One of the most commonly asked questions about non-plant things in the Geelong Botanic Gardens is: “What’s the significance/story of the bronze cranes?”
There are 2 stories here:
- The history of the bronze cranes and how they came to be in the Geelong Botanic Gardens
- The meaning of cranes which stand on the back of turtle-dragons
Starting with the second one first:
For a long time all I could find out about the cranes is that they were symbolic of “long life and happiness”. Then, by chance I was watching Antiques Roadshow when one of the items brought in was an okimono, a Japanese craved ornament, which depicted a turtle dragging it’s long beard behind it. The experts call it a “minogamé” and said that it was a bringer of old age and a symbol of longevity.
Finally, with a word for the curious dragon-like turtle, I was on the track for a bit more information (not quite trusting Antiques Roadshow for all my cultural knowledge).
According to that trusted source, Wikipedia ,a minogamé is a turtle so old that it grows a train of seaweed on its back and is a symbol of longevity and felicity. Turtles more generally in Japanese culture are a haven for immortals and the world mountain (whatever that might be), and symbolise longevity, good luck and support. Unsurprisingly, with this good rap, the tortoise is a favourite motif for both netsuke and okimono.
More information on minogamé (but without the accent on the final e) came from a blog post on “Minogame in Japanese Culture “. In this retelling, the word minogame means “straw raincoat turtle” as the tail of the turtle resembles a farmers straw raincoat. The minogame is a giant turtle and at least a thousand years old – the tail, despite the name, is made of seaweed.
So, is the tail beard, seaweed or straw raincoat?
Looking at our own Geelong Botanic Gardens minogamé, we have a very short beard and a rather feathery tail. And no turtle I’ve ever seen looked quite so fierce. However, the websites I visited have no information on turtle teeth.
But what of the cranes standing on the turtles back?
Manchurian or red-crowned cranes are also well represented in Japanese folk-lore and art. They are known as tanchōzuru and thy live for a thousand years, and mate for life. So (what a surprise) more long life and happiness then.
But how did Japanese bronze cranes find their way to the Geelong Botanic Gardens and where did they come from?
The first part of the story comes from George Jones (Growing Together, 1984) quoting from an interview with ex-Alderman F.G.H. Richie in 1931.
The cranes originally graced the driveway of W. R Wilson’s St Albans’ Park homestead at a cost of £400. Mr Wilson was a race horse breeder and trainer with a taste for the oriental. Each of the larger 2 cranes had an electric light bulb in its mouth which were said to be able to illuminate the whole driveway.
The cranes remained at St Albans’ Park when the establishment became the property of a Mr A. W. Jones (no relation to George), but when he sold the stud, he kept the cranes and transferred them to his town residence in Garden Street, Geelong.
This would have been sometime between the First and Second World Wars. At the time, Geelong Council’s improvement projects included the Eastern Beach Improvement Scheme which eventually generated the swimming enclosure, fountains and play ground which we enjoy today.
It seems that Alderman Ritchie had his eye on the birds, as he soon approached Mr Jones for a donation of the birds to add to the Improvements. Unsurprisingly, as Jones had taken the trouble to bring the cranes with him, Ritchie was refused. However, he was later persuaded to accept a nominal price of £25 for them, and they were installed in the fountain on the steps leading down to the beach.
Unfortunately, the statues were vulnerable to damage by vandals, and their position in the middle of a fountain made them hard to repair, so at some stage (certainly before the 1980s) they were copied in some more durable materials and the originals moved to the ponds in the Botanic Gardens.
The ponds themselves were removed in the early 21st Century when the Gardens had quite a facelift. Around 2005, the cranes became the focus, along with the magnificent Ginkgo, of the remodeled Temperate Garden.
By this time, the number of cranes had increased to 5 with an additional small crane. Bronze cranes do not to my knowledge reproduce, even if the birds they are modeled on do mate for life. It seems that some ten or more years earlier, one of the small cranes had been stolen and a replacement had been made to cover the loss. Shortly before the Temperate Garden was opened, it “reappeared”, some say having been found dumped in a rear lane way in Geelong. (The details seem to be sketchy). The 5th crane was then incorporated into the remodeled garden.
So really, it seems totally appropriate that the Temperate Garden, with the spreading Ginkgo and tanchōzuru standing on minogame are now a favourite sport for gardens weddings.
May you all experience long life and happiness.