July 28, 2017

A silent prayer for a tree  

Don Bentley and his silver birch had much in common. It had not become apparent at first but over the years Bentley had discovered a symmetry between their lives. They were soul-mates. Bentley had happened on the tree walking to work one morning. At the start of spring he always took a detour through St David’s Park in the heart of Hobart. He found the dappled glades in spring sunshine, and the songs of the birds, calming before the turmoil of the working day.

The park represented an arboretum of European tree species, in the tradition of the Victorian colonial park from the time it was designed, constructed and planted. English-born Bentley had lived in Australia for a decade but he was still drawn to European flora, its changing spring and autumn foliage, its austerity in winter, which gave shape to the seasons.

There was only one native tree in St David’s Park, a blue gum, and on spring days when Bentley’s heart was pulled towards England he thought that was just about right.

And that silver birch. Bentley was from Surrey, the county of the birch and pine which thrived on the sandy soils dumped there by glaciers in pre-history. Bentley recognised the tree immediately, of course, as being from his home county. He thought its situation, standing on its own well away from the other trees, was appropriate because it allowed the features of the tree  – its drooping aspect, silver bark and small, triangular leaves in various shades of green – to stand out among the richer and fuller-leafed foliage of the other deciduous species.

You could say the specimen in St David’s Park was solitary, lonely, in its spacious situation but Bentley would say independent. Much like himself.

When the sun shone strong and hard at the start of the day Don Bentley would set out for work early, to give himself 10 minutes or so to sit in the park. He chose the same seat on these mornings, a wooden, slatted bench that faced south so the early-morning sun cut through the park from the east and set a yellow light on trunks and branches, the full grandeur of the trees rising from their night slumber. On these days the rising sun gave the bark of the birch a pastel-yellow hue, and darkened the clusters of leaves so they looked the bottle green of the bottles of Bentley’s favourite brew, Boag’s.

The great trees of the world – the biggest oaks, elms, chestnuts and, in Australia, eucalypts among them – have been described as nature’s cathedrals. Indeed, the sweeping boughs of the elm are thought to have inspired the Gothic style of architecture. Bentley, though, looked more to fine art. Trees, he would say, set out a stunning array of shapes and colour and beauty on a canvas that was forever changing.

On days when Bentley’s spirits soared to the upper branches of his works of art, trees became not merely decorative art, they were nature’s installations, reaching out to the viewer. They were tactile and asked to be caressed and hugged. They interacted with those that came within their embrace.

Bentley would say his life had a symmetry with the birch but they were also symbiotic. Their lives intertwined on those mornings when he stopped to admire the tree, and took a breath of the cool, scented air that enveloped it. And Bentley would approach the park keepers, to urge them to give his tree extra water on dry days, and a little extra mulch to keep the sun from drying out the moisture around the roots.

The park keepers took more than a casual interest in Bentley, paying him close attention, even at a distance. Who was this man who stood for 10 minutes or so to admire a single tree, talking to it sometimes and wishing it goodbye when he left? In smart suit and tie, Bentley didn’t look like the usual oddballs who sometimes made the park their home, and talked to the trees. He was harmless enough.

Some days, if he had time, Bentley would touch the park’s trees, responding to their invitation to engage them, as he did sometimes at installation art events at Hobart art galleries, if exhibits and artists demanded it. The flaky bark of the birch, curling at the ends, like the hair of a curly-haired child; the beech’s smooth, grey bark like that of  tough, rutted elephant skin; the oak and elm, their soft bark the pliable cork of a  good bottle of Shiraz.

If Bentley had been born a tree he would have liked to have been a silver birch. Bentley had noted in his youth, when flower power and eastern mysticism were all the rage in the 1960s, that some faiths believed humans came back as animals when they died. Bentley didn’t believe it, of course, but if it was true he would specify his ticket back to earth was changed from his favourite animal, the badger, to that of a tree, the birch.

It was a thought that made him smile some mornings, standing there admiring his tree, once to the disquiet of a female jogger hurrying to complete her run before the beginning of the working day.

Eccentric. That was the term the park rangers finally ascribed to Bentley, the man who loved trees, or a tree, with such passion it made him late for work each day. Bentley was well aware of the way the world, or the microcosm of the world contained within the confines of St David’s Park, viewed him. Thirty years previously, when he had worked at the heart of the British newspaper industry, Fleet Street, he had known an Australian who spent his rest days in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew “touching base”, as the Australian journalist put it, with his homeland through its native trees.

The colleague took Bentley there once to admire wattles and gums, sheoaks and paperbark. The Australian had a favourite, a giant blue gum, and, like Bentley with his birch in St David’s Park, he would stand before it for sometimes 30 minutes or more, as if in prayer.

The Australian might not have known it but he was engaged in a ritual that spanned the history of mankind, and all its peoples. Two African tribes, the Hereros and the Ovambos of Namibia regarded the the leadwood tree (Combretum imberbe Wawra) as the great ancestor of all animals and people and they never walked past it without paying it respect.

Bentley often thought of the Australian when he viewed the lone blue gum in St David’s Park, the tree alone among the “Poms”. The gum could even be a metaphor for the Australian’s transplanted existence in London, as the silver birch was for Bentley’s life in Tasmania. Why was it that humans out of their home environment, the comfortable habitat they knew, found it was trees that drew them home in thought? Trees not only shaped a specific environment but called to something ancient in humans, plumbed the sap of their primordial roots.

In ancient mythology trees were said to link the Earth to the sky. Did ancient people know that trees produced the very air that we breathe? What was obviously known was that trees, along with lesser plants, provided food for not only humans, but the animals humans hunted. Trees had nourished and nurtured the rise of mankind, providing fuel, food, shelter and hiding places.

Bentley was gratified the world was waking up to the importance of trees and forests, or so it seemed from what he read in the press and saw on the television news. Trees were now deemed precious, not just for their beauty, and their capacity to produce oxygen, but their role as carbon sinks in a climate of global warming.

He was pleased to note, too, that a movement had started in his native Britain to compile a list of truly ancient trees. One, the Fontingall yew in Scotland, had been found to be between 3000 and 5000 years of age.

Ancient trees had been recorded in Tasmania, too. A swamp gum in the Florentine Valley in the state’s south-west – an area being logged – had been carbon-dated by researchers to starting its life when Henry VIII was on the throne in England.

It wasn’t that Bentley did not like Australian trees. They had their own beauty. They might not assume striking autumnal plumage before dropping their leaves each winter but the gum and wattle leaves changed in colour during the year when new growth – often in shades of deep reds and maroon, the colour of autumn in Europe and North America – replaced old and worn foliage. And the bark of eucalypt and wattles was as interesting and varied as anything found on European trees. On his rambles in the woodland on the fringe of Hobart, Bentley could see that some bark was shaggy and flaking, some bare and streaked in yellows and pinks, colours that changed when the trunks were washed with rain.

Bentley had always looked to the shape and form of trees, and not their age. The British ancient tree register confirmed that oaks and elms were truly ancient, but Bentley, when he read it, was interested to learn that his silver birch merely had a lifespan of 70 years, the biblical three score and ten of a human. It was another reason to warm to the birch, to find symmetry and symbiosis with it.

Bentley had never aspired to be an oak or elm, the leader of the forest, which put other trees in the shade. Bentley had never considered himself  a leader of men. He had worked as a journalist for 40-odd years, as a reporter and sub-editor, but he had never aspired to the top job, that of editor. He left that to others and was happy to operate just under the canopy, to be a lesser tree in the forest, or the human jungle, of journalism.

Yes, Bentley was a birch. Workman-like and vital without pretension. The birch was the tree to reclaim recently disturbed land and make its contribution before standing aside for others. In its relatively short life it would provide leaf litter and bark debris to nourish the soil. When dead, its rotting core attracted jays looking to hide acorns and provided shade and shelter for oak seeds forgotten by the birds to grow.

Sitting on his park bench some mornings, Bentley often thought that if he was Australian born, and had developed a love for Australian trees as he had done for British ones in his youth, he would have looked to the silver wattle for its inspiration, or the blackwood, or in the rainforest, myrtle and sassafras.

Bentley, on trips to wild, native forest beyond the Hobart suburbs would look up at the towering swamp gums, admire them and acknowledge they were the tallest flowering trees on the planet.  Bentley, though, would still be happy to stand with the sassafras in the shadows.

The eucalypts of the forest might pre-date European history in Australia but Bentley’s birch had a history of its own. A modern history. It was a baby boomer tree, born after World War II when European trees in Australia still had a currency, a value, that they were not given in the 21st century. What Bentley termed the “tree police” would not allow a non-native tree to be planted today for its own sake.

And what had the birch seen out there on Davey Street, adjoining the park, and in the park itself? Joyous crowds celebrating the end of war and new-found freedoms, especially for the post-war generation. Rock-and-rollers taking over the bandstand in the centre of the park, hippies with love-ins in the flowerbeds, flower power and pot among the glades. Soldiers marching off to the Korean and Vietnam wars, protest over dams and then forests. Bentley’s birch was a repository of modern history, as vital as Bentley’s recollection of it.

Yes, a babyboomer tree, a hippy tree, Bentley would say to himself some days, in quiet contemplation of the birch. He and the birch were rooted in place and time on the planet. He could not connect in the same way to the oaks and elms, beeches and poplars which had their own place in time, a place that pre-dated the birch and Bentley.

It so happened in St David’s Park that the elms and oaks were grouped together so their true, sweeping beauty could not be fully appreciated. The park had replaced a pioneer cemetery in the early 1900s and the trees had been planted to line and frame avenues. Conversely, it was the silver birch that stood alone, finding its own space, revealing its own elegance and beauty, so often overlooked in its natural habitat.

The tree over the years remained rich in symbolism for Bentley and each day it seemed that he developed a new connection with it. One morning, Bentley saw the birch as a metaphor for his life in Australia, a country he had made his home after marrying a Tasmanian whom he had met in London. Bentley had grown to love Australia, and the wide horizons stretching from earth to sky that were impossible to contemplate in over-crowded southern England; a place, geographically and socially, Bentley increasingly found to be flat and boring.

Bentley had worked worldwide as a foreign correspondent at various times in his career and his wife’s desire to raise their only child in Australia had given him the chance for one last adventure at the tail-end of his career, at the tail-end of the world.

He still stood alone, however, even after a decade in Australia. He was an Australian citizen all right, meshed with his colleagues in pub talk of footy and cricket (even if during Ashes test he remained the “Pommie bastard”) , and drank their brew, but it was the environment beyond the office, beyond the city, in which Bentley so often felt adrift. It was in woods and forests that he sometimes longed for a birch or elm and the familiar birds and animals that made them their home. And even on city streets some days he could not escape this feeling of homesickness, the song of the blackbird – lusty, rich and vibrant – taking him back to twilight nights in England, or a dewy dawn where spider webs were painted with translucent cool mist.

Sometimes Bentley believed he didn’t belong. It troubled him and on these mornings he sought solace in his communion with his birch.

The birch, if he listened to the tree police, did not belong either but Bentley, after studying it for several years, could argue that it did. The birch might not be native but it made its own contribution to the ecology of the city, a false and distorted one anyway because it relied so much on imported flora and fauna.

The birch, although not as majestic as the hardwoods, still towered a good 20 metres over nearby flowerbeds of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas and provided a perch some mornings for a hunting grey goshawk. Its layers of leaves were home to insects and in turn attracted grey fantails which danced in its shadow. Catkins brushed with pollen lured new holland and crescent honeyeaters in spring and in autumn dangling lambs’ tail seedpods, the seeds tiny like flakes of ground pepper, provided food for both eastern and green rosellas. The eastern rosellas were a joy to watch and some mornings, when flocks of six or seven birds festooned the tree, the tree itself went unnoticed.

Bentley was approaching his mid-60s, approaching retirement age, and if the birch could speak it would tell him it was also moving from the autumn to the winter of its life.

When Bentley had first learned of the birch’s limited three score and ten longevity, he had looked closely at the tree. The birch showed signs of its age. The trunk appeared sturdy and strong but the boughs were cracked and frayed. In winds, they swayed and creaked and in deep winter, leafless, the birch looked exposed and vulnerable and in pain. Did a birch feel that chill wind, did its boughs ache in an icy blast as Bentley’s bones and joints did? He believed so. The birch’s upper reaches were no longer full and rounded when in leaf in spring and summer. Dead boughs and twigs protruded through the canopy. Its crown was thinning.

Bentley feared for his precious tree when strong spring winds buffeted the city. After one particularly heavy pounding one night, Bentley hurried to the park next morning. Close to his home a poplar had crashed to the ground, broken and tangled and bringing powerlines down with it.

Bentley’s pace quickened. A feeling of dread, of impending loss, stalked him down Davey Street on his route to the park. Hollow. Gut-wrenching. He braced for the worst when he saw a tree-surgeon’s truck inside the park.

And there was the silver birch, spread out before him across the grass. It had come down in the night and the tree cutters had already dissected its trunk. The outer branches lie like roadkill, a plover or raven spread-eagled across the grass, two sections of canopy forming a blanket of wings.
A breeze whipped up a spray of silver bark flakes and yellow sawdust and Bentley, too, felt the murmur of death, its chill breath rustling his leaves.

 

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