Trees Are Company by Julia Brougham
Julia is a landcare co-ordinator on Ash Island in the Hunter River. We asked her to blog about Nature.
We were a rambling trio on Ash Island, strolling and looking, and we were suddenly transfixed. A lizard wrapped around the stalk of a tall skinny mushroom, munching chunks from the cap. The mushroom was growing in the leaf litter at the base of the old male plum pine tree, botanical name Podocarpus elatus. Termite tunnels filled the fissures of the tree’s scaly bark. A shelf-like bracket fungus, big as a hand, growing from the trunk. Spiders in rolled leaf shelters webbed to the branches. Spear shaped leaves whorled along the twigs and pointed towards the light. There it stood, the simple essence of a tree - trunk, roots, branches twigs and leaves. But, as a whole, it wasn’t simple. It was a company, a small ecology of nested, connected, and layered organic structures, each different in appearance but interdependent.
We have an affectionate affinity for this particular tree, though we’d had no hand in propagating it or planting it. It is symbolic. The only one of its species surviving in a tiny remnant of the coastal rainforest that once covered Ash Island.
In time it became a marker point, surrounded by thousands of other trees and plants as we worked together on the common goal of recreating coastal rainforest in the Rainforest Walk. Trees in company, people in company, because trees and humans are relational beings reliant on and cooperating with many other living organisms.
Stand close to a tree. You and the tree are sharing the same air. The tree does you a big favour, recycling the carbon you breathe out and giving you back more oxygen. The account it keeps of this exchange is archived in its growth rings. Long lived, trees keep our secrets in this incorruptible data set of seasons shared, of seasons fat with sunshine and rain, of seasons gritted thin with drought.
The trunk of a eucalypt, botanical name Corymbia aparrerinja, stands at the centre of a national monument in Barcaldine, Queensland. It marks the meeting place of shearers whose failed strike in 1891 influenced the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Truth or legend? Salvation Army musicians gathered under it and the locals named it the Hallelujah Tree. Decades later another local dubbed it the Tree of Knowledge, a name that stuck. People felt connected by that tree, projected memories onto it, shared its sparse shade in a place with few trees. When it died in 2006 - was it poisoned on purpose or in error - grief, anger, suspicion and accusations were let fly. The corpse of the ghost gum, its apt common name, was chemically preserved. Its progress to the next stage of the carbon cycle, the dissolving of its molecules back into soil and air, has been interrupted. For an indeterminate time, it will stay fixed at the centre of a cloud of myth, symbolism, dispute, and a tourism event with its own Facebook page.
Tree-ness, the essence of being a tree. Trunk and branches enclosing spaces yet open to the sky. Tree-ness House in Tokyo, designed by architect Akihisa Hirata, is a tangled space, a house where inside outside is undefined. Openings to the streetscape echo the spaces between trunk and branches, external greenery connects the layers into an organic whole. The Japanese architect, living in a country which has given us shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, expresses his vision of tree as house, of a feeling hard to put into words, an attempt to bridge a gap between us and the natural world.
“This project is a complex building of houses and galleries built in Tokyo, Toshimaku. One tree is organically integrated with a combination of parts having different characteristics, such as a trunk, a branch, and a leaf. As with the tree, we tried to create an organic architecture that could be formed by a hierarchical combination of different parts such as plants/pleats (as openings) / concrete boxes.”
We project our personal needs onto trees and ask many services of them. Symbol, servant, protector, spiritual guide, confidante, colleague, therapist, cleaner, recycler, fellow activist, data mine, and messenger in an unequal exchange.
Quietly acknowledge everything trees give you.