The following is a poignant guest post blog from Ian Heads OAM. Ian sent this to us as he believed it was a story and a life that should not be forgotten:
The tree that remembers Neil Barker stands defiantly on the eastern shore of Centennial Park’s Kensington Ponds, rebuffing whatever the weather chooses to throw at it.
For years, cricket-loving Neil lived just a lofted straight-drive away, in the thick bush of a nearby hillock, his carefully-wrapped possessions secreted in the scrub around him. Born in New Zealand, Neil encountered the park soon after arriving in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – and one day in the 1990s, decided he would stay.
His story encapsulates both the abundant good and occasional dark side of this wonderful and inspirational place. Neil Barker died there in his beloved park – shockingly – one cold, wet night in July 2004. “Blunt force trauma to the head” was the police description of the wicked thing done to him by the unknown assailant who dumped his body in an icy canal. It was a dreadful ending for a man who so loved the park and dealt uncomplainingly with its vicissitudes. Especially he loved Centennial Park at dusk when the rabbits (no longer there now, to the park’s benefit) came out, the people went home – and the park became “his”.
“Neil’s tree” was planted in his memory, at a small, sad ceremony.
One hundred and twenty one years on from its opening, Centennial Park remains a rare jewel of Sydney life, a place in which the fine and positive things offered overwhelmingly outweigh any small, bleaker side. It is both the heart and lungs of a bustling city – and along with undoubted countless others, it captured me in its spell years ago.
Once a runner, these days a walker, I came to know over thousands of days its moods and secret places – and hidden treasures: the glimpse of a tawny frogmouth family in Lachlan Swamp – the blue flash of a kingfisher (years ago and just once) near Mckay Oval, the labored flight of a shy peahen who lives on an island in the Kensington Ponds, the scream of a channel-billed cuckoo being pursued…and, rarely, on dusk the sight of a fox padding silently past.
At weekends the park is full of picknickers and parties and cars and weddings…. with a thousand ball games underway as horse riders circle the dirt track. In the early mornings, packs of cyclists claim it as their own, rushing past in noisy groups. The logical designation “a chatter of cyclists” inevitably comes to mind.
Yet, just occasionally, on cold, wet days, the “People’s Park” (Sir Henry Parkes, January 26, 1888) can be as empty as some remote desert too. Those are perhaps the best moments of all – the chance to have 189 beautiful hectares to oneself …times when a simple walk can become a profoundly meditative and mind-clearing experience.
The gift to the city by Parkes and his state government was nothing less than magnificently inspirational. Since that beginning, the keepers of the flame – those who care for the park – have done the dream proud. Centennial Park changes and grows yearly, enhanced by tree planting, the creation of beautiful wetlands and other nuanced improvements. The seasons come and go and Sydney’s great park just gets better….. more important by the year to the ever-expanding city outside.
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Ian Heads, OAM, is a highly respected journalist, sports historian, author and publisher who has covered the passing parade of Australian sport for over 45 years. Since 1988 he has been the author or co-author of 40 books, the first of which with Gary Lester, was A Glorious Obsession – 200 Years of Australian Sport, an official history for the Bi Centenary, and in a succession of major titles Ian has told or helped tell the stories of sporting clubs, large and small and some of Australia’s greatest sporting figures, plus renowned paramedic Paul Featherstone, aka ‘The Hero of Thredbo’.