn around, people are making an offer – a skip or a crane … whatever they have to give.
“The project manager is Amanda Gibson and all her time has been volunteered and I can’t say enough about how much she has given to this project.”
In January, the tree will be erected in its permanent home: the Strathewen memorial garden. Blacksmiths are still completing work on wrought iron furniture that will provide people with a quiet and restful place to reflect and remember.
“I don’t think any of us had any idea how big this tree was going to grow,” said Cliff. “We also didn’t know it was going to look this good.
“What started as a memorial to loss has become a tribute to community.”
As for Cliff’s blacksmithing future, he now needs to learn how to make something other than leaves.
Thanks to Warren Mitchelson for photos.