Ed#465: Tell it to the Trees

15 August 2014 Melissa Cranenburgh

Ed#465: Tell it to the Trees

I wasn’t exactly awe-struck by the old tree in the car park beside our offices: a medium-sized tree with evergreen foliage, which – when I finally decided it rated closer attention – proved to have the kind of nobbled and knotted trunk a children’s storybook writer would adore. For most of the years I’ve worked in this old bluestone rectory (home to The Big Issue for 18 plus years), I’ve paid the great old olive tree only enough attention to skirt around it as I came and went.

That all changed maybe a year or more ago. I was outside talking to the endlessly affable car park guy, Matt, when someone in a one-tonne truck nearly ran right into the tree. Matt, face a little reddened, shouted out in a somehow still friendly tone: “Hey, mate watch out. That tree’s heritage listed.” I was surprised. “Yeah, it’s supposed to be one of the oldest exotics in Melbourne,” Matt explained as we went to inspect the damage. (The tree was fine; the fence posts placed protectively around the trunk had done their job, now bowed towards the tree like knocked teeth.)

It was hard not to be lured in after that. On lunch breaks, after work, I’d pause beside the old tree, marvelling at the contradiction of the gnarled trunk and the oddly youthful leaves. Once, I was moved to gently rub a leaf from the lower branches. My thumb and fingers came away dirty; the green tops and silvery undersides were gritty with thick dust, no doubt dislodged by hundreds of sets of tyres. I pondered the tree’s strangely antithetical situation. A great old olive, marooned in a sea of parked cars, beside two striking 150-year-old gothic bluestone buildings, one of them a church. Who, I wondered, planted this old creature? Why here? And what would they make of this strange modern-day tableau?

The local council confirmed the tree was heritage listed. And there is some debate about its age. Some have it that one of the founders of the Wesley Church brought it here in 1839: a tiny olive pip on a long journey from Jerusalem. Others, that lay preacher Mr Mars Miller planted it in 1875. Whatever the truth, it is at least 130 years old, and this ancient migrant has held its branches over the muddy foundations of Melbourne. It slowly grew taller as the human population rapidly ebbed and flowed – shifting in form and attitude, in dress and language. The old olive itself has made just one other physical shift in its long life. It was moved 25 metres in 1988, to its somewhat inglorious modern post of car-park sentinel. But perhaps the old olive tree has been subtly growing in influence. Because, this edition, we’re all thinking about trees and their place in complex ecosystems, both natural and man-made.

Take our cover story, ‘Wood for the Trees’ (p14): in the lead-up to the 35th anniversary of Australia’s first recognised forestry protests, Greg Foyster questions whether the old ‘greenies versus loggers’ rhetoric has any place in a modern landscape affected by much more nuanced interests. YD Bar-Ness, ecologist and tree climber, has much loftier concerns. In ‘Branching Out’ (p18), he shares his views from the world’s canopy – from Indian banyan trees to the Jurassic giants of New Zealand. And throughout are captivating images of trees, most notably in this edition’s Roving Eye (p24) photo essay – featuring Rachel Sussman’s evocative series The Oldest Living Things in the World.


FICTION LOVERS GET READY: next edition we launch our annual fiction issue – 16 pages fatter, and bursting with fine fiction. As the popular edition turns 10 this year, we’ll be celebrating with launches at the Melbourne and Brisbane writers’ festivals – all are welcome (see thebigissue.org.au for details). But, wherever you are in Australia, you’re guaranteed to have some good tales to take you through the last days of winter and into spring.


>> Melissa Cranenburgh is Associate Editor of The Big Issue

This article appears in issue #465 of The Big Issue