My Aboriginal grandfather, Ben Walsh, didn’t want to be buried in a graveyard with a headstone after he died. “Put me up in a tree,” he said, “Like the old people did.”
“They put dead bodies up in a tree?” I was incredulous. I was eleven years old and thought I knew almost everything. I was an Agatha Christie fan, not easily shocked.
“Sure they did. Then they came back a year later and collected the bones and wrapped them up in bark and put them in a cave,” he replied.
“But what happened to the body?” I asked.
“Well, I s’pose the birds and bugs ate it. Not that different to being in the ground.”
“Stop telling her horrible stories, Dad,” called my mother from the kitchen in the corner of the room.
I had a dream recently that my body was up a tree. I was relieved to wake up and confirm that I am not yet dead. The dream was not particularly disturbing and I remembered Grandad’s calm demeanor when he said, “There’s nothing wrong with it. I won’t be there. My spirit will be far away. Why wouldn’t you put me up in a tree. I don’t want a grave with a headstone, anyway. If this old body has to be buried, grow a tree on it.”
Living out in the bush and the desert, I’ve now met many Aboriginal people who had the poetic fortune to be born under a tree. A tree provides shelter and shade. The right tree can support a birthing woman’s back. And many trees have spiritual significance. They are not just alive, they have consciousness.
In Alice Springs (at the centre of Australia) many sacred trees are carefully maintained. Some have been damaged. Some have died. Not long ago, two sacred trees were poisoned when a sports grandstand was built in a park. The senior Traditional Owners said, “the poisoning of these significant trees has caused us great distress and sadness. The custodians said this needs to be understood, and that despite the poisoning these trees are still our sacred sites and are still important to us.”
Now that scientists have found mechanisms whereby trees communicate with each other by chemicals and chemo-receptors in their root systems, even after they have been damaged or killed, we can begin to expand our understanding of the nature of trees. When a tree has been chopped down, sometimes the roots of other trees reach out to it and maintain it. In a material way, the tree lives on.
The biggest living organism on the planet is said to be a forest of trees known to be connected to each other and genetically identical. The forest is named Pando. The trees are called Quaking Aspen. They are all male. Together they are also called The Trembling Giant.
I thought about these things this week when Claudia brought home a Christmas tree. It’s a beautifully shaped fir tree, just large enough to fit comfortably in the living room. The fragrance fills the house. Neither Claudia or I have had a big Christmas tree of our own before — she bought it at her frail mother’s request. We both have had reservations about a tree cut down for ritual, even if it is specially grown for the purpose.
Claudia tells me that she used to have a wooden palm tree that she decorated with lights and glass gummy bears (modelled on a favourite childhood lolly) from the Haribo factory. I been decorated Eucalyptus branches with tinsel and balls when I lived in the inner city in Sydney. One year, when I was living with my boy and his father, I spent a packet on a little pine tree growing in a red bucket. Our house was small so it was a good choice. The tree grew in the concrete yard for a year or three afterwards.
Claudia’s mum tells us that when she was child her mother made lollies of poppy seed with caramel. These were wrapped in silver paper and hung on the tree. So the children could have opium with their sugar. The tree was strewn with cookies too. Later she told us that people used to say that you could not hang washing in the days between years (after Xmas and before New Year) because if you did someone would hang himself. Grisly old story. Maybe it was just the women’s way of getting a break. In Ireland they have a ‘Women’s Christmas’ on January 6 when the men do the cooking. Lovely.
The Irish also have celebrations of trees. There's even a connection made between trees and the Celtic calendar. Claudia told me about the diversion of a motorway in Ireland to preserve a bush inhabited by fairies. “I like the sound of that place,” she said. Perhaps it is the Celtic influence.
Celts lived over most of Europe and in Turkey before they were eventually defeated by the Romans -- except in the north of Britain and Ireland. They held trees and rivers sacred. The oak held a special place in their minds and hearts. The Roman historian Tacitus recorded that when the Celts were defeated at their stronghold on the island of Anglesey in AD61 their sacred Oaks were destroyed. The Christmas festival is an adaptation of the Celts Winter Solstice festival — celebrating the shortest day of the year and the beginning of the return of the Sun. The Celts also sacrificed horses. Which makes our sacrifice of a baby fir tree seem almost reasonable.
Here at Claudia’s family home, flocky snow drifts and whorls. I see fairies helicoptering in among them, but I guess they're two big snowflakes entangled. The stone Buddha in the yard has his eyes covered in snow but you can still see him laughing.
As a child I loved the Christmas idea that a baby’s birth changed the world. I knew it was true that every child’s birth was a huge event. I found it hard to understand how adults didn’t make more fuss of us children. Now I know that child-caring adults are just too worn out.
As an adult I am ambivalent about ossified religion. I’ll bet the Moslem Rohingyas escaping terror in Burma would not feel so benignly about a Buddha in the backyard. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed never asked people to kill for their ideas. The opposite is true. The evolution of religions to be enforced with weapons is repellent. Isis was the Egyptian mother goddess with great healing powers. Images of her breastfeeding her son may have influenced later images of Mary with baby Jesus. Poor beautiful Isis.
It’s gorgeous to celebrate children. Children don’t need all the toys they’re bought at Christmas. But they do need adults to play with them sometimes, company to explore and trees to climb.
Earlier this century I went looking for where my grandfather Ben was buried. I knew his grave was in Sydney’s huge and remarkable necropolis at Rookwood. I had to find a special office -- it was a small stone building with a high narrow counter -- and look through a big book to get directions. I looked all day for his grave, distracted as I was by the rich history, artwork and emotion of the place.
At the end of the day I found the grave, unmarked. I was a little disappointed that there was no plaque. There was just a patch of grey, stony earth. But growing by the border of the the grave was a tree — a ironbark. Its protective, fissured bark bled trails of fragrant medicinal kino that glimmered red in the late afternoon sun. Around the same time as then, my mother had a portrait of Ben put on her mother’s gravestone, which looks over the sea. I do enjoy seeing that. Perhaps Grandad, on his journey, contacted each of us and had us each remember him in our own way.