Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Elizabeth Jolley on gums


Xanthorrhoea (once called Blackboys)

Just a little one today from Elizabeth Jolley‘s somewhat quirky memoir, Diary of a weekend farmer:

For some reason the great trees have been left standing and the bush, the blackboys and the wild flowers have not been cleared on our 5 acres. The wandoo trees very beautiful also jarrah and something called Black Butt? Red gum has white flowers? White gum which has red. Rough wild bark. Leaves fall all the time and new leaves come, stained bark. (from 11th November 1970)

Jolley learning the land …

Hate trees! Love bumpy roads!

I was a contrary child. When my family went on long car trips, a few decades ago now, I would, in my sunny way, announce to my parents, “I hate trees, love bumpy roads”. Guess what my parents were talking about prior to this pronouncement from their co-operative first-born? This refrain, as you can imagine, has become one of those enduring family jokes, and particularly so now with my gums-inspired blog.

Anyhow, the thing is, while reading my current book, Andre Gide‘s The immoralist, I came across a description of trees:

Huge olive and carob trees, with cyclamen growing in their shadow; above, woods of chestnut trees, cool air, northern plants; below, lemon trees by the sea. The last are arranged in small terraces because of the slope, like a staircase of gardens, almost all the same, with a narrow path running through the middle from end to end. One enters them silently, like a thief. There one can dream, in the green shadows. The foliage is dense and heavy, no direct light can penetrate. The fragrant lemons hang like thick drops of wax; in the shade they look greenish-white; they are within reach, and taste sweet, sharp and refreshing.

And I realised that I have always loved trees. I did say I was a contrary child, didn’t I?

Pialligo gardenTrees are the stuff of childhood – they evoke adventure, magic, imagination. They are places to climb, to hide or rest in, to swing from or, of course, to read in. I had a climbing tree when I was young – a lovely old spreading custard apple tree. It’s an important part of my childhood memories. Naturally, this got me to thinking about my childhood reading and I realised that trees were always there too. I didn’t “know” many of them in my Australian environment but I loved the sound of them – large spreading oak trees, fragrant magnolias, lush weeping willows, elms, lindens, firs and so on. Trees, in fact, abound in children’s books, so I’m choosing just three that are particularly memorable to me. I’d love to know whether trees conjure up any special feelings from your childhood.

Like many young girls, I fancied myself Jo March (of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little women fame). What better role model could we find but this lively, adventurous young woman who also loved to read:

“No,” said Jo, “that dozy way wouldn’t suit me. I’ve laid in a heap of books, and I’m going to improve my shining hours reading on my perch in the old apple tree…”

Another favourite childhood novel was Johanna Spyri‘s Heidi (of which I was recently reminded by Iris). When Heidi is sent to Frankfurt to keep the sickly Clara company, she misses her home in the Alps:

It was still early, for Heidi was accustomed to get up early and run out at once to see how everything was looking, if the sky was blue and if the sun was already above the mountains, or if the fir trees were waving and the flowers had opened their eyes.

Heidi was one of those books which introduced me – an urban child – to the love of the countryside. (It also made me crave white bread rolls. Those rolls seemed so much better than anything I’d ever seen, and they introduced me to the vicarious enjoyment of food through literature, but that’s another story).

In Australian books, there were of course the gums, the most memorable being the one in Seven little Australians:

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. One wild ringing cry Judy gave, then she leaped across the ground, her arms outstretched to the little lad running with laughing eyes and lips straight to death.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that while Louisa May Alcott had the sweet, gentle Beth die, Ethel Turner did the reverse and chose that fate for the “cleverest” of the siblings, the one whose “brilliant inventive powers plunged them all into ceaseless scrapes”.  Interesting eh?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Mountain murmurings

Mountain? Because this week’s Monday musings was inspired by my recent sojourn in the mountains. Murmurings? Because it will be more pictorial than textual. And what does all this to have with Australian literature? Two things, primarily:

  • My definition of “Australian literature” for this blog series is a broad one – it is intended to not only be about Australian literature but also about the things that our literature draws on, such as culture and landscape. This post is about a very specific part of Australian landscape.
  • In my last post, on Barbara Hanrahan, I referred to her looking in vain for “the sunburned land” she learned was her home. My aim in this post is to support her, to show that in fact much* of Australia, albeit a dry continent, is not sunburned.

Here’s a little context. The second – and most well-known – verse of Dorothea McKellar‘s famous (in Australia) poem “My country” starts with “I love a sunburnt country“. This is the image which Hanrahan rails against in her novel, and it is probably still the prevailing image Australians have (or like to have) of our country. And yet, there are other images – real ones as you’ll see in this post, and poetic ones, like the following:

By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling
(The opening lines of  “Bell-birds”, by Henry Kendall)

There are, in other words, many ways of seeing Australia: not all of them are “sunburnt”, and neither are they all romantic or nostalgic, but those are not for today’s just-back-from-holiday mood.

So, to cut to the chase, here is a small selection of images from the Snowy Mountains (in Kosciuszko National Park). Enjoy, because next week we’ll be back to more serious stuff!

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went
(From “The man from Snowy River“, by Banjo Paterson)

Snowy Mountains, near Thredbo
In the Snowy Mountains, taken from the Thredbo riverside walk
Near the top of Dead Horse Gap walk, on the Main Range

It's mid-summer, but not so sunburnt here

Eucalyptus Stellulata or Black Sallee

Weird but wonderful, a gum just at the tree-line

Snow Daisy close-up

Snow Daisy and friends

Gunn's Willow-herb

Gunn's Willow-herb may not be on the tip of every Australian writer's tongue but how pretty it is

Short-beaked echidna

You never know who you might meet on a bushwalk - such as a Short-beaked echidna nosing around for food

And finally, one bit of Australiana that all Aussies know: (Eastern grey) kangaroos, in the bush.

* Defined as the parts of Australia where the majority live. Much of the Australian continent is indeed pretty sunburnt!

Monday musings on Australian literature: The gum tree in the Australian imagination

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.

Salmon Gum (Eucalyptus Tintinnans)

Salmon Gum (probably Eucalyptus Tintinnans) at Nitmiluk National Park

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.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writers

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s important I think that my third post be on our indigenous writers. Again it’s going to be pretty idiosyncratic as my reading in this area has been scattered, not for lack of interest so much as the old “so many books” issue that we all know only too well. I was first introduced to indigenous writing at high school where I had two inspirational teachers who encouraged us to think seriously about human rights. It was then that I bought Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (or Kath Walker as she was then) book of poetry, My people.

In my first Monday Musings post, I mentioned David Unaipon who is generally recognised as the first published indigenous Australian author. However, it was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, with her book of poetry, We are going (1964), who heralded contemporary indigenous Australian writing. So let’s start with her.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal My people (1970, poetry)

Noonuccal’s poetry is largely political. She wrote to right the wrongs which indigenous Australians confronted every day: the racism, the white-colonial-slanted history, the lack of land rights, and so on. Much of her poetry is therefore strong but accessible “protest” poetry. My people collects poems from her first two books and includes new works as well. Here are just a few lines to give you a sense of what she was about:

… Do not ask of us
To be deserters, to disown our mother,
To change the unchangeable.
The gum cannot be trained into an oak.
(from “Assimilaton – No!”)

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest walls
And wild bird calls.
(from “Municipal gum”)

I love the way she uses gums to represent her people – who they are, where they should be. Some of the poems are angry, some are conciliatory, and others celebrate her culture. I loved the book then, and I still value it now.

Sally Morgan My place (1987, memoir)

The next book in my collection, chronologically speaking, is Sally Morgan’s memoir My place. Sally Morgan is primarily an artist but her memoir became a best seller when it was first published. In it she chronicles how she discovered at the age of 15 years old that her colour did not come from an Indian but  an Aboriginal background, and her subsequent investigations into her family’s rather controversial story. I don’t want to go into the controversy here. Rather, the point I’d like to make is her story-telling: it is warm, funny, and thoroughly engaging.

Women of the centre (1990, short life-stories); Black chicks talking (2002, short life-stories produced in film, book, theatre and art)

Telling stories is an intrinsic part of indigenous Australian culture. It’s how traditions have been passed on for 40,000 years or more. It’s probably simplistic to draw parallels between traditional story-telling and the telling of stories in general. After all, we all love stories. Nonetheless it is certainly clear from the little experience I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, that story-telling is an intrinsic part of indigenous Australian culture and is becoming an important way of sharing their experience with the rest of us. This was powerfully done in Bringing them home: The stolen generation report of 1997 which contained not only the history of the separation of children from their parents and recommendations for the future, but many many first person stories which drove the drier points home.

Two books that I’ve read which contain personal stories by indigenous women are Women of the centre and Black chicks talking. The introduction to the former states that its aim is to help we non-Aboriginal Australian readers to understand lives that are so different from our own and “to provide personal written histories for the descendants of the women involved”. This latter is becoming an urgent issue in indigenous communities today – the capturing of story before more is lost. In Black chicks talking Leah Purcell interviews nine Aboriginal woman – some urban, some rural, some well-known, some not – about their lives. Another wonderful read.

Life stories/memoirs represent, in fact, a significant component of indigenous literature. Another work worth mentioning, though I’ve only seen the film and not read the book (shame on me!), is Doris Pilkington’s “stolen generation” story of her mother’s capture and subsequent escape involving an astonishing trek home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria (2006, fiction); Tara June Winch Swallow the air (2006, fiction); Marie Munkara Every secret thing (2009, novel)

Finally, a brief mention of three recent fictional works, two of which I’m ashamed to say are still in my TBR pile. These are the two David Unaipon Award winners by Tara June Winch and Marie Munkara. If you are interested in the latter, please check Musings of a Literary Dilettante’s review.

I have though read Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria. It’s set in a fictitious place, tellingly called Desperance, in northern Australia. Its focus is colonialism (ie European invasion of the land), and conflict within black communities about how to respond. To explore these, Wright touches on lot of ground, including land rights, deaths in custody, mining rights, boat people, and petrol sniffing to name just a few. She flips between the real and the magical, she uses language that is image-rich and often playful, and she tells some very funny stories. It’s a big, wild and rather complex read that manages in the end to be hopeful despite itself.

This is just a small introduction to the wealth of Australia’s indigenous literature. It won’t be the last time I write about it. I will also in the future post on white Australians who have written about Aboriginal Australians, writers like Thomas Keneally who wrote The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith but who now says he wouldn’t presume to write in the voice of an indigenous Australian. A vexed question really. I believe there should be no “rules” for writers of fiction and yet, sometimes perhaps, it is best not to appropriate voices not your own. But that is a question for another day…

Meanwhile, back to Alexis Wright – and stories:

Old stories circulating around the Pricklebush were full of the utmost intrigues concerning the world. Legends of the sea were told in instalments every time you walked in the door of some old person’s house. Stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit often, you would never know how the story ended. (Carpentaria, p. 479)

Gums have blossoms too

Red flowering gum blossom, “Wild fire”

I thought it was time to show that Gums can have gorgeous flowers as well as interesting bark. Not all gums have dramatic flowers. The one in my garden doesn’t, for example – as is clear from its name: Eucalyptus pauciflora! But some gums, like this hybrid of the Eucalyptus maculata (obviously!) do.

Gum blossoms have a very special place in Australian literature, through the work of author-illustrator, May Gibbs. Her most famous book is Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918). However, she produced her first Gumnut booklets in 1916, and through them created the characters she soon after became famous for, including her Gumnut Babies and Gumblossom Babies.

There was a strong conservation message behind her books. On the first page of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is:

Humans please be kind to all Bush Creatures and don’t pull flowers up by the roots.

And that’s about all I’ll say about May Gibbs … she’s an Australian icon but in fact she was not part of my childhood. I read very few of the traditional anthropomorphic (can plants be anthropomorphic?) children’s books when I was growing up. I much preferred reality to fantasy, then, and pretty much now too.  So, I’ll just share this image that grabbed my attention on a trip to the coast earlier this year – and suggest that it’s no surprise really that such beautiful things inspired writers like Gibbs.

(This was an experiment posting directly from flickr, but I don’t think I’ll do it that way again)

A Day on the Green, with Diana Krall (et al)

Leonard Cohen, 2009

My man, 2009

Last night was my second “A Day on the Green” concert held at the beautiful Centennial Vineyards in Bowral. The first was January 2009 when I attended the stupendous – there’s no other word for it – Leonard Cohen concert. That really was a concert to end all concerts.

Last night’s concert though was no slouch. The performers, all female jazz and blues singers, were, in order:

Katie Noonan, 2010, at Centennial Vineyards

Katie Noonan, at A Day on the Green, 2010

All performers entertained us beautifully – but each in her own special style. Katie Noonan (with her Captains!) got us off to a good start with some engaging home-grown music. They performed for just half an hour but included music from their recent album. There is something nice about being entertained by your own, by someone who speaks the same cultural language.

From Mr Gums’ point of view, Melody Gardot’s set, also only around half an hour, was the most musically interesting of the night. She is a singer-songwriter, pianist and guitarist, and was probably the most intense – and in many ways the most sophisticated – of the performers. For those who don’t know her story, she came to her music career through music therapy following a near fatal accident in 2003. (It is because of the accident – not some sort of diva-affectation – that she wears the dark glasses you see in the image below.) I found her fascinating.

Melody Gardot, 2010

Next up was Madeleine Peyroux. She too is a singer-songwriter and guitarist, and presented both original music and uniquely interpreted covers. She was the character of the night, and used her Chaplinesque bowler hat to good effect as she transitioned between pieces. If Gardot was the nightclub sophisticate, Peyroux was more relaxed and casual, but no less professional. She apologised for not having many happy songs, but who could complain when you were treated to such music as her beautifully controlled soulful rendition of Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of song”. She performed for about 45 mins – and I liked her.

Madeleine Peyroux, 2010

...and then came Madeleine (in 2010)

Diana Krall is a pianist and singer-songwriter – and interpreter of song. Before I went to the concert I read a few online “reviews” of earlier performances in this series, and there were some complaints: her voice wasn’t up to it (I believe she had a cold earlier in the series), and “we didn’t come to hear solos by her supporting musicians”. Did they not understand the world of live jazz concerts and the role therein of solo instrumental improvisations? The improvisations in the gorgeous and extended “Dancing cheek to cheek” mystified me at times – but I’ll only learn by listening, won’t I? Krall entertained us for around 75 mins, including a couple of encores, and maintained a relaxed rapport with the audience, managing to include a couple of rain-themed songs in her set!  Her singing is soft and throaty, and I particularly loved her interpretation of Dylan’s “Simple twist of fate”.

Diana Krall, 2010

Getting dark and pushing the camera to its limits, but here she is ... Diana Krall

It was a long night – we arrived around 2.30pm, the concert started at 3.30pm and ended around 8.30pm. That’s  a long time to be sitting on your behind on picnic chairs, particularly when doing the poncho dance (on-off-on-off) during the intermittent but fortunately not heavy rain. It didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the music though – nor of the gorgeous setting.

Gums, at Centennial Vineyards, 2010

The gums overhead swayed to the music

Note on the photographs: There was a stage, and we could see the musicians, but the screen did provide better photo opportunities, and hence my shots here are of the performers as we saw them on the screen.

POSTSCRIPT: For a review by a music reviewer/blogger, read Chris Boyd’s here.

Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker, Australia’s remarkable trees

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.

Himalayan Cedar (Deodar cedrus)

Himalayan Cedar (left), Government House, Canberra. (If I’d known I was going to write about it I would have featured it more!)

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.

Snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora)

Snow gum on Merritt’s Traverse, Kosciuszko National Park, Thredbo

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
ISBN: 9780522856699

C.J. Dennis, The moods of Ginger Mick

Sometimes a bloke gits glimpses uv the truth
(“In Spadger’s Lane”)

I wasn’t sure, really, that I wanted to read CJ Dennis’ verse novel, The moods of Ginger Mick, which I received as a review copy from the Sydney University Press as part of their Australian Classics Library – but have surprised myself. I rather enjoyed reading it and am glad that I had this little push to do so!

The moods of Ginger Mick
The moods of Ginger Mick cover (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

The moods of Ginger Mick was published in 1916 just weeks before the big Conscription Referendum, according to Philip Butters who wrote the new introduction to this edition. It does not however buy into that debate. The book comprises 15 poems “written” by Dennis’ other character, The Sentimental Bloke, at whose wedding Mick was best man. The poems introduce us to Mick and his larrikin life before the Great War and then go on to chronicle his life as a soldier.

Dennis writes his poems in broad Australian slang (but there is a glossary at the end). Most are 6-line stanzas with an ababcc rhyme (the same as Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”!) but every now and then there is a different rhyme scheme which mixes it up a little. The sweet poem “The singing soldiers”, for example, has a sing-song aab(with an internal rhyme)acc, while the poignant “Sari Bair” about the eponymous battle has 4-line stanzas with a simple aabb rhyme.

I enjoyed reading the poems, not only for their evocative language but also for their subject matter. While their setting and language make them very much of a particular time and place, their concerns have some universality. They are about egalitarianism vs class difference, and about what it means to be a man (a “bloke” as it were). Mick starts off as a bit of a larrikin – one who cares not for the “toffs” and for whom the “toffs” care not! As he says in an early poem:

But I’m not keen to fight so toffs kin dine
On pickled olives …

What sends him to war in the end is “The call uv stoush” but, when he gets there, he starts to discover that in uniform all men are equal, that

… snobbery is down an’ out fer keeps,
It’s grit an’ reel good fellership that gits yeh friends in ‘eaps.
(“The push”)

This poem, “The push”, provides a wonderfully colourful roll call of the sorts of men who enlisted. Other poems cover the support of women at home, hopes for work when they return home now they’ve proved themselves (after all the “‘earty cheerin’ … per’aps  we might be arstin’ fer a job”) and the sense that Australia has grown up as a nation (“But we ‘av seen it’s up to us to lay our toys aside”). There is ironic humour (as in “Rabbits”) and pathos (as in “To the boys who took the count” and “The game” in which Ginger Mick finally realises that he’s found his metier). There’s also some racism that was, unfortunately, typical of the time. And of course there is patriotism, with some rather lovely descriptions of the Australian landscape. I just have to mention here some references to gums:

An’ they’re singin’, still they’re singin’, to the sound uv guns an’ drums.
As they sung one golden Springtime underneath the wavin’ gums.
(“The singing soldiers”)

An’ we’re ‘opin’ as we ‘ear ’em, that, when the next Springtime comes,
You’ll be wiv us ‘ere to listen to that bird tork in the gums
(“A letter to the front”)

As a group, the poems offer an interesting insight into Australia’s experience of the First World War, particularly given their mix of realism and romanticism that belies perhaps the recent glorification that’s developed around our ANZAC heritage. If you are interested in Australia’s cultural and literary heritage, it is well worth giving this short little book a look.

C.J. Dennis
The moods of Ginger Mick
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781920898984

(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)

The magnificent River Red Gums

River Red Gum

River Red Gum, Valley of the Winds Walk, Kata-Tjuta

River Red Gums, or Eucalyptus Camaldulensis, are among our most ubiquitous of gum trees, but that doesn’t mean they’re a boring tree. As their name implies they grow along watercourses – including ones that are very very dry such as those you find in Central Australia. They are also a significant part of what makes the Murray River such a gorgeous old river. Apparently, though, they are not found in Tasmania.

One of the well-known places to see these gums is the beautiful Barmah Forest of the Murray-Darling Basin. It boasts trees that are over 500 years old. Sadly, though, there are concerns that due to the extended drought that area has been experiencing, many trees are threatened, if not already dying. I’ve been to this forest and it is a treasure – it would be tragic to lose it.

Being ubiquitous – and beautiful – they feature regularly in Australian arts (in poetry, song, fiction, and art). Of course, they feature in Murray Bail’s captivating novella Eucalyptus:

River Red Gum

Warty River Red Gum, Jessie Gap, East MacDonnells

Over time the River Red Gum (e. camaldulensis) has become barnacled with legends… there’s always a bulky Red Gum here or somewhere else in the wide world, muscling into the eye, as it were: and by following the course of rivers in our particular continent they don’t merely imprint their fuzzy shape but actually worm their way greenly into the mind, giving some hope against the collective crow-croaking dryness. And if that’s not enough the massive individual squatness of these trees, ancient, stained and warty, has a grandfatherly aspect; that is, a long life of incidents, seasons, stories.

River Red Gum

River Red Gum, Bond Gap, West MacDonnell Range

Too many poets to mention have written about this gum. I thought I’d choose just two. First is David Campbell, who addresses the threat to their continuation. Here are some lines from his poem “The Last Red Gum”:

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 red dust on the breeze,
we’ve been ravaged by the careless hand of man.

Second is Lisa Bellear, an indigenous poet who, in her poem “Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum”, uses the Gum to symbolise the post-colonial history of Aboriginal Australians. The poem starts:

Sometimes the red river gums
in the beginning of colonisation
and other Kulin nations
sang and danced

Not too long and there are
fewer red river gums, the
Yarra Tribe’s blood
the river’s rich red clay

If this isn’t poignant enough, the poem concludes with:

Red river gums are replaced
by plane trees from England
and still
the survivors

What more can I say?