Photo credit: Ricky French

At first glance you wouldn’t suspect Rob Chandler, mayor of the central-west Queensland town of Barcaldine, to be a tree hugger. The object of Rob’s affection is one tree in particular, but the surprising thing is that the tree is dead. Even more surprising is its cause of death: murder. It’s called the Tree of Knowledge, and though it will never again grow leaves, it’s helping grow the fortunes of Barcaldine. 

With a population of 1300, Barcaldine lies in the heart of sheep country, 520 kilometres by road west of Rockhampton, with Longreach another 120km along the Capricorn Highway. Like much of Queensland, the town has been hit hard by the drought – there’s been no decent rain for more than six years – and wild dogs have got into what’s left of the sheep. But not only is the town optimistic about the future, it’s proactively setting a new course, steered by a new breed of passionate locals and an ideas-driven regional council. Once a thriving railway town, Barcaldine may find its best days around the next bend in the track.

Five pubs line the main street that fronts the highway, but at one stage the town had 11. The street would have been a sight to see in 1891, when the famous Shearers’ Strike hit town. Although the strike was unsuccessful at the time, the prominent, shady gum under which the shearers met became centre of the mythology of the labour movement and would forever symbolise the notion of a ‘fair go’ for Australian workers. “This tree is a piece of our nation’s history,” Rob says. “We knew we had to preserve it, it was just a matter of working out how.”

Someone poisoned the tree in 2006 but was never caught, however justice was served another way. The tree was removed and preserved in a borax solution, and funding was secured to reinstate it and encase it as part of a huge art installation. Queensland architects Michael Lavery and Brian Hooper got to work and the result is a $6 million, 18 square-metre award-winning sculpture that has transfixed tourists and helped revitalise the town. 

A total of 3600 suspended timbers recreate the shape of the canopy and allow for dappled light to be cast on the ground. By night, lighting brings the tree back to life and it becomes a mesmerising, static fountain of colour. Whatever the time of day, it’s difficult to miss. 

“I told the architects to build us a monstrosity,” Rob chuckles. “So that people driving in to Barcaldine turn their heads and go, ‘What the blazes is that?’ It’s got more attention now than it did when it was alive, so whoever killed it actually did us a favour.”

Read the full story in Outback magazine issue #124