Reading the Trees

5 September 2019 Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Reading the Trees

Moreton Bay Fig at the Adelaide Botanic Garden.

On moving to Australia, I discovered I was tree-illiterate. What surprised me wasn’t my lack of arboreal knowledge, but how much that lack perturbed me. Walking through Glebe, an inner suburb of Sydney and my new home, I found myself lost amid anonymous greenery. The trees reminded me that I was a stranger here.

Back home, my tree literacy was garden variety. As a primary student on the Canadian prairies, I’d had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s willows, oaks, elms and cedars.

What I didn’t realise, until my husband and I left Winnipeg for a new life in Sydney, was that this knowledge mattered. That I could picture a cluster of redwoods, or direct a friend’s gaze up the branches of a birch. That if someone yelled, “that spruce is coming down”, I knew which way to run.

In every animal alphabet book of my childhood, K was for kangaroo or koala. So on our arrival, Steve and I supposed we knew something of Australia. We were more literally correct than we realised. Our knowledge of the country’s natural diversity was as sophisticated as a child’s alphabet book.

Take kookaburras. I knew of them, but this did nothing to prepare me for their wondrous, bounding laughter. The first time we heard them, on a walk in Victoria Park, I mistook the sound. “Monkeys!” I tugged on Steve’s sleeve as I scanned the branches of nameless trees. “Australia doesn’t have monkeys,” he said. “The English didn’t import them for sport?” He frowned, less certain.

Later I discovered that kookaburra laughter is integral to jungle scene-setting in numerous Hollywood movies, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park. At some point, a producer decided kookaburras sound more like monkeys than monkeys themselves do, and the Aussie birds have been creating jungle ambience in American blockbusters ever since.

I got hooked on the birds first. I’d long considered bird-watching a hobby for people who couldn’t find any wet paint to entertain themselves.

In hindsight, this is because Canadian birds are, to be honest, dull. Winnipeg’s avian soundtrack ranges from the crow’s grating caw to the more distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee, with generic twitters in between.

In Australia though, the birds refused to be ignored. Their neon rainbow plumage and dawn-to-dusk trilling captivated me. Listen to our madcappery, they called. Are we capuchins? Pterodactyls? A time-travel sound effect in a cartoon?

What sublime creatures were making these unfathomable, hypnotic sounds? We pondered their taunting mysteries, often hearing birds we couldn’t spot, as if the trees themselves were calling to us, inviting us to scrutinise their foliage.

I asked around, but every conversation went the same way.  

Me: “I heard this bird, it was like wooo-ooooo wooo-oooooo. Do you know it?”
Australian: “That sounds like an ambulance siren.”
Me: “Yeah, but more lyrical. Like The X-Files theme, but a bird?”
Australian: “Was it a currawong?”
Me: “What’s a currawong?”

Likewise the trees. I once would have said that a tree is a tree is a tree. While I could distinguish Canadian trees, I was accustomed to them, like television re-runs. Some trees did put on a colourful show during the three weeks autumn lasts on the prairies, and then dumped their leaves in a frost-induced panic. The evergreens, though spruce, pine and cedar – they looked the same all year. They weren’t even trying.

Australian trees demanded our attention, proving themselves as vibrant and remarkable as the birds. In this way, I learned it was bottlebrush and red flowering gum that burst into bloom like fireworks. 

That the distinct scent tingling like a nasal rinse came from the floral puffs of golden wattle. That the rust red branches, gnarled into unpredictable shapes, were Sydney red gums.

Years on, the trees still force me to stop and stare, to contemplate the twisting protrusions of grevillea flowers, the patterns scribbled into scribbly gums. To pull out my pocket-sized Trees of Australia and start flipping pages.

“C’mon,” Steve calls, metres ahead of me. He’s not interested in developing his tree literacy. A tree is a tree is a tree. Though even he has his exceptions, like the annual purpling of the jacarandas, which we look forward to more than Christmas.

At the top of Glebe Point Road, where it gives way to the foreshore, two Moreton Bay figs stand sentinel. These leathery-leafed giants never flare into joyous bloom or drop all their bark like a striptease. Like the evergreens I wrote off in my childhood, they stand more or less the same all year, quietly adding another few centimetres.

Still, I was thankful when I stumbled on their name in my pocket guide, because I will talk about them to anyone who will listen. How their branches arch, brushing the ground, creating a private world you can step inside. How standing in their dappled shade fills me with a special joy.

» Ashley Kalagian Blunt (@AKalagianBlunt) is the author of My Name Is Revenge.

» This article first appeared in The Big Issue ed#595.