Last week, not long after sunrise on the Queen’s birthday holiday, (locally known as hangover Monday), I heard chainsaws roaring close to our house. I came out in time to hear and see and feel the fall of a fifty-metre tall eucalyptus tree, as it tumbled from my neighbours’ yard into the car park next door. “Why did you do that?” I asked one of the men. “It had an inclusion at the top, could have split in two,” one of them, trying to be nice, replied. “What, since the last big storm?” I asked. “Nah, it’s been there for years,” he said.
“What will you do with the wood? Take it to the dump I suppose,” I said. One of the men asserted that all the wood would be used for fires for tourist’s dinners. I thought that you could build a ship’s mast from a trunk like that. “I loved that tree,” I said to all and none of them as I walked back to the house.
Indeed, I’d greeted the tree several times a day on my walks to and from work, especially in the summer when its shade was so precious. Claudia and I live not far from the town oval. The oval — a football and softball field and cricket pitch — is a special part of any town. In sports-mad Australia, such a space is sacred, more treasured than any building. It’s not uncommon for a football field to be made on a former ceremonial ground. Aboriginal people over East, where I come from, met (sometimes still meet) at a sacred place called a bora ring or bora ground — a flat, circular area often encircled by trees or special stones. While it may not be a bora ring, the football oval in our town is thickly green-grassed, an unusual (and luxurious) assertion of its importance in the Central Australian desert.
It’s pretty special to watch the local players, trained on stony dirt, pound barefoot across the springy grass when they play here. This oval is also exceptional for being ringed by the oldest and tallest trees in town. Their shade is as sweet as spring water on a summer day.
We’ve only lived around here less than half a dozen years, but Claudia and I have become fond of the trees of our town. So we were both angry yesterday morning when woken early by the sneer of chainsaws. Through the bedroom curtains, we saw a man hanging from a tree, sawing the very branch he stood on. It was one of the trees bordering the oval.
It was the second day of this noise and destruction near our house.
The previous evening at sunset, we had walked by the oval. The exquisite autumn twilight showed that at least six of the trees on one side of the oval were gone, including two gnarled, weeping pepper trees and some magnificent eucalypts.
Last year, I slept under one of the pepper trees — with its drape of fine khaki fronds and brilliant pink pepper berries — when the Dalai Lama came to talk. Earlier this year, on Easter Sunday, I had sat under the shady eucalypts to watch football when my parents came to visit.
A pile of wood from the last tree felled before the workers knocked off for the day revealed moist, solid eucalyptus wood in beige and pink. It was good wood and the remains looked healthy. Other branches and leaves were bundled up in white plastic. I know they were only trees, but it seemed undignified and macabre.
I called my Dad this evening for a more balanced viewpoint. “You don’t have all that many trees around there, do you?” he said. He told me that the eucalyptus trees he had to remove from our block of land were lemon-scented gums, which are prone to shed their huge branches without warning. One or two of the trees cut down here may have been similar.
Talking to Dad, we wondered, how do you measure the risk of being killed by a falling tree branch against the value of the shade it offers? A local man I spoke to yesterday had asked the arborists who cut down the pepper trees about the shade they gave. “I asked them if they couldn’t just cut the trees back, the way we used to on the farm. They can regrow then,” he said. “They told me they’d put up some shade cloth.” Just what the world needs, more polypropylene.
In the novel Bliss by Australian author Peter Carey, one of the characters is killed by a falling bough in the forest. In the context of a novel, it is a good, easy death, poetic fruit, somehow, of a harmonious lifestyle.
When we lived in Tonga, we had a great garden full of food. The breadfruit trees were full of their sustaining bounty — we love breadfruit in a coconut cream curry — but they were prone to drop their cannonball-like produce suddenly. There were a lot of cars around with big smashed dents on their roofs and shattered targets taking up half of their windscreens. I’m not saying it was safe to walk around under the breadfruit trees, but you had to be philosophical about it. Claudia, a seasoned island dweller, tells me that most of the people killed or injured by falling coconuts are afflicted by tourist bravado and perhaps too much alcohol, causing them to sleep recklessly.
Part of the grief I felt as the trees were sawed away yesterday and the day before was a sick feeling of powerlessness. The men with the saws and the plastic bags didn’t make the decisions about which tree was to go. The trees were tagged, they said. Those decisions were made, I guess by someone well qualified, on an earlier, unheralded visit. It might have been true that the trees needed to go, but the lack of information about whether that was true or not gave me that dread. You know that dread. City people get it all the time because they are exposed to so much change and (in most parts of most cities) such transient beauty. You step off the bus and the old art deco theatre has gone. You come home and all the trees in the street have been executed.
Out here in a small town, you like to think that you know what’s going on. But I am just as helpless as the poor birds wheeling around the sky looking for their bed. They scratch on our metal roof, looking for a foothold, squawking in distress. I may have been reckless to fall asleep under one of those sweet pepper trees last summer. I had no idea the tree would be obliterated within six months. Call me a wild woman, but for me sitting in the dense shade of a forty-year-old tree is one of those risks worth taking.