THE REAL DIRT

IF TREES COULD SPEAK

May 15th, 2008 · No Comments · News

By Bob Beale

Australia’s story is written in trees. You can read its ancient origins in the cool mystical Antarctic beech forests of the south and in the vibrant green rainforests of the north. The tale of its long slow drift into drought and fire is imprinted in the black furrowed bark of the brigalow, the stunted mallee, the miserly mulga and the leathery hang-dog leaves of the gums.

Trees are deeply ingrained in our human history as well, the stuff of everything from cricket stumps and goalposts to shearing sheds and surfboats. More than any other product of nature, trees gave us the raw material to build, shape and express what we are as a nation. They remain central to our daily lives, our character and hopes: they are literally at the root of our national identity.

Foreign trees supplied the wooden hulls, decks, spars and masts of the sailing ships that brought Dutch, Portuguese and British explorers and, eventually, the colonists and convicts of the First Fleet. When the Union Jack was hoisted for the first time at the head of Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, it was a casuarina that held it aloft. A week later, the arched canopy of a great spreading tree – perhaps a Port Jackson fig – became the make-do church where troops and convicts joined Reverend Richard Johnson to celebrate the first Christian thanksgiving on Australian soil. Soon the Fatal Tree was pressed into service on the colony’s dark side: when Australia’s first criminal court convicted four convicts of theft, they were hanged from one of its stout limbs.

In the space of just one month, trees were central players in the foundation of the state, the church and the law. Sadly, all three – and many others with starring roles in the birth of the nation – were later felled and lost to history.

Native hardwoods provided the shingles and boards for the settlers’ roofs, walls and floors, and the fuel for warmth and cooking. They made the stockades for convict road gangs, the timbers of the paddock fences, the mustering yards and the farmhouses from which the colony rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back. Legions of red cedar, blue gum and swamp mahogany fell to the axe to make everything from exquisite furniture to the hulking great wool stores and wharves that were the gateways for prosperous trade.

Trees provided the wagons, wheels, tool handles and pit-props that helped the gold rush jolt the fledgling economy into life. They were the bonfire in which the Ballarat gold-diggers burnt their licences; the bloodied planks of the Eureka stockade; the sturdy poles for the Overland Telegraph; the vertebral sleepers of our great railway lines; the source of tannins that preserved leather boots and saddles; the medicinal oils that cleansed wounds and cleared blocked noses; the paper for newsprint and the books that recorded our stories and promulgated our laws; the timbers of the grim gallows that hanged Ned Kelly; and the countless rough-hewn posts for the Dingo Fence . . . the list is as long as that fence.

Trees are embedded in the symbols of our national identity: our green and gold national sporting colours represent the leaves and cheerful pompom blossoms of the wattle tree, which also underpins our coat of arms with a branch in bloom fanned out like a lyrebird’s tail beneath the crest.

In our most famous song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, the coolibah shelters the sheep-stealing swaggie – one shady character as silent witness to another. Eucalypts inspired May Gibbs’s fanciful children’s stories of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Bib and Bub and the Gumnut Babies. They are there in our vernacular, in colourful phrases such as ‘hard as ironbark’, ‘up a gum tree’ and ‘beyond the black stump’, or describing places like mallee country, out in the mulga, a paperbark swamp or a brigalow scrub.

Their names are as distinctly Australian as the trees themselves – kurrajong, wilga, gidgee, illyarrie and karri – or colourfully evoke something of their character –axe-breaker, zigzag wattle, blue-leaved stringy-bark, woolly butt, sand-dune bloodwood, scribbly gum and Kimberley yellowjacket.

Hans Heysen, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and many other artists have used native trees as identifiers and sentinels in their landscapes. The 1988 edition of Manning Clark’s A Short History of Australia has endpapers featuring a crowded gum-tree forest, a ‘detail of Sydney Nolan’s painting Riverbend, a celebration of the golden tree of life’. A number of trees painted from life in colonial times still stand, long after the artists themselves have returned to the soil. The same is true of many trees that feature in fiction, music and public life.

The Shepparton house and shed where Joseph Furphy wrote the Aussie classic Such is Life are long gone, but the tousle-headed wilga tree, the ‘lovely Australian willow’ he planted, still thrives there. It’s a signpost by which to find your way into his lost world of bullockies, kerosene lamps and billy tea stirred with a eucalyptus twig.

Our strange and wonderful native trees give the whole Australian landscape its unique appearance and feel: the lofty gums of the towering southern forests with their raw-boned elbows, gangling limbs and festoons of bark; the eerie ghost gums of the arid centre, perfect in their powdery whiteness; the contorted snow gums of the high mountain country; the stern, claw-footed red gums standing guard on inland riverbanks; the beer-bellied boabs and bottle trees of the north; the massed ranks of soaring karri and jarrah in the south-west; and the solid-liquid buttresses of the rainforest figs, with their fluted butts and waxy roots slithering across the rocks.

A few precious old trees, some right in the heart of our cities today, bear witness to not-so-long-departed Aboriginal people and their relationships with trees. One may reveal where a soft cradle for a baby was carefully sliced from a fat paperbark, or a huge scar on a river red gum shows where the bark for a canoe was hacked with stone axes, or another tree still has footholds cut by an agile climber searching for a native ‘sugarbag’ beehive to rob of its sweet honey.

Early European explorers on the continent’s west coast and in Tasmania did not find gold, silver or spices but they did find trees that delighted them. Willem de Vlamingh came in 1696 in search of a Dutch trading ship lost two years earlier. He didn’t find it, but he did land on Dirk Hartog Island and find the pewter plate left there, nailed to a post by Hartog in 1616. When a landing party went ashore on Rottnest Island on 31 December 1696, de Vlamingh noted in his log: ‘After breakfast I went ashore with our bookkeeper and sent our longboat ashore with a party of hands to cut firewood which was to be had there in abundance and very fine of fragrance just like rosewood, of which I have had some in our own boat full taken on board . . .’ The explorers were using native sandalwood, which now fetches many thousands of dollars a tonne for its beautiful scented oil, to burn as fuel.

The dwindling band of ancient native trees still living within sight of our major cities is emblematic of our near-total destruction of the natural landscape. Australia’s oldest surviving exotic tree, a wizened olive planted in 1805 by John Macarthur (and still bearing fruit), serves as a living reminder of the transplanted European culture that swept aside Aboriginal culture along with native plants and animals alike.

An early dawning of awareness of the virtues of native flora and fauna, and adaptation to local realities, is there in Governor Macquarie’s choice for Australia’s first street trees in 1815: a short but sweet avenue of swamp mahoganies in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens that probably were the first formal planting of a native species. Some of those same trees survive to this day.

We use trees to remember our history. Burke and Wills’s Dig Tree and others like it with their coded symbols embody an age of discovery, courage, foolhardiness, victory and failure in the nineteenth century. The Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine in Queensland – recently poisoned to death by mindless vandals – marked the political birth of blue-collar workers.

Many a tree planted ceremonially by a visiting official or dignitary commemorates an important date or event. Memorial avenues dotted around Victoria and Western Australia are an expression of grief. More than any other, perhaps, the Lone Pine merits a special place of honour. Although not a native, its direct ties to the horrors of war and Gallipoli are palpable reminders of those who suffered for the common good. It tells us, too, that life goes on.

Other trees embody our extraordinary natural heritage. Many are living history books of a time before European settlement. Huon pines in Tasmania predate the birth of Christ, and some mallees may be four or five times older again, perhaps even survivors of the last ice age. The rare red cabbage palms of Palm Valley reveal an even more distant age when Central Australia was not desert but rainforest. Albert Namatjira’s paintbrush captured the ancient spirit, the graceful stems and flickering light-play of these beautiful palms, as well as the haunting ghost gums and hardy bloodwoods of the red centre. His evocative images – almost always featuring a tree – gave Australians fresh eyes to see the rich, vibrant beauty of their arid heartland and to bridge two cultures.

The discovery of the Wollemi Pine, the botanical equivalent of finding a living dinosaur, not only astonished us but gave us a powerful sense of connection to a prehistory stretching back even more in time, tens of millions of years. It also gave us a sense of hope for the future. More exceptional still, though more modest in size, is Tasmania’s amazing King’s Holly, which may have sprouted its first green shoots before modern human beings evolved. This freakish, heroic little tree has somehow kept itself alive for millennia, far longer than any other individual plant or animal on the planet.

The quintessential natives are gum trees. They have a sturdiness and resilience that seem to encapsulate what it means to live in Australia – that quiet-achiever thing. Despite timeworn soils, searing heat, lack of water and legions of insect attackers, they manage to survive and stay green year-round. Their almost casual propensity to burst en masse into flame has made them fire-breathing tyrants that require all other living things to adapt to them. Yet they are paradoxically also a force for life and renewal, with an almost miraculous ability to be torched then spring back to life with a flourish of delicate new growth. Who cannot walk through bushland after a big fire and not marvel at the blackened trunks newly swathed in fine green pantaloons of leaf?

We may take them for granted because they are so widespread and so many, but eucalypts are the backbone of the continent’s life-support system. Their nectar and sugary sap are fountains of life for countless birds, bees, bats, bugs and beetles. They are the hotels of the bush as well: teeming throngs of creatures large and small feed and hide on, under or even inside their bark, branches and leaves; their cool dark hollows make safe havens for possums, parrots and more.

For all their familiarity in the Australian landscape these are truly exceptional trees, whose ranks include some of the world’s tallest and oldest. Eucalypts trace their lineage back millions of years, emerging from the wet forests of ancient Australia as the dinosaurs were dying out. In the 60 million years since Australia broke free from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, many marvellous oddities have evolved in splendid seclusion. Now, the vast continent home to some 40 billion of them, coming in all shapes and sizes and in hundreds of different species. Without them, life could not have evolved in the unique way it has; three-quarters of our native trees occur naturally only here.

As we ponder how to adapt our land-use and lifestyles to climate change, we can look to their finely honed survival skills for lessons. No other type of tree has proved so adaptable, with hundreds of species evolving to conquer many different and difficult habitats across the continent. There’s barely an environmental niche anywhere in Australia that doesn’t boast a member of this great extended family. Over the ages, they have done battle with rainforests, giant marsupials the size of cars, ice ages, shifting sea levels and changing climates.

Collectively, they carry in their genes the lessons learned from all those contests. Individually, their resilience and capacity to survive for centuries make each one a living record of events during its lifetime: its scars, scorch marks, amputated limbs, hollows and burls tell of storm, fire, flood, drought, disease and adversity. Many, many veterans began their lives long before European explorers sailed into view of the great southern land and sniffed the scent of eucalyptus on the breeze.

We would do well to take a humbler view of our own place in Australia’s natural scheme of things and to view our native trees more generously. Our relationship with them has always been an uneasy one, more pragmatic than aesthetic. Trees suffer from being useful; we take for granted the many services they provide. Imagine your neighbourhood without trees and all they supply: the shade, cooling, oxygen, windbreaks, privacy, colour, bird-roosts, fruits, flowers and a visual feast of movement in the breeze. How about the power poles to carry your electricity and hold the street lights that chase away the dark? Or the palings and picket fences that define and defend your property boundaries? Or the beams, rafters, joists and bearers that make up the sturdy backbones of your home? Or perhaps the handsome dining table that is the centrepiece of your family and social life?

Muscular axemen in their white singlets, almost surgically dismembering a log in the frantic woodchop events at agricultural shows, remind us how much of our national wealth and strength was built on the life-and-limb sacrifice of trees. Think ringbark, chainsaw, woodchip and dieback: perhaps 20 billion have fallen.

More than ever, we now have great expectations that they can be harnessed anew to our purposes, for pulp mills, land repair, biofuels and as carbon sinks.

The many thousands of Landcare groups, bush regenerators, farmers and graziers now busy replanting native trees by the million across the landscape – to battle oozing salt scalds, to stabilise erosion-scarred hillsides and riverbanks, and to save endangered birds and other animals – remind us how much damage was done in ignorance and greed to ‘open up’ the land.

We should be more conscious that chainsaws, bulldozers and herbicides have given us a greater life-and-death power over our trees than at any previous time in history. They can do without us; we cannot live without them.

Edited extract from If Trees Could Speak – stories of Australia’s greatest trees, by Bob Beale, Allen and Unwin:

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