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Those teddies in trees, what’s that all about?

Is there a dark side to “teddies in trees”?

“Heading east from Queanbeyan on the Kings Highway there’s both remnants and new additions to the curious practice of teddies attached to trees, a feature for potentially as long as four decades,” writes Yesterdays columnist NICHOLE OVERALL.

It’s a warning often provided to tourists arriving in Australia and planning tours of the bush: “beware the drop bear”.

Nichole Overall.

The elusive creature – a ferocious, koala-like hybrid – is said to hurl itself on to unsuspecting prey beneath trees in which the marsupial shelters itself.

Embedded in our cultural folklore, even the illustrious “Australian Geographic” online magazine has written of the potential dangers.

“Drop bears are less likely to attack people with Australian accents, according to experts at the University of Tasmania,” it reported just a few years back.

Might this unusual beast be the inspiration behind yet another unsolved Antipodean mystery: battered, discoloured, stuffed bears adorning gnarled trees on regional roads in various parts of the country?

Or is there an even darker side to “teddies in trees”?

The Canberra region may boast one of the nation’s earliest and most-recognised examples of this mystifying phenomenon. 

Heading east from Queanbeyan on the Kings Highway there’s both remnants and new additions to the curious practice of teddies attached to trees, a feature for potentially as long as four decades.

After so long, the origins, continuing motivations and even those involved are shrouded in intrigue. Inevitably, with source material scarce, the accompanying whispered tales and urban myths have grown ever more elaborate.

Marital deception, macabre cult rituals, haunted houses, even a nudist camp, all feature.

A single bear attached to a tree along the notorious stretch to mark a tragic road accident is, though, the most recurrent theme.

While a logical explanation – not dissimilar to when flowers and crosses are left beside roadways to mark such things – why it’s been so long-lasting adds another layer to the enigmatic presence.

The who and how also varies considerably, from a young child to a car load of students.

The closest probable explanation I’ve unearthed is a 1987 accident in which a 17-year-old motorbike rider was tragically killed in the vicinity of where the first bear appeared.

More were added and, as the tales go, council stepped in to remove them. That only resulted in many, many more popping up in protest.

Over time, numbers have waxed and waned but the collection has never entirely disappeared.

Some suggest this manifestation could be connected to “Pooh Bear’s Corner”, the tiny, moisture-replete cave tucked into the side of Clyde Mountain filled with not just Winnie but stuffed animals of all persuasions. However, its back story isn’t a secret.

A local mum kicked it off in the 1970s to keep the kids amused on the trip to the coast. And many a parent has subsequently admitted to stopping with excitable little ones in tow to add to the stash (this one included).

More recently there’s been the appearance of rocking horses and unicorns (and one dinosaur thus far) further along the same mountain road, perhaps a left-over from covid lockdowns. 

Other tree-laden examples to be found along various Aussie byways and highways range from bras to bikes, thongs to undies.

The inspiration behind many of the modern instances are often known: whether it’s a remembrance for someone who died of cancer or the blue trees throughout regional landscapes, painted to bring awareness to mental health and suicide.

Such unusual monuments can also become quite the tourist attraction, in the manner of other things quirkily Aussie as evidenced by the Big Cockatoo and the Big Prawn.

Similar specimens though – some also unexplained and a source of bewilderment to residents and visitors alike – are dotted around the world.

A common sight beneath ski lifts in North American resorts are “undergarment trees” bearing gaudy items cast off by emboldened skiers.

Shoefiti is another – shoes tangled around electricity wires – with unsubstantiated associations from foretelling events such as marriages to covert signals for underworld operations.

Perhaps it all stretches back to pagan rituals such as Ireland’s May Tree – a centrally-placed tree decorated with ribbons, colourful cloth and shiny items to welcome the northern summer.

Or maybe it’s just the Smiths keeping up with the Joneses!

Alternatively, some like our own example, may be an expression of memory that becomes a collective, community memorialisation. And even in the absence of adherents knowing what it is they’re marking, they instead bring their own sense of meaning to it.

A communal thing that’s still individual – as individual as the teddies that adorn the trees.

Then again, maybe the fairies are to blame for a cultural phenomenon that grows ever more mysterious as years roll on.

Nichole Overall is a social historian and journalist. She can be heard co-hosting the CityNews Sunday Roast program, 9am-noon, on 2CC.

 

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Nichole Overall

Nichole Overall

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