As a boy growing up in Dundas, privet made great bows and arrows. We and a few neighbours had deep rambling backyards sloping down to a creek, so there were several acres in which to roam. Native trees like lilly pilly and lemon-scented gum had to fight to survive in the paddock, which was severely over-run with lantana. And while my father fought a thankless weed war most weekends, he also taught us how to select privet to make our weapons of choice. From the handsomely thick and quick-growing stands along our boundary fence where it edged out an established pittosporum hedge (excellent for climbing), we chose only the straightest slender privet shoots for arrows, and sturdy 1” thick boughs from which to carve our bows, with bowie knives.
We’d notch the arrows and spend hours honing their points (sometimes this would result in rather short arrows!). Occasionally we’d harden them over a flame (matches, however, were not east to come by). At the other end we’d split the privet carefully and attach a slim ‘flight’ of feather… magpie, butcher bird or crow. The bows were carved to remove the top layers of bark and to reveal a rather attractive cream-coloured privet-flesh finish. A string was tied and stretched and the bow was ready. Dad taught us to release the tension on the bows when we weren’t using them, so that the privet would retain its spring.
Many semi-accurate afternoons ensued, chasing gangs usually invented and imagined.
Consequently I’ve always been quite fond of privet, despite its reputation.
A couple of years ago my 12-year-old son Luca and I were helping a friend up at Dungog pull out massive Lantana bushes with a chain and tractor. Remembering my privet skills after some 40 years – later that afternoon we carved a rather smart bow from a thick piece of lantana – a species of such dastardliness that I had not dreamt of experimenting with it until then.
And so the ancient tradition is passed down.