Cut down to size


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.

that'll teach nature...

that’ll teach nature…

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.


Sydney jacarandas (Flickr/Francisco Martins)

Sydney jacarandas (Flickr/Francisco Martins)

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?


my Illawarra Flame Tree

my Illawarra Flame Tree

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.

the power of man

the power of man

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.

Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains

Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains

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.

Singapore (flickr/Jorge Cancela)

Singapore (flickr/Jorge Cancela)

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.

who doesn't like trees?

who doesn’t like trees?

Categories: Australia, OtherTags: , , , ,


  1. There is nothing sadder than the sound of a chainsaw cutting down trees – well, unless perhaps the sound of gun shots I woke to this morning, going after some poor animals nearby. I hope for Australia’s sake the trend you describe is curtailed, it would be too bad if the sidewalk-trim suburbs took over over. Those purple jacarandas in Sydney are stunning!

    • Nothing is guaranteed to spoil a walk in the country more than the sudden shock of gunfire nearby…I hope this rash of tree-cutting is short lived or I might become one of those who chain themselves to tree trunks. In the meantime, a little bit of guerrilla gardening seems perfectly in order…

  2. Trees are so essential – not just ecologically, but they enhance and benefit everything around them. Living walls are great, but they cannot replace trees, and Sydney would be a duller place without the variety and diversity of trees it enjoys

  3. My street in Surry Hills is lined with tall plane trees on both sides: in spring/summer they almost meet in the middle of the road to form a beautiful green canopy. My only complaint is the annual fit of sneezing I get when they shed their powdery flowers. But I can put up with a little discomfort a few weeks every year – a fair exchange for the visual pleasure they give us. (Apparently some of the trees being removed on/near Anzac Parade for the light rail could have been spared if the AJC would have agreed to have the tracks on their side of the road. Shame.)

    • The street trees of Surry Hills are such an important part of what makes the area special. But I seem to recall a rather half-hearted campaign some years back to have them replaced, simply because of that hayfever tendency. Those terrorizing trees!

  4. That’s so sad, and your photos of the tress are so beautiful I find it hard to understand why they would be cut down? I moved to Paris from the Bordeaux countryside, and it’s hard living in a city! At the moment our neighbour across the road has a spectacular wisteria in bloom, walking out into the road every morning and seeing and smelling it makes such a difference to my day. Earlier I saw an old lady picking a few stems off it to take home. Apart from all the greater concerns about preserving nature and our ecosystems, surely just the pleasure and sense of wellbeing we get from them is also worth preserving.

    • It’s funny that in Sydney we have a couple of areas that people call ‘the Paris end’, which simply means there’s a very leafy street. When I was in Paris last year I said to my partner, “I wonder where the Paris end of Paris is.” A tumbling wisteria certain lifts my spirits wherever it is.

  5. Even sadder is to see trees which are cut horizontally to about 3ft, like a hedge, and then continue to produce shoots from the side in a beautifully rebellious manner. They become totally misshapen but I still admire their courage.

    • Yes, you do see some terrible butchery – the French are great pollarders, if that doesn’t sound rude, and the power companies here often cut out huge holes through the middle of trees so their power lines can pass through (when putting them underground would make far more sense).

  6. My daily commute to work (from Lane Cove on Sydney’s North Shore to the Hills District) currently involves driving past 10 building sites at various stages of completion, ranging from large single apartment buildings to an entire ‘urban village’ (Lachlan’s Line with 2,700 dwellings planned into a very small footprint). It’s becoming a very depressing commute with more trees chainsawed every week, as these are generally the first casualty. This is causing as much damage as the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing rule from a couple of years ago that resulted in so many mature trees being turned into woodchips.

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