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Two things have got me thinking again about the meaning of trees. The first was the trip to New England NSW I have mentioned in the previous two blogs. There trees are hard to ignore. They stand in stark lines across sheep pastures. They clump around dwellings. They form avenues, glow with autumn colour or dot the grassland as contorted grey trunks, ringbarked years ago or killed by die-back.

Poplars and willows north of Armidale
Poplars and willows north of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

The second was re-reading Michael Pembroke’s really beautiful book Trees of History and Romance: Essays from a Mount Wilson Garden, in which the horticulture and cultural history of 21 types of exotic trees – those that grow in the author’s mountain garden – are outlined.

This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place
This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place just south of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

My postgraduate work on public parks and the symbolism of flora, twenty or so years ago, made me very aware of the historical ambivalence of many non-indigenous Australians to the vegetation of the country they took from the first people. ‘The invaders hated trees’ was WK Hancock’s unequivocal summation. Writing in 1930, he was responding to more than a century of de-afforestation. By then, the Big Scrub, that once covered 75,000 hectares around the northern rivers of NSW, had all but disappeared. Such was its size and so sanguine were newcomers that they estimated the forest would last 600 years. Hancock saw it all as the hollow triumph of the ‘greed’ and ‘ignorance’ of a ‘transplanted’ people. (WK Hancock, Australia, [1930], 1945, pp.30-33)

Of course the ‘transplanted’ did not hate all trees. In time, they actually came to celebrate the endemic flora.  The golden wattle, for instance, would be embraced as a symbol of a nation – albeit a golden-haired, white one. Painter Hans Heysen and photographer Harold Cazneaux both elevated the maligned Eucalypt to the status of icon emblematic of the tenacious pioneer.

And the ‘transplanted’ people brought with them attitudes to trees that were deeply ‘rooted’ (the puns are telling and intentional) in British and wider European culture. They transplanted exotic species out of affection and practical familiarity.

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The Elm avenue at Gostwyk station, Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2014

It is interesting to wonder then what prompted the Dangar family, owners of Gostwyck sheep station on the New England plateau, to plant 200 English Elm trees (Ulmus procera) to create a grand avenue that would impress visitors coming to their big home. They were almost certainly aware of the use of Elms on coffins and ships’ hulls. But more so through English verse and painting, the Elm was synonymous with the working countryside – an association that a landed family of ‘improvers’ in ‘New England’ would be keen to promote. The Elms were planted sometime after the family felt it had consolidated its holding in the wake of the 1861 Selection Act which threatened to break up the vast properties taken up by squatters in earlier years. Gostwyck was established in 1836.

Elsewhere on the plateau there are stands of Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) – huge trees at least 100 years old planted obviously as wind-breaks in pastures and around dwellings because their needles so effectively block moving air. These are North American trees but in the England of the late 18th and 19th centuries, conifers were increasingly planted on estates because they could flourish in the thin soil of moors that were being enclosed and thereby acquired by the landed. They were, then, widely known among the newcomers and were as emblematic as the Elm or Oak. In Australia, also, the shape and colouring of the pine was easily distinguished from that of the native flora. I think they must also have served as landmarks for those returning to home after working in the bush or pasture.

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A stand of Radiata Pines around a building site, near Gostwyk station, Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

So when I see a stand of Pines, as opposed to a wind-breaking line, I wonder whether they once enclosed a home. Their presence in such formations is so clearly part of a cultural landscape. Like Gostwyck’s avenue of Elms, these Pines are evidence of the shaping intent of newcomers. But where the former speak of the permanence of the occupiers, empty Pine groves indicate their departure. Sometimes those stories can be recovered, often we can only imagine.

 

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I recently spent a few days up on and around the New England plateau in northern New South Wales. It is a region so-named when the first squatters moved in back in the 1830s because of its climate rather than any physical resemblance to an English landscape. The association has stuck and been amplified by architecture – the two central grand churches are Gothic and Norman and the area’s largest house Booloominbah (1888) is a tour-de-force of architectural Anglophilia, right down to the celebration of the life and death of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, in a stained glass window. The old and more recent deciduous plantings in town and around outlying properties have added a natural association to Old England. The autumn colours were breathtakingly beautiful.

These reds and golds contrasted with the surrounding pastoral landscape and remnant forest which was a subdued grey green. And because New England is granite country the boulders which often lie strewn around the pastures emphasize that muted palette.

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I was struck by the effect that landscape had on me. The expanse of ground and concurrent vastness of the sky – filled with clouds that were punctured by occasional sun - was obviously dramatic. But there was a melancholy about the scenes which I had felt before but never quite so strongly. Aesthetic, rather than depressive melancholy, is prompted by contemplation. Its certainly not joyous but neither is it debilitating and corrosive. Indeed it can be seductive. The philosopher SØren Kierkegaard wrote of it as a ‘love’ - a mistress to which he kept returning. For my part I couldn’t help stopping to look and photograph what I saw in an attempt to capture the quality.

There must be some psychological basis for the connection between the emotion and aesthetic – hence the term ‘sombre’ colour I suppose.

But there is so much that is cultural – right down to the feeling of loneliness that an empty landscape can evoke. For me the cultural is always historical. Swirling around in my head when I looked around were imagined narratives of those who colonised the place – both squatter and shepherd - and those who were dispossessed. Beauty and wonderment was mixed up with sadness. There was also a wondering about a landscape transformed by clearing - though remarkably there is no consensus on what the original place was like. The explorer John Oxley likened it to parkland. Was this because of Aboriginal fire-stick farming or was it a natural open forest?

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Melancholy was a powerful theme for the writer Judith Wright whose roots were embedded in the area but who became aware that her connection to the place was still relatively recent and that her family story was one of wealth derived from dispossession and environmental transformation. She reprinted her poem ‘south of my days’ in her 1999 autobiography. The first verse is:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
Of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
Low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite –
Clean, lean hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
Willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
Branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen,
And the old cottage lurches in for shelter…

My own family moved constantly after we arrived in Australia in 1966 so there are no roots – even recent – for me to agonise over here. But we did live for a while in a country town not too far from Armidale and Wright’s reference to an old cottage and green lichen recalls my own discoveries of empty houses and derelict orchards. Even as a boy the presence of abandonment evoked a strong melancholy - beauty and sadness merged. Its a response that goes back at least to Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem 'The Deserted Village'; though as a boy I was hardly aware of broader social forces that led to abandonment - central to Goldsmith's poem and no doubt underlying the places I came across. However that sense of a landscape disappearing and an economy shifting - constant centralisation and homogenisation - now adds to the historical basis of melancholy. Dispossession gives way to dispossession, disappearance to more disappearance.

Those feelings were reprised when I drove through Tyringham – a tiny place north 120 kms of Armidale named after another in Buckinghamshire but one I had always associated with poor timber mill families. Tyringham began as a series of slab huts one of which may still be there.

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I stopped to photograph that and was directed by a local to two graves a short distance away.

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Behind the grave site was a planked house on the verge of collapse, with a windmill nearby. It turns out that the headstones are those of John and Isabella Perrett who established the village and ran the local hotel and store from the mid-1800s. They died in the 1890s. A century later their plot is being overtaken by tobacco tree and ivy, and the place they created is melting away. More sadness and beauty.

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