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tree hug

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 20-Sep-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Comment

Page: 11

Wordcount: 943

In the search for Australian values, consult the nearest tree

Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetic issues for the Herald

THE proposal to enforce Australian values across the continent is a good one. Tell the Taliban we’ve got a job for them. First, though, you need a core values list, a quality control tick sheet, a credo. This is tricky in a country whose constitution is strictly hollow core, neither wood nor tree but rampant verbiage.

Such a list, though, would go something like this: mateship (nepotism); freedom of speech (except in public); mining (anything and everything) and the dedicated felling of trees.

Tick the first three. But the fourth is weird in a continent without a surfeit of timber in the first place. And in view of that old human-to-tree affinity.

It’s deep, the tree thing. We love Robin Hood, for example, partly for fleecing the rich, which is always endearing. But we love him more deeply for his forest affiliations. Without Sherwood, Hood would be just another outlaw. Sherwood-backed and Lincoln-clad, he’s invincible, a true forest denizen who eats and sleeps in the arms of the great oak herself. Nature and culture entwined.

Maybe it’s an ape moment, this tree-hugging reflex; a distant species memory of swinging through branches. Or some dim recognition of our shared brachiate morphology – humans and trees, as erect, branched creatures.

Then again, maybe it’s an outgrowth, so to speak, of the “green man” mythology that stamped those patently pagan, tendril-sprouting heads onto so many Romanesque and medieval churches: the same mythology, arguably, that gave us the Green Knight, Puck, Robin Goodfellow and Peter Pan.

Green is the colour of love, harmony and relaxation. It soothes the troubled psyche. But green is the heart chakra; the colour also of possession, jealousy, biliousness.

The Bellevue Hill developer David Mekler declared: “I’m as green as they come”, when the huge, publicly owned weeping fig in front of an apartment he was primed to sell was poisoned in March.

But it’s not just view gluttony. There are the hundreds of trees due for demolition in our 19th-century parks (Hyde, Centennial and the Botanic Gardens). There’s the old suburban whack-a-tree reflex in deference to sewers, drains, gutters and almost anything “useful”.

Plus there are the health and safety phobics, including an entire Sydney organisation vilifying the plane tree for its exuberant response to spring.

And there’s the city-wide buzz of chainsaws, after storms, to show just how easily beloved river redgums become “widow makers”, and then are peremptorily deleted from park or playground.

The case for the tree affirmative, on the other hand, is at least as compelling. First, there’s the obvious but overlooked stuff about what an urban forest contributes.

Sydney city has about 85,000 trees, with about as many good points. The flip side of the property value coin is that trees, from Sydney to London to Sacramento, enhance property values by about 20 per cent. It’s no accident that Queen Street, Woollahra, is one of the leafiest and most expensive streets in Sydney – thanks to the London plane – and one of the prettiest.

Then there are the environmental benefits. Trees make microclimates. Reducing the city heat island effect through shading and transpiration, they can lower household air-conditioning bills, US studies say, by $120 a month. Further, trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen; sequestering carbon (so reducing global warming) and reducing the air pollutants now implicated in 1400 Sydney deaths a year.

As well, they hold soil and trap rainwater, reducing run-off at a time when every rainstorm sickens you with the knowledge it’s just dirtying the harbour. In Boulder, Colorado – America’s “tree city” 22 years running – a study last year found each tree intercepts about 4800 litres of rainwater annually, saving more than $US520,000 ($690,000) in stormwater-retention costs.

Even without the psychological effects of green, this is psyche-soothing stuff. Hardly surprising, then, that recent Dutch studies show direct links between intimate green space and general good health.

On the safety front, when trees fall or shed in storms, says Melbourne University’s Dr Greg Moore, chairman of Treenet, it’s usually our fault, not theirs.

Most shedders show evidence of trenching (58 per cent), soil compaction (65 per cent), root damage (87 per cent), waterlogging (56 per cent), or a combination. The widow-making, therefore, is a direct response to our arboreal inhumanity; walking or parking on their roots, constricting the root ball, lopping and pruning from behind a veil of ignorance. Thus, to paraphrase Germaine Greer, nature takes revenge.

Which goes to the question of nativity. It’s time, as the journalist Bob Beale and the scientist Mike Archer argue in Going Native, to construct an Australia “that lives as though it truly intends to stay forever, rather than as another bunch of blow-ins pillaging whatever they can find”. Quite right.

Ironic, though, that the age of multiculturalism has produced unabashed xenophobia regarding the rest of creation. From Mosman to Alice Springs, avowedly pluralist authorities happily engage in ethnic cleansing, axing ancient, exotic shade trees for native light dapplers that, however lovely, are most thickly leaved in winter and do next to nothing for the heat, the pollution, the temperature or the melanoma count. You don’t picnic under eucalypts.

Native nazism may suit the bush, even the back paddock. But in urb and burb – where nature and culture entwine – trees that allow winter sun, deep summer shade and the relentless exultation of spring should be top of our tick sheet.

Tell that to the mujahideen.


PHOTO: Saw point … our 19th-century parks are no safe haven for trees. Photo: Peter Morris


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