Photo and story Luis Feliu
Born and bred Murwillumbah local Graeme Cooney was so inspired by the late Bruce Chick, known around the Tweed and beyond as the Man of the Trees, that he decided to make a film about him while he was still alive.
But when Graeme, an amateur short filmmaker and musician, embarked on the project seven years ago, he thought it would take him around six months to complete a 30-minute film.
The project however turned into a labour of love and the finished product, a 90-minute epic called Man of the Trees was completed only last week, just in time to be entered in the Byron Bay International Film Festival running this week.
The documentary film about Bruce, who was an ordinary man with an extraordinary vision and commitment to preserve his local rainforests, has its world premiere this Saturday at 6pm at Murwillumbah’s historic Regent Cinema, which is expected to be packed by locals wanting to see a truly local film about a well-known and -loved Tweed identity who died in 2007, six weeks short of his 97th birthday.
Graeme, who produced, directed, filmed, wrote and played the music for the documentary, said the film had no budget when he started and he did it just about all by himself, ‘but the story just kept growing and growing, it was a big story to tell and there were lots of stops and starts throughout the journey’.
Graeme remembers the time as a young student at Murwillumbah High School in 1970 when Bruce, an English/History teacher and librarian there, inspired and helped him and other students to plant a stand of majestic hoop pines at the rear of the school and to think more about their environment.
The documentary is not just about the rainforests Bruce loved and nurtured, but longevity and mortality.
‘Man of The Trees started as a documentary about his pioneering conservation and reforestation efforts but ended up being much more than that,’ he told Echonetdaily.
‘Unintentionally I ended up documenting the final years of his life and the process he and everyone else inevitably goes through . It raises social issues we will all be confronted by eventually.
‘I think the way Australian society treats its elderly is just appalling; they just get tossed aside and discarded,’ Graeme, who cares full time for his mum Phyllis, who suffers from Dementia, said.
‘Bruce was one of the most famous, highly regarded, well known and much loved people in the Tweed Valley.
‘He had been awarded an Order of Australia medal and honoured as a SAGE (Senior Aged Guardian of the Environment) for his conservation efforts. Yet he ends up living two kilometres from town, with no transport and all by himself. People were always asking “how is Bruce? I must go and visit him,” but few to none ever did.’
Graeme said the film also tells the complete story of the efforts to protect the Border Ranges on the Tweed caldera for the first time.
‘That campaign spanned 106 years and involved four generations of people, one of which was from the biggest sawmilling family in Queensland and another also a sawmiller, not to mention an outback bushy from Queensland.
‘It also contains a lot of very rare historical photos which you otherwise would never see plus spectacular Mt Warning and rainforest footage.’
Graeme said Bruce began his single-handed battle to save the forests from logging and to change awareness by spearheading a letter-writing campaign to newspapers and politicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ‘rather than standing out in front of bulldozers’ as was done by activists in the famed Terania Creek anti-logging campaign of the 1970s.
‘When he came to our school he talked about preserving the Border Ranges, and then there were no such things as hippies or saving forests, and the words environment and conservation were not even part of our vocabulary.
‘I’m a third-generation Murwillumbah boy and our dads then either worked at Norco or the sawmills or sugar mill, yet Bruce was involved in the campaign to save the rainforests of the Tweed Valley and beyond.’
He said it was ‘a pretty heroic thing to do’ for Bruce and the handful of other campaigners featured in the film to campaign to preserve these forests.
‘They had full-time jobs, were married with kids, yet were running all over the countryside with money out of their own pockets, making speeches in their efforts to save the Border Ranges,’ he said.
In the early 1980s NSW premier Neville Wran’s government passed legislation protecting the Border Ranges following the Terania Creek campaign and also pushed for their World Heritage listing.
‘Bruce was a big fan of Neville Wran and when he came to Murwillumbah Bruce gave him a Bog Onion Cedar seedling to plant in Knox Park, next to the Red Cross building, which has a plaque on it.
‘Then through the Tweed-Byron Reforestation Committee, of which he was a founder, over a million trees were distributed to people, free, to plant around the region.’
Graeme said Bruce made a habit of climbing to the summit of Mt Warning each year on his birthday, which he managed for the last time at 93 years of age.
‘He did make it to the bottom of the chains on his 94th birthday and at 95 got half way, so it was not a bad effort.’
Tweed Shire Council honoured Bruce years ago by naming a park after him near Stotts Island, Bruce Chick Park (a remnant rainforest) adjacent to Tweed Valley Way where Bruce spent many long hours planting rainforest species on the vacant crown land. Bruce oversaw the plantings and had of policy of one person, one tree. Most trees were planted by a different person.