A walk through Boorna Waanginy’s sound and light show is a deeply felt celebration of cultures and a warning for the future.

Despite the threat of the heavens opening, the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival launched in style on Friday night with thousands of people braving the elements to take a stroll through Boorna Waanginy (The Trees Speak), a 1.2km free sound and light show exploring the fragile beauty of the WA ecology. Coming in at around the $1 million mark, the installation was a little hampered by having to drape the 117 speakers in waterproof tarpaulins, but otherwise the 30 tonnes of tech gear functioned entirely as intended.

The ambitious event, held in King’s Park, has been created by director Nigel Jamieson in close collaboration with representatives of the local Noongar people and incorporates input from scientists, ecologists, Perth school kids and an array of community groups. “It’s been a thrilling journey working alongside great artists, Noongar elders, scientists and botanists to put this show together about the wonder of the unique and fragile ecosystems of the South West,” says Jamieson.

“In May 1967, Australians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to improve the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, 50 years on Boorna Waaginy will be a landmark expression of Reconciliation to mark that Anniversary,” says PIAF Artistic Director Wendy Martin. The opening night saw 12,000 people venture out, yet thanks to the scale of the project and the intimacy of darkness, it never felt crowded. Instead, left to wander at a pace of the viewers choosing, the five sections of Boorna Waanginy were given ample room to cast their individual spells.

The opening section, Six Seasons, fills the full 750m tunnel of trees that line the park’s iconic Fraser Avenue. The Noongar recognise two more seasons than the European four, and the great eucalypts made a majestic canvas on which to project a riot of colour as Jamieson’s team lead us from the season of fertility to the season of ripeness. The shadows of birds, numbats (the local banded anteater) and even a great serpent flit across the field of vision as people traverse the long line towards the second section.

Knowledge allows the voices of Western scientists and Indigenous elders to mingle in what feels at times like twin Joycean streams of consciousness. Relax and let it be, however, and what at first seems a Tower of Babel becomes a meeting ground where ideas formed thousands of years apart in very different cultures come together in harmony. More spectacle awaits in Creation Stories, where the tale is told of Jindalee and the Spirit Children. This Noongar story describes the creation of the Milky Way, while another explains the formation of the local Banksia woodlands and the gigantic Yilgarn Craton, which underpins most of the WA land mass.

An ominous warning note is sounded in Extinctions, the pathways illuminated by glowing specimen jars, while voices of conservationists and local Indigenous people detail the terrible effects already wreaked in the last hundred years on the delicate ecosystems around Perth and the Swan River. It may feel like a slap in the face, but as wake up calls go, it’s timely and to judge from the turnout, an important message is being spread far and wide.

The final section, Seeds of Change, comes as welcome relief. A huge natural amphitheatre, lined with seed lanterns, focuses on a giant illuminated conch on the surface of which play projections of members of local Perth communities. Noongar elders alternate with Perth school children and members of community organisations to explain what they are committing to in order to preserve the land and its wildlife. In line with Noongar tradition, each has chosen a totem – bird, animal, plant or element – and carefully considered how it connects them to the land. More importantly, as part of the Boorna Waaginy project over a thousand individuals have pledged to take specific action to help preserve and propagate the county’s flora and fauna.

Boorna Waaginy is a thoughful, not a showy affair, but it certainly shows how public arts events can engage with local communities, and though it only runs for three nights, its effects look set to make a real difference in the years ahead. If only every cultural project could be so effectively interventionist.

Boorna Waanginy is a family friendly event and runs from 8pm until 10.30pm at King’s Park until February 12