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“Yeah, that’s right!” yells a tall, bearded former convict wearing a green vest, brown pants and knee-high boots. He is standing at the bottom of a valley, in long grass surrounded by gum trees, waving a rifle. Two film crews for the television adaptation of The Secret River track the scene with cameras mounted on wheels. “We build things and we grow ’em ’ere – not like you, ya lazy buggers, struttin’ around like gentry with yer balls hangin’ out!”

Halfway up the hill, two dozen black men, women and children, all holding wooden spears, slowly retreat from the armed white man. Their leader, Grey Beard to the whites and Gumang in his Dharuk tongue, turns and mocks him.

She-oaks are casuarina trees – wildly varying evergreen native species found beside rivers, along coasts, in forests and deserts. As choreographer Frances Rings drives from her home at Ettalong on the NSW central coast to the Bangarra Dance Theatre rehearsal space at Sydney’s Walsh Bay, she notes the casuarinas on the median strip.

“If people knew what they offered in terms of medicine, it’s like a supermarket,” she says. The most common casuarina on the M1 Pacific Motorway, the black she-oak, flowers red in spring, amid foliage that can quench a thirst. The cones of drooping she-oaks can be powdered for rheumatism and sores. The bark of the horsetail she-oak plugs a painful decayed tooth.

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