Right now I feel alive to trees. Yes, alive. And, yes, to trees. Because I’ve just finished reading The Tree in Changing Light (2001) by Australian novelist Roger McDonald. The book, which was a gift from the writer (I interviewed him for the Canberra Times late last year), is a deeply thoughtful, poetic, even Biblical exploration of the tree.
We’re lucky in Australia to be surrounded by trees. As I write this a countless number of eucalypts live on the other side of the river on the other side of the window. Sometimes, like earlier this week when a cyclone called Yasi (named after a Fijian tree, apparently) smashed its way across tropical Queensland, we can be unlucky in the company of trees, too.
McDonald’s book has me thinking about some of the trees that I’ve known.
The gigantic old Smooth-barked Apple (botanical name Angophora costata, which sounds like something an orchestra might play) in the tiny front yard of my family’s Sydney home. How my mother, wanting to rescue it from the reality of its old age, and needing to save my brothers and me from branches that would fall in summer, got in a tree surgeon, who lopped the dangerous limbs and, following the crown’s drop-line, injected the soil with Poplar Special, which I was told was like giving the tree a massive dose of vitamins. I remember how, some years later, a sugar glider launched itself out of the tree only to land on the handle-bar of the lawnmower I was pushing – how indignant, how downright embarrassed I felt when I tried to pick up the delicate animal and it bit me violently on the end of one of my fingers.
The windbreak of radiata pines (Pinus radiata, which sounds exactly like what a forester would call them) that protected the little green weatherboard Blue Mountains cottage my family rented each year when I was a child and then a teenager. Climbing as high as I could until it felt dangerous, perched up there for hours, looking out over the sparsely populated village, feeling the ocean-like sway as the tree shifted in the national-park wind, holding me up. The smell – the stink? – of pine needles in my nose and mouth, watching as unsuspecting family members went out in the rambling, wild-in-parts garden to do something or other that was meant to be private and unseen. Turning away from them down there, I got lost in the miniature canyons of the bark, hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep and let go. I seem to remember that once or twice I did fall asleep, but I didn’t let go, I mustn’t have.
The exotic trees in the front yard of the first house I bought, a 1960s ‘ex-government’ joint – they died suddenly one summer. Two English oaks, two liquidambars, a cherry tree, a fig: together, in one week, they just extinguished themselves, the way dolphins can do on an isolated sandy beach. How devastated I felt, and devastated is the word: shocked, distressed, distraught. So I got in a tree surgeon, just like my mother got in the same to save her Smooth-barked Apple, and, not being someone who under-does things, I also got in a man who advised the local government about how to care for the city’s urban forest, and I got in the caretaker of the prime minister’s grounds, and tests were done, soil samples sent away to Sydney. As advised, I had the ground injected, not with Poplar Special but chemicals, because the technology had moved on.
Still the trees died, although a beloved magnolia survived, despite having lost its sheltering over-storey. I cared for this tree, kept the water up to it during the extended hot and dry periods, especially when the winds came from further inland, I pruned the greying branches, year after year amazed that it flowered for me, and flowered for the neighbours who praised me for the display as if I’d given birth to the tree myself.
How, only this morning, I’ve noticed that the dinosaur-esque fig tree tucked away in the corner of the back yard of the 1890s house in a country town I now call home has suddenly turned yellow. It has dropped half its leaves, it’s unwell. It won’t, it seems, survive the recent days of heat.
Trees may well be protection, or decoration, or entertainment. Perhaps they can even be symbols of status. But what are they really? A sign of a slower life than our own, or a greater simplicity, or a greater serenity? Or is it the stength? Or the (mostly) silence?
McDonald has the answers, as most novelists do.
In the final chapter of his book, entitled ‘Into the Light’, he notes, in the Biblical – or apocalyptic – past tense:
We wrote philosophies, built faiths, and took every kind of comfort from trees. They gave language to our existence as we put down roots, stretched our limbs, budded in infancy and were felled in old age. They were mute companions to our lives and worshipped beyond ourselves as the better part of balance and aspiration. They offered steadiness and long patience even as we failed in those. They were meeting points and sites of rough justice. They gave the idea and supplied the material for shelter. They offered an image of completion, which was an illusion, but it was enough. Theirs was a whisper in the wind to the human ear both tragic and hopeful. Civilisation grew from exploiting, destroying, venerating and looking back on them. Trees led us to ourselves and we stood against them trunk to trunk, arms upon branches, our thoughts tangled in the stars.
Companions that I wouldn’t ever want to be without.