Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
The root of all evil: it’s a matter of priorities
People tend to love them or hate them, but trees are spiritual icons, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The house I grew up in was ringed by trees – natives and exotics, shrubs, fruiters, blossomers and forest giants, all in together. If our house never attained full Hansel-and-Gretel status it was only because, as fast as my mother could plant them, my father would chainsaw our trees down. I, working from my parents’ respective professional corners (musician mother, chemist father), saw this as a cottage microcosm of the war between the arts and the sciences. I now know, however, it was just the eternal battle-of-the-neighbours, writ domestic.
As Professor James Weirick noted at the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ urban tree management forum last week, the human race divides into two groups: tree-lovers and tree-haters. I don’t believe my father hated trees, exactly. What he hated was the mess. The rotting leaves, the falling branches, the squishy fruit, the mowing-around, the irruptive roots. The entropy. My dad was a lifelong crusader against entropy. Him and Canute.
Even the legendary suburban tree-poisoners probably don’t hate trees, precisely. It’s more about the tree’s failure to be transparent. It’s being lookable at but not, on the whole, through. Its arrogant tendency to knock the zeros off property prices. In short, it is all about priorities. Photojournalist Peter Solness, speaking at last week’s forum, showed a dead tree, poisoned by the neighbourhood bad guy but shrouded in place by Woollahra Council, thus blocking the poisoner’s views on a more or les permanent basis. Fair cop, say I.
Trees generate emotion. Because we tend to see them as acts of God – as nature, if you like, rather than culture – we don’t talk about them much. Even street trees, representing one of nature’s least natural moments, tend to be ignored until they either get in the way, or get the chainsaw. Or both. The tree is one of humanity’s most widespread spiritual icons – from the symbolic “tree” of the Cross to the trees of heaven, of knowledge, of life itself. And yet, when there’s money at stake – be it in the form of woodchips, views or liability – we lop, pollard, deform and destroy them with barely a backward glance. There are few living creatures we treat with quite such habitual disdain.
The landscape architects’ forum set itself to remedy this state of affairs, aiming to produce a charter that will do for the conservation and management of urban trees what the Burra Charter has done for heritage. What, then, is an “urban” tree? In this context it’s not so much a city tree as one that has acquired cultural significance through cultivation, habitation, habituation or narration.
Solness, for example, showed a sample of his collected Tree Stories – including the significant-other trees of Tim Winton, David Malouf, Michael Leunig, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Elizabeth Jolley. Les Murray’s favourite tree, for instance, is a rough-barked angophora at West Head, Pittwater.
But there were other stories, too, such as that of Frederic and Caroline, the lace-collared and grim-faced German couple who immigrated to the Barossa in the 1850s and lived their first two married years inside a huge hollow redgum – before producing 16 children and countless grandchildren. Or the “prison tree” in north-west Australia where Aboriginal people were routinely incarcerated. Or Marty’s hospital tree in Fitzroy Crossing – so called because Marty, in the way of old Aboriginal birth practices, was born under it. Or the last substantial jarrah in Western Australia, once shading a school and a church, but now marooned in a car park. They are stories, says the laconic Solness, “full of tragedy and ineptitude – but, uh, that’s history for you”.
Tragedy and ineptitude still characterise much of humanity’s dealings with this not quite largest of living organisms. Weirick, for instance, retold the Clover Moore versus Botanic Gardens ficus saga, adding a new layer of significance to the old tale.
The argument went through two court hearings over whether or not the 11 trees (including five Moreton Bay figs, a tallowwood and a camphor laurel) were senescent and dangerous. Weirick, an expert witness for the council, argues that the real point was an aesthetic one, namely, whether it was better to reinstate the Macquaries’ original “English” avenue planting along Hospital Road (only in white fig instead of oak) or the later, more random or “picturesque” ground-covering composition which, in Weirick’s view, reframed the Domain as a series of habitable “outdoor rooms”.
Weirick was a habitable rooms man, or modernist (odd, for a Burley Griffin chap – Ed.), leaving the Bottie Gards defending the classicist’s avenue. This, to my mind and regardless of whether Weirick is right (a) to characterise it this way or (b) to support rooms over avenues, makes the fight a lot more interesting, suddenly, than mere life and death. A court case? Over aesthetic principle? In Sydney? Maybe we are on the road to civilisation after all.
Of course the whole thing might have been avoided if anyone had listened to Dr Greg Moore, head of Melbourne University’s Burnley College of the Institute of Land Food Resources. Rather than allowing public liability fears to drive large trees from our streets and schools, argues Moore, we should listen to the tree. His research suggests, with devastating simplicity, that most of the supposed dangers of urban trees – be they elms, palms or eucalypts – are due to bad management practices.
Every one of the 30 “failed” trees examined by Moore after Melbourne’s big recent storms showed five out of six known danger factors: root damage, site trenching, soil compaction, fill around the base, waterlogging, canopy dieback. Why are redgums known as widow-makers? Because they grow on riverbanks, where people go and “compact the hell out of the soil”. The older the tree, the lower its tolerance of management. If you want a strong, safe, healthy tree, give it lots of space above and below ground, then leave it alone. Benevolent neglect is a hugely underrated tool.
My parents, sadly, have ceased their rhythmic planting and felling without ever seeing that this elusive truth of proper tree management probably lay somewhere between them. Then again, perhaps the principles of arboriculture should be included in the kit of every marriage counsellor.
PHOTO: Question of aesthetics … a Moreton Bay fig tree in the Domain gets the chop. Some experts say dangerous trees are a result of bad management.
Photo: by Robert Pearce