Inside Story

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3536 words

On relations with trees

24 June 2009

Melissa Sweet returns to a life in the Australian bush


Stuck to the crowded face of my refrigerator is a fading black and white photograph. To be more accurate, it is an old photograph that was taken of an even older photograph, as a way of preserving memory. The small figure in the foreground, a young girl in a short smock, looks hardly bigger or more real than a doll. She is dwarfed by the figure towering over her, the bottle tree. Despite its comical trunk tapering into spindly, awkward branches, there is something mightily grand about the tree.

To this day I cannot look at the photograph without suffering a small sharpening in the chest. The power of the image does not lie with its representation of myself, at a time of such unknowing innocence. It rests with the tree and its ability, so many years later, to provoke such a strange confusion of feelings. Bottle trees are among the trees of my childhood, forever mixed in my memories with the joys of growing up in the bush of central Queensland, as well as the inevitable sorrows. They stand as reminders of the mysteries and magic of childhood, as well as the loss of that time of life, the loss of the family home, and other losses too. For me, they are also powerful symbols of both desperation and hope; I remember starving stock feeding on their juicy flesh during the ferocious drought of 1969.

Thoughts of bottle trees and brigalow bush came to me one sunny Sunday morning, as I sat listening to a friend and colleague, Bob Beale, talking about his book, If Trees Could Speak, and getting carried away by his excitement for his subject. Before a well-rugged crowd at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, this man in his fifties was turning back into a boy. It happened as he described how he used to climb a tree in his family’s garden and watch the world go by. He captured the sense of wonder and escape that trees hold for children, and continue to offer many adults. Many of us there, in that room by the harbour, were also transported back, to other trees, other gardens, other childhoods.

I was also taken back to a journey, a shocking, dismal journey that I had made some months before hearing Beale’s talk. I went back to the place of my childhood. They say you shouldn’t. But somehow, after more than twenty years, I had assumed it might be safe. After all this time.

Before I tell you how we found the place, let me tell you how it once was, or at least as I remember it. My fondest memories are from before the schism, from when the property was around 70,000 acres of rolling bushland, flanked by rocky hills to the east. We could drive all day on its rough dirt tracks and still not be home before dark. A Dalgety’s catalogue might have called it “undeveloped” cattle country. I think the description “unspoilt bush” more accurate. Only a tiny portion was cleared.

But “bush” does not do justice to the richness of its vegetation. Thick brigalow and gidgee scrub opened into box gum forests sprinkled with bauhinia trees bearing large white orchid-like flowers and spreading generous shade. There were so many grasses, so many wild flowers. A long, hot day of mustering in the scrub was usually broken with a boil of some muddy water in our quart-pots, squashed sandwiches smelling of soft leather saddlebags, and a regenerative nap in the shade of a friendly tree.

The mail truck came once a week, bringing my yellow envelopes containing lessons from the Correspondence School. I didn’t see many other children my age, and I don’t remember missing them much. My favourite times were when I was being useful, spending long, hot days mustering cattle or working in the dusty cattle yards. I burst with pride the day that I overheard one of the men say that I was as good a worker as any bloke. I can’t have been much older than ten or eleven at the time. These days I may be more aware of the backhand in that compliment, but still I am pleased by my physical strength. My other favourite childhood times were those spent quietly alone, lost in a book, or walking or riding along dusty cattle tracks, with only the trees for company.

But my old friends were gone, all gone, when we went back last year. The bulldozers had done their mechanical work, slaughtering tens of thousands of acres. As we drove around these paddocks of pulled scrub, clinging to the back of the ute, the friendly man who now managed the property pointed out “the improvements.” As we drove past the floppy-eared Brahmans huddled around the few remaining trees, it was hard to understand what we were seeing. A massacre on such a vast scale destroys far more than the trees, we discovered. The land itself is changed beyond all recognition. Shapes and contours are lost, creeks and gullies silt up and lose their way. We looked and looked for the place that we once knew, but could not find it.

As we passed the bulldozers, we were assured that they were only temporarily out of action, as there was still more clearing to be done. If so, we couldn’t see how. Wherever we went in our few days of driving around central Queensland, the bulldozers had been before us. On that first day, I was too numb to do anything other than make dumb jokes. Welcome to Queensland, beautiful one day, home of global warming the next. The next day, the wracking sobs burst free as we drove past the coalmines piling up by the highway. I couldn’t have put into words exactly why I wept so hard. Sometimes it is better just to cry than to try to understand.

I hesitate to mention that my journey back to childhood has turned into a journey among books and trees. I hesitate because it is so tiring when writers dwell on their love of words and books, as if it somehow makes them special or sets them apart from those other poor unfortunates who don’t know the love of reading. Writers talking about their love of words are about as intriguing as accountants determined to impress their love of figuring upon the world. But I can’t help myself; lately it seems that every book I open is speaking of trees, one way or another.

At a local café, I pick up a 1959 special from the table of books for a dollar. It opens at a page mentioning property names that I remember from my early years, Avon Downs and May Downs. Judith Wright’s story of her pioneering grandparents May and Albert, The Generations of Men, is about the brutalities that were both suffered and inflicted by the early settlers in Central Queensland and elsewhere. I devour it greedily in an afternoon, reduced to tears by Wright’s mention of the “small double-curved leaves and butterfly-flowers, so sweetly scented” of the bauhinia trees, and of the “thick scrubs of brigalow, black-stemmed and grey-leaved.” So what if she calls the bottle trees “grotesque”? To see them recognised by another, and to see them put down on paper, this is what matters.

IT SEEMS somehow symbolic that I began exploring the complexities of my relations with trees the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper (not so old-fashioned as in my Correspondence School days when I messed around with a fountain pen and ink). These days I am so unused to writing on paper that I am slow and awkward, and my scrawl is nothing like the carefully modulated loops and swirls from those days when ink marked the paper. Still, I persist with the unwieldy implements; it feels important to be writing on something that I know and understand, and can grasp in my hands. When writing on a computer, I have no idea how the words on the screen are made, or even from what they are made. I can change them in an instant’s blink, obscuring my backtracking, mind shifting and fiddle-arsing. Computer writing is somehow symbolic of our throwaway mentality; when you write without paper there’s no need or even possibility of long-term commitment. Every single character can be discarded in an instant, without leaving any hint that it once existed.

I have adapted easily enough to writing without paper, but struggle to imagine a time when I will read for pleasure without paper. On-screen reading speaks of work and other duties. For pleasure, nothing beats the sensation of paper. I am not looking for or expecting to find any more tree connections as I dawdle happily through Bob Carr’s book, My Reading Life. However, the moment arrives after 216 pages brimming with stories of politics and perfidy. It comes when Carr refers to a version of the story of Gilgamesh, a king who is thought to have ruled in the 26th century BC.

Carr quotes:

They took their axes and penetrated
Deeper into the forest, they went
Chopping down cedars, the wood chips flew,
Gilgamesh chopped down the mighty trees…

The millennia may change, but humans do not. Not really. Here we are, more than 4000 years later, and I have some sense of how it felt for Gilgamesh, and of the thrill, the power and awe of felling a tree. One of my treasured possessions is an orange bush-saw. There is a slightly guilty but absolutely sensuous pleasure in working its teeth through soft wood, and this is fuelled, of course, by the anticipation of that satisfying moment of capitulation. In winter, cutting and collecting wood for the fire that warms our home is one of my week’s favourite chores. We drive the ute around the back of the property, to a steep wooded hillside rich with fallen timber. The sparks fly as my husband pushes his smoking, whirring blade through the old logs while I, the donkey, lumber the chunks up the hill and into the back of the ute. On windy days, I am nervous; the tragic end of Judy, the squashed Little Australian, has left a permanent mark. But mostly I am simply happy. My husband and I enjoy the shared labour, as well as the elemental pleasure to be found in watching good wood burn well, especially when it has come from timber that has fallen on your own property.

And what an absurd concept that is – the notion that humans ever really own the land. Since we moved to our bush block and turned it over to stock of the native kind, we’ve watched the relentless regrowth of trees and other vegetation. We’ve fought a losing battle with the rapidly advancing armies of black wattle and other plants we choose to call weeds. The vigour of the bush is a constant reminder of our own frailty and temporary place in its midst. The trees that tower above us and our puny endeavours were here long before we came, and I expect they will still be standing long after we’ve gone. Already they’ve outlasted numerous previous inhabitants, and they’ve withstood more challenges – fire, drought and pests, to name just a few – than soft-fleshed humans can endure.

When people ask why we’ve moved to the country, after decades of bright city lights, my answer is ready. I must have passed middle age, I joke, because I’m going back to my childhood. It’s only half a joke. So much of the way we live now reminds me of how it once was for the young girl stuck on my fridge in one frozen moment. Simple answers to questions about human behaviour are rarely complete, however. There are always many possible answers to such questions and, even when these appear to be conflicting, all may hold some grains of truth. If you really want to know why we have gone bush, and are not merely seeking some pat conversational response, then I could give many different answers of varying shades and depths of truth.

We moved to the country because we’re part of a generation blessed by technological advantage, which allows us to live remotely and maintain our work connections. We moved because it was time for a change. We moved because one day we took a drive down a rough country road, turned the corner into some stunning views and saw a “for sale” sign. We moved because it is easier to make such major life shifts when so many other downshifters and tree-changers are making similar choices. We moved because I needed more room to garden (and this was no mere wanting). We moved because it is something both my husband and I wanted to do. We moved because we could. We moved because it was a symbolic shift, away from the materialism and so much else that we had come to dislike about Sydney. We moved to the country because it is an easier choice to make when you don’t have children and concerns about schools and such. We moved because the loathsome politics of that time were alienating, and we wanted to go our own way. We moved to the country because it was cheaper than where we then lived. We moved because my husband needed space to build and hammer and create. And we moved to the country because it’s in the blood.

MY LATE GRANDMOTHER, who was one of my dearest friends, once confided that she felt a certain sense of superiority to her friends at the bridge club in Brisbane. It wasn’t because she played such a fierce hand, although she did. She felt there was something special about having grown up in the country. More than ninety years had passed but still childhood held a privileged place in her memories. At the time of my grandmother’s confession, I nodded, thinking that I knew exactly what she meant. But now I wonder. Our country childhoods were generations apart and quite possibly were marked by more differences than similarities. And now I wonder, when she is no longer around to help with these inquiries, whether my grandmother was referring to something in particular or everything in general. Was it the independence and self-reliance that country life fosters? Or the early understanding of the foibles and cruelties of nature? Or the space that country life creates for self and for reading? Or the opportunities for knowing and enjoying your own company? Or the pleasures of knowing earth in a way that is impossible in places where it is smothered by unending concrete and tar?

One of the things that bound my grandmother and me was our love of gardening. This was by no means a pure love, more of a sickness, an obsession that could leave us both, in our different patches of dirt, weary and aching to the bones. After a long day in the garden, she would fling her shrunken, ancient frame down on her bed, and remain there, prone and utterly, utterly exhausted. Why, at an age when so many others are happy to surrender to indolence, did she bother? I often ask myself much the same question, with a mixture of despair and curiosity. I wonder it as I trudge buckets of water up and down hills, watering in some of the hundreds of trees that we’ve planted in our country place. I wonder it as I wake in the morning with a shoulder screaming in protest, yet again, at the hours spent digging holes for yet more plantings. I wonder it again when I look around, and see only the immensity of the labours that wait for me, rather than the beauty of those already complete.

Often I am reminded of a psychiatrist, whose life story I once wrote about, and who is known for his wise and eloquent writing. One day we were talking about the compulsion to write, and he compared it to going to the toilet. By that I presume he meant that it is sometimes uncomfortable and unpleasant but nevertheless is something that just must be done and that can also be satisfying. And that is how I’ve come to understand my gardening obsession. It also has something to do with sanity; I’m sure I would go insane if I couldn’t keep grubbing my hands in the dirt. Sometimes I think I garden because I am only truly happy when labouring hard enough to feel the chill of a sweat. The lesson of a country childhood, that hard labour is a virtue, is difficult to unlearn. Sometimes, though, I can see beyond the sweat and travails. At its best, gardening is a physical form of meditation that sets the mind free. You can lose yourself while digging and plucking and watering. And those are sweet moments indeed. At other times, I think the reason I labour is because of the reward. I look across the hill where we once dug into the resisting, dry earth and planted dozens of babies, so small they nestled easily in a hand. Six years later, they are already strutting young adults, Tasmanian blue gums and peppermint gums, soaring high above us. It will be many years yet before they attain the majesty of the ironbarks that dominate the landscape, and that can’t be mentioned without invoking, in my mind at least, an image of Banjo’s foolish barber.

Among the young trees are three slender snow gums, planted two years ago with the ashes of my husband’s father. We enjoy the fact that in death he is helping them grow. Indeed, these small trees often make us smile. Jim was a stoic man who never asked for much, and made the most of whatever he had. This is not to imply that he was miserable; he always gave the impression of being quite content and accepting of his lot, even when he knew the end was near. The humour of a snow gum memorial is that Jim was not at all fond of the cold. In his latter years, after spending decades raising his three children as a solo parent and fixing country peoples’ cars, he became a nudist who spent long days sunning himself on beaches. Now his trees often overlook large mobs of kangaroos that feed in the paddock below. In winter, the roos sprawl indolently on the flat, soaking up the rays. From our spot atop the hill, they look as flat and lifeless as grey planks curing in the sun. In summer, they retreat to the cool shade of the nearby bush.

At that time of year, my attitudes towards trees also change. The magnificent creatures that warm and nourish us in winter become potential enemies in summer. On the hot days when the dry winds tear roughly through the bush, my nostrils are finely tuned, on high alert for the faintest scent of smoke. My elderly neighbour, who grew up on the property where we now live, often talks of the wild fire that roared through the area in the 1960s. It destroyed the apple orchard that had been the labour of a lifetime for her parents, and it destroyed much else too. We’re trying to bring the apples back. We’ve planted dozens of old-fashioned varieties whose names speak of poetry and stories written long ago. There is Maiden’s Blush, which is said to be an even better cooker than Bramley’s Seedling, with fruit “usually flushed, crisp, tender, acid.” The Ribston Pippin, a dessert apple, can trace its lineage back to England in the early 1700s, while the Beauty of Bath is described in the heritage apple catalogue as “handsome in flower.” One day we will have buckets of apples but really we are growing them for the reciting rather the eating – our plantings also include Cornish Gilliflower, London Pippin, Tydeman’s Early Worcester, Boswell, Belle de Boskoop, Scarlet Nonpareil, and Peasgood’s Nonsuch. Our orchard is full of such characters.

Sometimes, I wonder how long they will last. Already, they have survived the great wallaby massacre and their first drought. And still they persist in doing what they do – growing, flowering and fruiting, and then resting through the cold winters. I do not expect to survive long enough myself to witness their prime. When I catch myself saying that I can’t wait to see all our trees grown up, it is a bittersweet moment. I have to remind myself to try to enjoy them as they are now, right now. •

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