For dozens of generations, this serene stretch in the highlands of southeastern Australia has been a sanctuary for the women of the Djab Wurrung people, where babies were delivered in the hollows of majestic birthing trees and the placentas were planted nearby to imbue saplings with their spirit.
"This is it. This is our women's safe place. The creational place," said Zellanach Djab Mara, 33, a Djab Wurrung cultural "lore man."
Soon, though, bulldozers may arrive on this sacred ground, as the state government in Victoria moves ahead with a long-delayed plan to widen a highway. Dozens of protesters have camped along a roughly 7-mile strip for more than a year, demanding that the project be canceled. But late last week, after the federal environment minister had denied their claim, the demonstrators were told they had 14 days to leave.
If the land is destroyed, said Sandra Onus, a Djab Wurrung elder, it will be "the end of many things for us culturally."
The state authorities say the highway upgrade, which will widen an existing road to four lanes from two and change part of the route, will make it safer. There have been several fatal crashes along the route over the years.
The government consulted two registered Aboriginal organizations about the plan, and it was altered to spare 15 trees, including two birthing trees. But thousands of other trees, including some that the Djab Wurrung say are culturally significant, will be cut down.
The protesters are demanding that the entire area be protected, arguing that the birthing trees cannot be separated from the landscape around them. "You can't recognize some parts of a church," Djab Mara said of the trees that will be saved. "You have to recognize the whole church."
It is hard to overstate how integral the landscape is to the identity of Aboriginal Australians, one of the oldest continuous populations in the world. Their traditional creation stories are read in the terrain, and their "songlines," which trace the paths of ancestral spirits, are tied to the land.
That has made the church analogy particularly apt for supporters. After a fire devastated Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in April, some commentators pointed out that the potential destruction of the Djab Wurrung trees — some of which are just as old as Notre Dame and also hold deep cultural importance — had not prompted a similar outpouring of grief.
An Aboriginal cultural heritage organization — now de-registered — endorsed the highway upgrade in 2013, and another has approved the redesigned route. But the Djab Wurrung people said that those groups did not represent them, and that they were not adequately consulted about the highway project.
It is part of a pattern in Australian history, they say.
During the era of white settlement, racist policies denied Indigenous Australians rights to their own land, and in the Djab Wurrung territory and many other areas, researchers have documented massacres of Aboriginal people by white settlers who took farming land for themselves. For many decades, the federal and state governments also took mixed-race children from their Indigenous parents.
Now, the standoff is raising questions about the extent to which Australia follows through on its promises to Indigenous Australians.
It is common practice to verbally acknowledge the traditional owners of the land before formal Australian events. The Victoria government has begun negotiations for an official treaty with the Indigenous population — the first state to do so in Australia. And the federal government has vowed to hold a national referendum on the question of formally recognizing Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
But Aboriginal people continue to suffer from poverty, ill health, substance abuse and incarceration at rates well above the Australian average.
At the camps along the highway route, the demonstrators speak of the power of the protest, whatever the ultimate outcome, to transcend the long history of shameful treatment of Indigenous Australians and reconnect people to their roots. It has become a kind of homecoming, restoring a missing part of their identity, they say.
Rebecca Jakobi, 30, said that for most of her life, she knew nothing of the 800-year-old river red gum tree beside the highway she drove along near her home in rural Victoria. Only after the protesters began camping beside it last June did she discover its role in the birth of thousands of Djab Wurrung babies over more than 50 generations.
"It feels like our ancestors were just here yesterday," Jakobi said. "Coming back here is part of the healing process."
Jakobi, who is lighter-skinned, said she had always identified as Aboriginal, but had once held it inside her. "I always wanted to get involved, but I just didn't know how," she said.
Djab Mara, who has been one of the protest leaders along with his wife, Amanda Mahomet, since being called by elders 14 months ago, said he had welcomed thousands of people who wanted to learn more about Djab Wurrung culture.
"We have brothers and sisters that come here and stay for long periods of time," he said. It makes them ache, he said, to go back to their traditional lands. His mother, who was taken away from her family during an era of forced assimilation, has been among the visitors.
For now, ceremonial fires are kept burning at the camps, with Aboriginal protesters, their non-Indigenous allies and environmental activists discussing strategy in low voices and vowing not to back down. They have appealed the environment minister's decision in federal court.
In the broader community, however, many people say it is time for the protesters to move on. The local council representing the area where the highway is situated has welcomed the planned upgrade, with some residents saying the delays have been frustrating.
"The majority of the community want this road to go ahead. The path of least damage has been chosen, and we just need to get on with it," said Kevin Erwin, chairman of the Western Highway Action Community.
Pauline Roberts, 75, a longtime resident of Ararat, a nearby town, said the protesters should not get special treatment. "If I went and put my caravan there on the side of the road, I'd be moved on," she said.
But others said they supported the Djab Wurrung people's right to protest. "I think it's great that we have a country where people can state what they want," said Jackie Grimmer, 72.
Written by: Isabella Kwai
Photographs by: AnnaMaria Antoinette D'Addario
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES