It’s odd, don’t you think, that a poem by Thomas Hardy is used to introduce a book titled Australia’s remarkable trees? The poem, “Throwing a tree”, starts with a line that leaves you in no doubt as to the poet’s sympathies:
The two executioners stalk along over the knolls
… and concludes with the poignant, nay tragic:
And two hundred years’ steady growth has been ended in less than two hours.
Relevant? Yes. But there are Australian poems that would have done the job, such as, for example, David Campbell’s “The last red gum”, which concludes:
So we stand, me and my brothers, just the bones of ancient trees
that have lined the riverbank since time began.
In a bare and barren landscape, fed by the red dust on the breeze,
We’ve been ravaged by the careless hand of man.
I’m being churlish though I know, as this is a gorgeous book. The best way to describe it, I think, is as the tree equivalent of a dictionary of biography: it documents 50 trees from all over Australia, through photographs (Baker) and text (Allen). The trees are categorised under six chapters:
- Magnificent natives
- Old curiosities
- Foreign invaders
- Historic trees
- Private trees
- Local giants
Not surprisingly, gum trees (22 of them) feature heavily in the book, with four of these being the River Red Gum . In his text – a page or two for each tree – Allen provides some background to the tree (the specific tree photographed, its species, and its location). Just enough information to whet the appetite. Take, for example, the Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodar) at Government House in Canberra.
This tree was 5 years old, when it arrived in Australia, from Britain, in 1837 and was planted on what was then a sheep station called Yarralumla (now the name of its suburb). It is HUGE and one limb is now supported by a steel cable, but it is still surviving and, Allen says, could live another 100 years. When I did a tour of the garden last year, the gardener told us that they are propagating from it: it is clearly of good stock, and propagating it will ensure that it continues to be part of the Government House landscape when it does finally die.
Among the gums featured is one of my favourites, the Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora). The one chosen for the book is from the Bogong High Plains in Victoria. It has the tortured, twisted formation typical of those that live in high altitudes. And, like my younger less tortured one here, it also has the gorgeous multicoloured ribbon marking that is characteristic of these trees.
These are just two of the trees presented in this book. There are many more gums (and other natives) and more exotics, there are the giants (such as Western Australia’s Karri) and the strange ones (like the Boab and the Banyan Fig), and of course there is the famous, recently discovered (1994) “living fossil”, Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis).
This book has a lot to offer if you are interested in trees – for themselves, and for how they relate to landscape and our sense of place – and if you believe passionately, as the authors do, that preserving them is key to our future. John Muir would be proud. But again, strangely, the book ends not with an Australian reference but a quote from American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who apparently said “The best friend on Earth of man is the tree”. I think, though, that I will end with something a little more mystical. It’s from “Scribbly Gum”, by Judith Wright:
The gum-tree stands by the spring.
I peeled its splitting bark
and found the written track
of a life I could not read.
Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker
Australia’s remarkable trees
Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2009