In the next week (I hope), I’ll be reviewing Anna Krien’s Into the forest, her investigation into the longstanding conflict over logging native forests in our southernmost state, Tasmania. In the meantime, though, as I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been thinking again of the role eucalypts play in Australian life and culture – and, voilà, this week’s Monday musings was born.
But, where to start? Why not with Waltzing Australia, an American blogger who has travelled extensively in Australia, written a book as a result, and is now writing a blog about her experiences? She complained – nicely of course – in our little comment to-and-fro about her visit to my city that “My whole first day there, I didn’t see any gum trees, and that made it almost seem that I’d somehow left Australia”. If that doesn’t tell you something about gums and Australia nothing will!
My first memorable literary confrontation with gum trees came in the childhood classic, Seven little Australians (1894), which is, perhaps, to Australian girls what Little women is to American. It is about a family of children and includes a tragic death, but here the death is caused not by illness but, yes, by a falling gum:
There was a tree falling, one of the great, gaunt naked things that had been ringbarked long ago. All day it had swayed to and fro, rotten through and through; now there came up across the plain a puff of wind, and down it went before it. …They lifted it off the little bodies, the long silvered trunk with the gum dead and dried in streaks upon it… (from Seven little Australians, by Ethel Turner).
Never fails to move me. As for which of the seven is so tragically killed, my lips are sealed, but let’s just say that, in contrast to Alcott’s book, it is not the meek, mild one.
As backdrop or centre front, gums are rarely absent from our literature, but the next most memorable example for me has to be Murray Bail‘s mysterious and beautiful novel, Eucalyptus, which can be read as a modern fairy story: once upon a time there was a father who promised the hand of his daughter to the man who could name each eucalyptus species that the father had carefully and lovingly planted on his property. The book starts as follows:
We could begin with desertorum, common name hooked mallee … and anyway, the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there in a more or less straight line onto the national character, all those linings of the soul and the larynx, which have their origin in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let’s not forget the isolation …
It is these circumstances which have been responsible for all those extremely dry (dun-coloured – can we say that?) hardluck stories which have been told around fires and on the page. All that was once upon a time, interesting for a while, but largely irrelevant here.
If you haven’t gathered a sense of Bail’s tone and intent from this, you might when I tell you that the last species mentioned in the book is Eucalyptus Confluens! It is fairy story, a love story, and a meditation on stories, framed by gums in all their diversity: “A forest is language; accumulated years”.
In Peter Temple‘s Truth, which I reviewed here a month or so ago, a running motif is the eucalypt and oak forest planted by Villani and his father. The trees provide an important point of contact for father and son throughout their lives, and the forest’s survival in the fire at the end signifies the survival too of Villani’s relationship with his father.
Often of course, gums are simply the backdrop – the ever-present part of the landscape that makes that landscape recognisably Australian. They are an important part of the landscape in Chambers’ The vintage and the gleaning … just by being there.
The thing is, though, that gums are so ubiquitous that they can become clichéd. The 1930s was an important and active time in Australian literature – and a time when there was enthusiasm for defining and creating literature that was, in a word, Australian. Australian poet, Rex Ingamells wrote, in 1938, an article titled “Conditional culture” in which he explored “the state of the art” of Australian literature. Not surprisingly, gums pop up several times in the article, often to show failures in the Australian imagination, such as when gums are invoked in nondescript ways. However, he also sees them as a barometer for the maturation of our culture:
Before long, the strange, unorthodox beauty of the Australian gum tree, and many other manifestations of beauty peculiar to this country, will find a sure place in the standards of general culture, which will be one stage nearer universality and so much the richer.
All this makes me wonder whether there is anything similar – any motif that has as much universal recognition – in other national literatures? Anyone?
(Oh, and just in case you are interested, there is a pretty extensive listing of eucalyptus species at Wikipedia.)