There’s something on my mind. It’s not the Global Fine-thinking Crisis (oh, have I misunderstand that acronym?) or the hole in the ozone layer or most people having no idea about apostrophes, but – drumroll please – it’s lantana. Yes, I’m worrying about a plant. And this plant is worrying me because earlier this year I spent a month on a coastal stretch of the Shoalhaven River, and despite that hinterland being so spectacular when viewed from a distance, extraordinary even, there’s a problem, one caused by this feisty, feisty weed.
I was down there with a small group of artists: a print-maker, an animator, an oil painter, a composer, and a performance artist. Whilst we all dreamily worked away on our projects, we did cross paths, and after we enquired about each other’s mental health, the conversation always turned to the lantana infestation on the river banks, in the low-lying scrubland, even up on the less accessible ridges, less accessible to us though very accessible to Lantana camara. And in nurseries this thing goes under the hardly evil names of ‘Irene’ and ‘Dallas Red’. And to hear that it has been ‘recognised’ as a Weed of National Significance – well, that just gives the impression that it’s in the same league as Holden utes, Akubra hats and blue singlet tops.
Did this weed detract from the feel of the landscape we were working in? Yes. Did we wish someone would come along and get rid of the nasty, nasty thing so we could have the beautiful landscape back? Yes. Were we trying to justify its existence by saying that for 160 years the Shoalhaven has been in the process of modification so this was just a part of that? Yes. Whose land is this anyway? No idea. Aren’t most of us ‘weeds’, claiming and rearranging? Absolutely. I even tried arguing that there’s a fantastic Australian film called Lantana, and Ray Lawrence, the film-maker, had used this particular plant as a symbol of how our lives tangle and sometimes strangle – couldn’t we be similarly inspired? Apparently not.
I must confess that after a few days I began taking things into my own hands, literally: I wrenched out smaller plants; I madly decapitated larger bushes; and once, after I’d drunk too many cups of tea, I ran outside, found the nearest seedling and gave it a good golden dose – it felt appropriately offensive at the time. Of course, none of this can really make a difference, but it did make me think I was doing my bit, even though for every step I made, ‘Irene’ and ‘Dallas Red’ took us a thousand steps backwards – or is that forwards? – into a weed-infested world.
But you do have to laugh. In the last week I was down on the river a curator dropped by and asked how we were going. When we described our concern (is ‘heartache’ a better word?) for the invasion that was going on around us, she said, ‘You must realise that lantana is just so…so… obnoxious’. Perhaps she meant ‘noxious’, but maybe Lantana camara really is one of the most offensive plants imaginable. Except it’s not imaginable, or imagined – it’s very real, and becoming more and more so. And even the artists are worried. And that’s a worry in itself.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, July 18 2009)