This morning the usual peace and quiet of my suburban street was shattered by the sound of a chainsaw. A street tree was being removed. It was not a great tree – a eucalypt of some sort, which was growing at an alarming slant over the street – so I wasn’t that surprised. And yet this is the fourth tree to be removed from the street this year. Soon there will be none left, except for those which stand in people’s front yards (and which get radical prunes at various times). Where once the trees were beginning to arch and meet over the street there is nothing but air. This year, there has been the continuing removal of beautiful old Moreton Bay fig trees close to the centre of Sydney, to allow for a new tramline to run from the centre to the Eastern Suburbs. Replacements will be planted, they say, and yet it’s just another sign that Australia seems to have become a nation of tree-haters.
In a previous post I mentioned Robin Boyd’s book The Australian Ugliness, which was published in 1960. In it he mentions the aboraphobia of Australians, the desire to cut down trees and keep the wild, wild nature at bay. It feels as though nothing has changed.
Australian native trees are rather messy things. They tend to drop whole branches for no apparent reason, making them less than ideal for school areas, and giving them the name ‘widow makers.’ And they drop leaves constantly, according to the weather, and shed bark, so there’s always a natural litter at their feet. The paperbark tree’s trunk looks like something made from papier mâché, and at this time of year its canopy is filled with blossom, which the parrots and bees adore, and which gives the air a curious smell of mashed potato. The spreading limbs and roots of fig trees are nothing short of architectural wonders. And there are also many exotics, such as the feathery jacaranda, which puts on a show of purple flowers in the last months of the year, and of course palms, including the awful Cocos palm which was planted in many gardens in the 1980s and whose heavy crop of berries makes it an invasive weed. But don’t trees clean the air and bring in welcome shade? Don’t they support complicated eco-systems? Don’t they make our cities more liveable and more beautiful?
In my own garden I have an Illawarra Flame Tree, a local species that loses all its leaves at one point and becomes covered in vivid red bracts. You often see them planted next to jacaranda trees, as they flower at the same time, and look simply stunning.
When I first arrived in Sydney I was rather surprised to find that the parts not bounded by the ocean are bounded by forest. Hence the problem with bush fire, which can invade the leafier parts of the city if not controlled. Naturally people are afraid of fire, and some disastrous bushfires in Australia over the past few years have reinforced that. And property has become so expensive that development is rife, turning suburbs like mine, with their quarter-acre gardens, into huge housing developments, as gardens are merged into building sites. Where once there were two houses, now there may be ten. Naturally the trees have to go, along with any sense of natural beauty.
Gradually the leafy outlook from my house has changed into a more manmade array of Colorbond roofs and gleaming white extensions. Planted gardens are replaced by decked areas with pots. At the moment a pretty magnolia called Little Gem is popular, which has huge, fragrant cream flowers, but as these begin to grow above the line of eaves they are removed. Nothing large is planted anymore because there simply isn’t room.
For a country that promotes its natural environment as its prime tourist attraction, the denuding of its cities seems remarkably short sighted. Traditional main streets across the country are bare of trees, leaving broad streets baking in the sun where there could be cool shade. I think of Singapore and the way its manmade environment is beautified by its many street trees. A recent directive makes adding living walls to parts of each building mandatory. It would be so easy to do that here in Sydney, if the will was there.
My quiet street will become quieter without the birds that filled its trees. And I’m not sure where the magpies will go that nested each year in the tree they cut down this morning.