Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tree Ladies With Portable Roots

About ten years ago, the Darwin City Council announced that it would cut down the old Poinciana trees in the city centre. These old trees with their flaming red flowers dropped mess all over the footpaths and were way past their expiry date.
But there were some protests - mainly from the local Aboriginal community, who claimed that the Poinciana tree was part of their heritage. It was a sacred tree, home of the Poinciana Woman.
"Bullshit," said several horticulturalists. "The tree was imported in the 1930's."

For me, this story began a meandering of thoughts about ripping yarns, urban myths and the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Assuming that Dreamtime ended when white folk turned up here was an arrogance of mine that mingled with complete ignorance. Myth and culture are still evolving, none of stays in stasis and as Joseph Campbell once said, "The beauty of myths is that they are ladies with portable roots."

I first heard the story of the Poinciana Woman as a curfew story. In the years between 1905 and 1962, the White Australia policy was in force across the country. Unfortunately for the authorities and racist engineers of this policy, Australia is a rather big place and above the 26th parallel, it's pretty much a different country. Darwin, Broome and towns in North Queensland were already home to Malays, Macassans, Japanese, Javanese, Chinese and others. Territorians tried to ignore the southerners from the cities and their impractical policies but, during and after World War Two, the curfew against 'coloured people' was implemented anyway.

Poinciana Woman was a bogey story, invented by mothers to get their kids home on time during the curfew years. She was a beautiful woman, who wore a white dress and sang children away from their mothers. She lived in the Poinciana trees and if the children strayed too far after dark, she'd get them. She was very, very pretty and she had big breasts - those mothers knew their teenage brown boys were the most likely to be arrested after dark.

Poinciana Woman, in one version of the story, was a local woman who'd been raped by American soldiers during the war and, deranged with shame and grief, hung herself from a Poinciana tree when she found out she was pregnant. In every version, she is some ethnicity other than European. She is Japanese, Asian or Aboriginal. In one story she is a "beautiful brown-skinned Asian woman who was raped by a group of Japanese fishermen at East Point ... She became a wraith who stalks and kills men at night. she entices them by initially appearing as a beautiful, white robed, long haired woman but then transforms into a hideous wild haired, eagle clawing hag just before she eviscerates her victims and feeds on their steaming guts ..."
So play nice, boys.

Roland Dyrting has written a great essay on the Poinciana Woman. The link to his essay and other prize winners from the 2009 Northern Territory Literary Awards is here.

'Poinciana Woman' by me


  1. interesting stuff. i love the picture!

  2. "... she entices them by initially appearing as a beautiful, white robed, long haired woman but then transforms into a hideous wild haired, eagle clawing hag just before she eviscerates her victims and feeds on their steaming guts ..."

    Sounds like this story was invented by a man who had just heard the outcome of his divorce settlement.

  3. Yeah ... sometimes I really feel sorry for (ex)husbands.
    You know, balls stretched out on the rack of sexual attraction, made to endure tracksuits and hair curlers before regular ritual disembowelments etc etc.

  4. Oh, I should have said that I really like the painting Sarah - because I really do. How's the whale? (or is that a difficult subject?)

  5. Great blog ST. Yes, myth is so interesting and of course you are right, the Dreamtime didn't end with white settlement. It is fascinating how it continues to evolve and absorb new stories.

    I LOVE the image too....

  6. Beautiful image Ms Toa ...and fascinating post.

    Thanks for sharing it!

  7. thanks, yes it is a good one hey?
    The whale is apparently a young male, beaten up and kicked out of his tribe. He's gone there to die. We went out there this morning and he's still breathing fine. It's very distressing because he appears in perfectly good health. He doesn't need to feed because he is living off his fat reserves this time of year. So it's going to take ages and ages for this one to die. Hard work, this dying business.

  8. I am at a loss for words that convey the resonance through my heart that Your words transmit

  9. Thanks Doreen and thanks for following a WineDark Sea!

  10. Hi Sarah, do you know how to get in touch with Roland Dyrting? I would like to use his story in a project I'm working on. If possible, please give him my email aykaye@live.com
    Many thanks,

  11. Hi Sarah, Could I use your painting of the Poinciana Woman for an online story I am writing? I can be contacted at ellen.rosa@abc.net.au