I pondered the cartoon for a few minutes, half-regretting voting for the Greens at the last election. The ad seemed to be saying that sewage was far more important then nature and that if it came down to choosing between the two, our sympathies should clearly reside with the former. But was this plumbing advertisement an accurate depiction of reality? Were trees really as malicious as it made out? Had I been naive in viewing them for so many years purely as non-sentient objects; beautiful green receptacles of chlorophyll and breezes, residing somewhere outside the moral sphere of right and wrong? And if so, and this advertisement spoke the truth, shouldn’t we be cutting down more of them rather than trying to preserve them (and possibly chaining ourselves to imperilled drainpipes as well)?
I’m just being stupid and facetious of course – entertaining myself with these thoughts – because it is ridiculous to think of a tree as being good or evil, coarse or refined, vindictive or benevolent, demure or lascivious. Yet trees – plants– all the nature that surrounds us – are more than just inanimate objects, have a life and soul of their own, beyond our construction of them. It seems wrong for us to view them as subjects, things to be controlled. I don’t quite know what I mean by all this; there’s just vague feelings, a sense that we should revere nature rather than demonise it, a random string of memories forming…
It’s Spring. I’m going back home, back to the house I grew up in, passing gardens massed with colour, banks of pink and white azaleas. Boughs of ivory jasmine laze over fence-tops. Wisteria tumbles from verandah railings, its heady fragrance sugaring the air. The sun is out. A broad blue sky stretches over me as I walk.
And then I turn the corner and my buoyant mood rapidly deflates. My mother has often expressed the belief that only a person without a soul would be able to cut down a tree. If this is the case, our local council is surely staffed by legions of the infernal damned – and no doubt headed by Faust himself – for every tree on the block has been cut down.
What used to be a pleasant, leafy boulevarde has been transformed into a landscape reminiscent of the blasted battle-fields of WWI. The trees weren’t ‘appropriate’ for the local environment, I learn later. ‘Have you seen what they’ve done to that stretch of R. Street?’ residents say to each other when they first sight the ‘improvements’, speaking in shocked, subdued tones as if referring to a woman disfigured by the Taliban for wearing nail polish.
One can only suppose that the urban planner responsible for this revised streetscape was given a brief containing the words ‘bleak’, ‘barren’ and ‘apocalyptic’. Or perhaps they simply mistook the film The Road for some type of documentary on effective street design, rather than a dystopian vision of the future (that would at least explain all of the abandoned oil tankers and bands of cannibals roaming around…)
Why? Not just because for as long as I can remember they have demonstrated a lamentable blindness to beauty and aesthetics, but because in much the same way that the mafia is apparently in league with the major drug cartels, the council is in league with bush regenerators.
Bush regeneration has become quite fashionable in Australia lately. For those not familiar with the term, it’s basically an ecological practice relating to the propagation and restoration of indigenous plants. Most often, bush regeneration activity consists of pulling up weeds and planting more native species. I like to refer to it as bush-Nazism – a type of thinking completely incompatible with Australian ideals of multiculturalism and inclusiveness. And I’m sure this type of parochial, bush regeneration mentality had something to do with the trees in R. Street being cut down.
Another example: one of the great joys of my teenage years was wondering down to the vacant lot near my house and coming back with armfuls of freesias. Literally armfuls – I’m not using the term hyperbolically, but am instead referring to piles of flowers so plentiful that like Hansel and Gretel, you could leave a steady trail behind you as you walked back home without noticing any diminishment at the end. They were beautiful things too: filmy ivory trumpets which sparkled with gold dust in the sunlight. I had always preferred the wild ones, with tattered edges like an orphan’s cloak, to the more refined, cultivated variety, and they were here en masse. Strewn through the long grass, they transformed an ordinary roadside into a glade dotted with dancing sprites. You would wade through the knee-high grass, arms laden with rose-tinged, violet-hued, flannel-yellow flowers. There was something joyful, impossible, absurd about the largesse of it – the abundance – like Forster’s field of violets. It was an almost bridal-luxury. And they were just there for the taking.
Of course, they pulled the freesias up – they weren’t native. Never mind that they were beautiful and did no-one any harm.
More evidence: in the middle of my parents’ street was a nature strip planted with trees, bushes and ferns. It gave some measure of privacy, so that when you looked out your front window, you gazed into a sea of greenery rather than into the lounge-room of the house across the road. Directly outside my parents’ house is a jacaranda tree which becomes a glorious cloud of violet in summer. When I was younger, each December we would collect the twisted goblin-faced pods which fell to the ground, sticking cotton wool and goggle-eyes on them and transforming them into leering Santa Clauses. There used to be broom as well, a shrub with glossy green spines and flowers like bright yellow butterflies. It was always one of my favourite plants, and when I was younger, I used to pick the honey-scented blossoms and arrange them in a coal-black vase, the sable and gold forming a striking contrast. Anyway, you can probably guess where this is going…
The council recently decided to ‘regenerate’ the nature strip. Nearly all of the plants were pulled up or poisoned. My lovely old broom went, along with most of the other plants. They were replaced by some limp native grasses which flop on the ground like a comb-over on a balding man. Now you look straight at the house opposite, the stark red bricks and blank windows staring back like an accusing face.
My mother had no idea beforehand that the council was going to do this. She had happened to look outside one morning and saw a man in khaki unearthing shrubs in great enthusiastic handfuls. I can just imagine her tearing outside to confront him, hands planted on her hips, fierce: ‘You are NOT cutting down that jacaranda are you?’ she would have demanded rather than asked.
‘Umm, no,’ he’d have floundered, thrown by her queenly indignation.
‘You are NOT cutting it down,’ she would have said again, even more firmly, and he would have acceded to her greater will.
So the jacaranda tree survived the massacre at least, but as Mum often says with a shiver, one can only imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t been home that day.
They’ve planted new trees on R. street now, spindly pathetic things that are apparently far more appropriate for the local environment. I’m sure that one day they’ll be big and flourishing, though I regret all the years that will pass before that happens. I regret too the fields of freesias gone.
I went to visit my parents again, a few weeks after the council’s regeneration attempt. My mother had just come back from a walk and was cradling a little seedling she had found by the road and had brought back home. ‘Can you give me a minute?’ she said. ‘I just want to replant this in the nature strip. I’m not sure what it is, but I thought it was pretty.’
Each time I come back home, she shows me how the plant is getting on. It’s growing, and there are others beside it that are growing too.