Bringing together culture, community and Country, Red Room Poetry has joined forces with The Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan to facilitate the POEM FOREST Prize.

The prize welcomes children, teachers and students to write and enter poems inspired by nature. For each poem entered, a tree is planted at the Mount Annan Garden, restoring habitats for endangered plants and animals and creating positive action against climate change.

Red Room Poetry’s POEM FOREST program launched today. Photo supplied.

Poems in the competition will have the chance to win $5,000 worth of prizes and will be judged by a select panel, including Bruce Pascoe, Holly Ringland, Cathy Offord and Solli Raphael.

“The POEM FOREST Prize is about valuing the words of young people with tangible action,” said project lead and Red Room Artistic Director Dr Tamryn Bennett.

“This new prize aims to draw attention to the voices of young people, recognise them with real, genuine environmental outcomes and raise awareness about how we can all play a role in caring for Country.

“To protect the future, we need to connect young people with nature in a way that nurtures creativity, sparks inspiration and fosters action.”

Trees planted in the program will be planted in the critically endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland. The woodland once covered most of Western Sydney but is now scarce.

POEM FOREST contributes to the Garden’s efforts to restore the woodlands, which have been ongoing since the 1980s.

The program plants three species: Forest Red Gum (Eucalyptus teriricornis), Grey Box (Eucalyptus moluccana) and Narrow-leaved Ironbark (Eucalyptus creba) with the hopes that 22,000 trees will be planted by 2024.

The program was launched on Tuesday at the Garden with a soil turning ceremony and water blessing led by Uncle Ivan Wellington. The launch included readings from commissioned poets Aunty Verna Barker and Dakota Feirer.

A young Bundjalung man, Feirer began writing poetry as a way of healing.

“What drew me to poetry was that it is oral and it is storytelling, I’m trying to continue what my Old People were masters at — if I can continue that I’m a happy man,” he said.

Bundjalung man and commission poet, Dakota Feirer. Photo Supplied.

POEM FOREST provided Feirer with an opportunity to create and contribute.

“It’s one thing to write a poem but to have it guide a workshop and be shared … poem has a tangible and selfless contribution to Mother Earth and Country,” he said.

“Coming from a country town … and wanting to be out bush all the time, I do struggle between the city and the bush. I feel that I do have the responsibility to caretake for Country.

“POEM FOREST is quite special and unique. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Growing up on Yuin Country and now based on Dharawal Country, Feirer has a strong connection to land and feels a deep responsibility to care for Country — a responsibility he finds in POEM FOREST.

“The important thing, for me, is that we all have been here and that in putting trees into the earth and having that part of ourselves here we are now accountable to this place,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel like we gather here one time and one time only, we all have to return and be accountable to Country as well as one another.”

Other commissioned poets include youth ambassador and slam poet, Solli Raphael, poet and author Jane Gleeson-White, and Djap Wurrung community activator Arika Waulu.

Munkata Yuin woman Lyndsay Urquhart leads the POEM FOREST program alongside Dr Bennett.

“We are trying to encourage people to look at nature, think about it reflect on it, connect with it and share and value their own perspectives on what that means to them. Encourage their creativity, encourage their curiosity and imagination and give back,” she said.

Urquhart has strong cultural connections to Dharawal Country being born and raised on Country among community.

“This is my community, I will never be from anywhere else, this is my Spirit Country and to be doing this at home in the community with such a heavy population of Koori people that deserve an opportunity like this, they deserve an opportunity to connect with Country, to come to the Gardens,” she said.

“I saw my parents coming up the hill, they’re very humble people and … they said to me, ‘One day your children are going to be looking up on that hill and know that their mum did that’ — that was so special.”

By Rachael Knowles