The Citrus Tree

During our time in Europe, I've been able to write most days. As the soft green leaves unfurl and blossoms of Spring uncurl, I've finished the first draft of our book. The yellow and then the white flowers come out first here, too, just like in the desert. I'm sure the bees and birds pay close attention to the rhythm of it all.

The working title of our book is Heated Earth. It's a memoir with metaphysical and supernatural themes and content. True! I'm excited now. I expect we will have it out before the end of the year.

The book grew from some of our time and experiences at tough and glorious Mutitjulu, the very private, sometimes wild community of Traditional Owners and their friends at Uluru. It was our privilege to live there for a few years.

In the process of writing about Muti, I came across this piece that I wrote about my garden there in April, 2013.

This is not an extract from the book. The book is written from the point of view of the souls who feature in it, especially me and Claudia and a handful of talkative spirits, not a tree in the yard. For now, though, here is the tree, who can give you a feeling for the place and our lives there.


The Citrus Tree

I was dried to a collection of gnarled spines when the two of them moved in. They made a lot of noise, rattling and crashing for days. I was glad of it. The house had been occupied by a series of visiting workers who’d climb into their cars and drive by without seeing any of us in the garden.

We had become, I must admit, little more than a series of stony heaps of yellowed straw and dulled grey bushes of twigs. My roots were encased in earth as hard as stone.

Dr Ropehair noticed us with a knitted brow. She looked around the yard as if the bougainvillea thorns stuck in her heart. Ms Curlyhair, her wife, was more practical. ‘I’ll never be a gardener’, she said, but she was the first to begin the hard physical work. Unable to penetrate the red soil with a shovel, she spent days hauling mounds of buffel grass out of the dirt with her powerful hands. She stomped and then stepped with delicacy as if to frighten the snakes and then not to. She talked to the stubborn grass, sometimes cajoling and other times cursing it.

Buffel grass: big time weed in northern Australia. Survives everything but energetic Claudia. Photo by  John Tann .

Buffel grass: big time weed in northern Australia. Survives everything but energetic Claudia. Photo by John Tann.

Ropehair recognized me as citrus and began to give me an inch or three of water when she returned from work in the afternoons. It was a good year in the desert, a drought breaker. Between her afternoon meditations and periodic flooding rains – when the two of them had to dig trenches, the house being built on a creek bed – I sprouted leaves. They yellowed and curled and mostly dropped off, but Dr Ropehair was encouraged.

As she stood by me with her worn plastic tube dribbling warm bore water, I could sense her untangling the complexity of the day. One afternoon she piled snow-pea straw, which had sat rotting in a plastic bag by the shed for more than a year, in clumsy handfuls around my puny trunk. She broke the baked earth in a few places under the straw and the water soaked in as ambrosia. Tiny hairs along my roots sprouted within hours and my new green leaves cautiously opened their pores.

After Ms Curlyhair tore the buffel grass out of the shaded part of the yard one furiously productive afternoon, Ropehair began to dream of a garden. At night, when the stars were brilliant, I could feel her happiness as she imagined food growing from the red desert earth. Even when she was away from the house and felt very far away, we plants could feel her vibrating with love and hope for us. The gift of the flooding rains sat moist a while longer under the rice straw. You might call it mud.

One day she came from the house with a tray of delicate green and white sprouts; their roots spidering into miniature pots of soaked, stretched peat. She sat the tray on a chair in the shade to introduce the sprouts to the dryness outside. Ropehair was so pleased when the infant plants were still alive next day that the grey cypress beside me shivered and the coiled red grevillea flowers chuckled.

Sprout. Photo by  Bogomil Mihaylov .

Sprout. Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov.

Dr Ropehair spent a warm evening patting the sprouts into the pindan under the shade house. She had patched up a piece of irrigation hose tied along the fence, originally erected by the nurse who planted me years ago. Attaching the hose and using a spanner to wrench the tap open, she released a shower of misty water onto the garden. The moisture created ecstasy. Desert plants have an exquisite sense of smell for water and, even though I am originally Mediterranean, I’ve lived years in the baking desert heat. I shared the rest of the garden’s exaltation. Ropehair continued to give me extra water and my green buds sprouted into neroli-perfumed blossom. The air filled with fumes of honey made from water and earth. Wasps and bees, including the native bees which do not sting, came to visit.

Still she imagined us at night. And the intensity of her longing seemed to pull the garden into life, as if her desire could make the stems of the plants grow. She dreamt of cherry tomatoes, warm and brilliant, of fat zucchinis and the climbing tendrils of passionfruit vine, which she knew would not fruit for at least two years.

Especially, she reckoned on me, unable to say whether the tiny, stippled green blobs remaining after the blossom petals fell could become limes, lemons or stones. Stony, dry oranges or wooden lemons were what she feared, but she was practicing distraction from fear. Fruits, vegetables and flowers were the salve with which she flooded her brain, often feverish with the pain and distress of others and her own chattering, at the end of each day. (I could not read her thoughts but could feel her vibration.)

Teardrop-shaped green blobs. Photo by  Dawn Armfield .

Teardrop-shaped green blobs. Photo by Dawn Armfield.

Ropehair’s father visited, bringing with him a different approach. A great organizer of growth, he hated the thorny bougainvillea, chopping it back and exhorting Ropehair to kill it. He dug hot black pipes from under the baked driveway, reconnecting another part of the irrigation system laid there when I was first brought to the garden years ago.

As a baby citrus tree, the nurse had coddled my leaves with her hand and steadied my black pot with her leg in the front of her car for five or six hours, all the way from the big town nursery, keeping me cool but protected from the wind of the air-conditioning vent. She had planted me in a mirage of love. The love was not requited and my growth was stunted with her loneliness. I never bore fruit, despite her work and generosity.

Dr Ropehair was different. Love flowed freely around her and out of her like a miasmatic perfume. Curlyhair adored Ropehair. I could tell by the way Curlyhair hanged the clothes on the line. Even when an explosion of lint in the washing machine made her furious, she shook out the clothes in a way that showed her caring, draping and folding them with a graceful, everyday tenderness, radiant from my point of view. Ropehair’s father also had great love and hope for her. Suddenly, it became easy for all of us to grow. Ropehair’s father cleared and connected the pipes and the cool white mist of water showered and seeped on everything that might live in our yard.

Behind the yard’s impenetrable steel fence, tiny leaves of desert bushes shivered in delight and flowers unfurled in a series of colors: yellow flowers one week, mauve and red the next. The birds knew that this oasis dripped with precious water for twenty minutes of bliss every evening and built their nests nearby. My deep green tear-shaped buds grew fatter. Ropehair and Curlyhair sniffed them speculatively.

In all this time, Curlyhair was in pain. Something in her body was damaged and needed to heal, just as the thorny bougainvillea became compact and intense purple after the father’s pruning.

When her hair got caught in the clothes pegs, I could sense lightning bolts of pain going down the side of Curlyhair's body. It was hard for her to walk and she dropped the washing in the red dust.

They went away together in the ugly vehicle that roars in and out of here. At night I could feel Ropehair dreaming intensely of her garden. The women returned to find the cherry tomatoes hot and sweet, mostly cored and sucked by the birds. ‘I can't believe we had to travel so far and they delayed the operation,’ Curlyhair said to the neighbour. They left to travel away again soon after.

Bougainvillea, long wooden thorns well hidden. Photo by  Dinesh Valke .

Bougainvillea, long wooden thorns well hidden. Photo by Dinesh Valke.

While they were away, a piece of the old hose watering the vegetable garden broke away and water poured in a wild flood over the basil and zucchini. Neighbours noticed but were unable to open the gates – Ropehair had stuck sticks in the latches – or to climb the high steel fence. The women returned home exhausted by a rigorous undertaking, to find one corner of the garden a muddy mouldering swamp and other parts baked dry.

Ropehair, lacking her father’s big hands and working hard each day looking after herself and her recovering partner, was unable to fix the water channeling system. She had to use the spanner again to turn the tap off. The basil was ruined and the bean plants were desiccated. Pea plants had gone to seed without fruiting, planted at the wrong time of year. The massive leaves of the zucchinis were rotten with mildew and there was no sign of fruit. The beautiful yellow flowers were sterile. I watched as Ropehair steadied her lips and blinked stinging eyes. She stood by me with her watering hose, shutting ideas of sour, wizened fruit out of her mind.

Somehow she still dreamed of me. Curlyhair was slowly recovering. The pain-lightning dulled until I could only see a space in her energy where it had been, then slowly that space filled with stronger energy, a little every day, the way a trunk wound heals from the edges if a branch is snapped off.

Ropehair still splashed on me, imagining the chalky bore water transformed to juice by my woody body. My fruits were still shaped like teardrops and did not fall to the ground inedible as she had feared, but continued to become larger and turgid with juice. The severe heat only made my fruits happier. If some of my leaves were sacrificed, I didn’t mind.

I heard Ropehair talking to her father through a piece of electric plastic she held against her ear. She sat on the dusty chair talking, looking for clouds. After that, she told Curlyhair that she planned to dig magnesium sulphate into the ground around my roots, deep, with a crowbar. The ground was too hard to go in far, but she made a circle of burrows around me and watered in the crystals. My leaves stayed green and the fruits grew plumper, their skins brightened by the harsh sun. Sometimes Dr Ropehair fed me an elixir of fermented fish heads and seaweed, all the while imagining it transformed to fruit. All the minerals were invigorating. My roots grew deep and thick.

The first cold nights of the desert winter came and I felt strong and sturdy, summer stored in my fruits, which were now turning orange. A split fruit which fell to the ground was examined and found to be orange inside, with sweet-smelling segments full of juice. Soon after, Curlyhair pulled on a fruit, fully ripe. I felt my branch stretch and let it go.

The women found to their great pleasure that my fruit, ‘A mysterious combination of a mandarin and tangerine, perhaps’, was luscious. There were so many fruits that they had to balance one weighted branch on an upturned bucket. My fruit continued to grow. I nourished the women well into the winter days of June and July, when crystals of frost patterned the ground as the sun rose in the hard blue sky.

Today my leaves are curled to avoid the intense December heat. Dr Ropehair waters me first in the yard and often waters only me. She can be cruel to the others at times, thinking loudly that they are desert plants and they should be able to abide her neglect. The drought has resumed.

Photo by  Ethan Hoover .

Photo by Ethan Hoover.

She has been treated harshly in her work and comes home drained, disregarding us like a rejected friend pretending she doesn’t remember how things once were. The eucalypt says that she feels guilty. I don’t know what that means. Some of the plants have died while she talked this way to us.

The garden is resilient though. Most of the plants survive and wait for her determination and compassion (for herself) to restore her to us. A couple of watermelon vines have grown in the corner where a disused air-conditioner tank continually leaks. I saw Dr Ropehair plant the seeds there when she thought no-one was looking. Their yellow flowers are full of the promise of turning the warm, dirty water into melons of red juice. 

Thumbnail of citrus by Brooke Lark.