Timber, by Anne Franks
EYE IN THE TREE
Rustling leaves following my walk through the forest.
Covering the tracks where I slowly pass by,
The scent of trees lingers closely around me.
Air sweeter and heavier, but easier to breath,
Shade draining heat from Australian skies.
So many homes in a single tree standing,
Branches, knots and roots giving shelter to all.
Or in ones that have fallen whose time has passed,
Lying resting and soaking their life back to others,
Slowly fading away into damp forest floor.
Trees talk to trees through their leaves and their roots,
Or so I have read in myths and half facts.
They know us well – we are welcome to be there,
Their wisdom flows, but their trust surely wanes,
As we wantonly grind them with screaming steel teeth.
The glowing white gum stands proudly outstretching,
Dappled shade slides down through leaves where I lie,
Feeling insects and birds, sensing other trees listening,
Dozing and dreaming, safe under its shelter.
An eye high in its trunk watching all of everything.
Dream about trees talking of air and water,
To their neighbours, their family, in their time not ours.
So little in common but still they accept us,
Not judging, no pleading, just growing in sunlight.
A love still enduring the cruelty we do.
The Eye of the Tree sees all this
A BETTER TREE THAN MOST
The droning persisted on the hot, muggy afternoon where even the blowflies were listless. The wanderings and sluggish acrobatics of a couple of blowies, however, were of meatier interest than the bandying of innovative ideas, otherwise known to the jaded as re-cycled curriculum. Airless and yawnful, the staff meeting was lagging like a Friday wet-weather timetable.
Her languid gaze strayed over to the bulging and bloated bookcase underneath the heating duct. It was overfed with dog-eared manila folders and forgotten textbooks yet to be ditched, or cast off to Kenya. Suddenly alert, she calculated that, with a little flexibility, she could step onto the table, knee first onto the fat bookcase, then prone, slide onto the heating duct below the window (if she could survive the dust). But she needed to act now, whilst others were sharing their dronings. Or were enchanted by blowflies.
Slithering out the partially open window onto the beckoning branch of The Tree was easy-peasy. She nested on its sofa: two branches formed close together fashioning a chaise longue. The canopy of lemony foliage an umbrella of shady secrecy, a silken sky above.
She knew The Tree well. It had been her only comrade on days of warfare yard-duty, along with a regular gawky fringe-dweller who sought an alliance. She had often smoothed its buttery satin sheen, watching it shed its epidermis in curling twists. Ants shared the fascination and would play chasey around the whorls and knots, teasing with crumbs from jilted jam sandwiches made with love by an unwitting grandma. Tattooed love hearts and shameless promises could not stain its presence. The Tree arched: soaring, solid, stately, seeing all, judging nothing.
It was as good a tree as any, and better than most, but it was dying. Tragically, The Tree was to be felled, its diseased limbs impossibly threatening. This could be the last time she stroked its skin, smelt its honeyed eucalyptus breath and curled in its protective wisdom. She cocooned the rescued gumnut, murmured her sad farewells.
Slowing her breathing, she reminded herself that she was capable. She loved this climb in Summerday Valley, Gariwerd, and this her favourite pitch. Not difficult for skilful rock climbers, which she was not, but airy, exposed and spectacular.
Climbing out of the lofty cave’s window, onward and upward, the sandstone face off-vertical. With good foot and handholds, she exhaled, placed a cam for safety and sat. Looking out over the Wimmera Plains a vast hushed flatness welcomed her: a deserted landscape with the occasional tree, and the soundless dusty blur of a ute on the horizon. The kindest sky with gentle, gauzy clouds watchful from above. She was alone with her thoughts, the sweetest zephyr and the silence of a million years.
And, there where she had tenderly cast the gumnut seeds years ago, sandy soil in a crack between guardian boulders, was a sapling growing fearlessly and proudly. Sentinel of the Plains, with two branches formed close together, exactly where they should be.
THE STORY OF THE BOWED TREE
what can I say
upwards and outwards towards a large indifferent sky
bowed and swerving
could go either way,
where it is, you’re
too big for this neighbourhood
ready to explode, flinging fleshy bits of tree
into our neat suburban gardens.
The two-year old child, standing by the back door of the farmhouse, is dwarfed by the huge expanse of sky above her.
Dressed in cotton pyjamas, and with a mop of curls steamy and wet from her bath, her bright blue eyes scan the evening sky.
She waits impatiently, scuffing her slippers into the dry ground and practising her new word:
Coos, coos, coos.
Then she hears the familiar sound in the distance. She throws both arms above her head and dances a jig, sending a cloud of summer dust into the air.
The child can barely contain her excitement, knowing what is to come.
The first to arrive is the prima ballerina.
She flies onto the stage, an expansive quilt of scarlet and gold strewn across the evening sky.
The little girl’s face is alive. She claps wildly and calls out again:
Coos, coos, coos.
The spirited and graceful soloist swoops and soars through the sky, choreographing her own performance, in command of the heavens.
Her screeching heralds the arrival of hundreds of Sulphur-crested cockatoos sweeping in from the south. The brilliant white of the corps de ballet flies as one, tilting and banking, smooth and fluid. The cockatoos fill the sky and momentarily blanket the brilliance of the sinking sun.
The little girl knows them well, these majestic masters of the sky. She sees them pillaging the oat crops ripening on the southern edge of the farm. Then at dusk, she watches them swooping over her home as they return to their nesting trees, the twin Red Gums. These sentinels in the front paddock by the northern road, provide a haven for the cockatoos.
This evening, as the birds approach on their flight path, the heavens reverberate with their raucous cries.
The girl watches. Swirling and twirling, their powerful white wings fan out like dervishes of the sky, wildly whirling and spinning to their own hypnotic rhythm.
The cockatoos dip low, looping the loop over the sun-bleached paddocks, just clearing the trees. She cranes her neck with mouth wide open, intoxicated by the wonder of their display.
The flock passes directly over the farmhouse and the child, like a synchronised, ceremonial fly past. When their piercing screeches reach fever pitch, she covers her ears, but still the discordant and irreverent screams of the birds fill her world.
She squeals, dizzy with delight, knowing these aerialists perform their acrobatics just for her.
And each evening, she calls out to the cockatoos, reproaching them for their raucous behaviour.
Baa baa coos (go to bed cockatoos).
They disappear to the north over the farmhouse roof, as quickly as they arrived. The cries of the cockatoos become faint.
As the colours of the sunset fade to twilight, the child is left with only the sounds of the wind rustling through the long summer grass and the distant cawing of crows.
Giant of the landscape,
Unyielding to the seasons change.
Majestic trunk, light painted,
Towering skywards, smooth, sinuous,
Rearing overhead, limbs splayed,
Elegantly swaying as the winds change,
Exhaling sun fed salvation.
It’s what both the lesser ones and the old call her.
Urth. It sounds like a prayer.
‘It’s where she comes from,’ they say. ‘It’s who she is.’
Except for himinn, no-one is old enough to remember her coming into the world.
‘Wyrd Urth,’ they call her. Even the words sound old, old like destiny.
That’s not to forget memory. The memory that is as ancient as the urth from which she comes. ‘Above her is himinn,’ the old ones tell the young. ‘A blue world beyond reach. But urthbound she remains. The breezes of summer are her prayer to him, the winds of winter her laments at consummation denied.’
His answer is cruel. ‘Patience,’ he tells her on those same breezes.
Her hunger straddles the ages. Sol in light and Mani in darkness also counsel patience. ‘He is slow to love,’ they tell her.
With age comes the maturity to know how forbearance, doggedness and affection are tempered by time, growing like her limbs, spreading up and out, pleading and needing till hope flutters back to the urth generating her children.
New life there is, but none grow as big or as strong or more patient than Urth.
Beneath her arms too, the quick, the slow, the bold and the shy come and go, their moments in the sun brief as a summer’s day. Birth gives way to life, life to death. All return to urth and, like the forgiving mother she is, she absorbs them till they are one with her. Season after season. Heat followed by cold.
Now here she stands. Alone. Like himinn. Still above her, still her distant love, still aloof.
‘He will come for her one day,’ the old ones say. ‘His patience is infinite. One day, she will hear the voice of her beloved. On that day, she will know by the thrill of expectation rippling through her arms. Only then will he whisper in a voice soft as the thunder of ages. We are here, his voice will tell her. You and I. Only then when all patience is exhausted will she feel him drawing her to him. On that day she will know. They are not of time, they are time.’
It’s where she comes from. It’s who she is.
No-one alive is old enough to remember a time before her.
She is Wyrd Urth, ancient and indivisible. Lesser things may come and go but she is forever.
Like himinn. Theirs is a match made in Heaven. Or Valhalla or Himnariki or Lani or Taivas or Paraiso or …
She understands them all.
Patience. It is a bitter lesson to be learned.
On that day she will weep the tears of happiness.
And together the two of them will know all.
They will see all.
They are all.
I didn’t get back to the spot for almost fifty years.
My GP said I was too old to travel, but I wanted to see Petra, climb the pyramids again and so on. These days they call it a bucket list or something; suppose it is when you think about it too.
We had downed our shears and jumped the rattler for an adventure. Butch left a few broken hearts behind. I left a shed full of long-wool merinos and the boss’s enmity.
‘Selfish bastard,’ he intoned. ‘Never mind the war, I’ve got a shed full and you‘re not helping by pissing off.’ But we still went.
We made a cross with our thumbnails, got a haircut and a horse and a free trip to the Middle East. Butch could shoot the eye out of a needle at 200 yards so he was ranked marksman. I wasn’t far behind. ‘Light Horse,’ he sniggered. ‘Howzat, Trooper?’
The Walers and us got tipped off at Port Said, got leave to sightsee in Cairo, then before long we were tented up in Syria. It was bloody freezing, the snow knee deep and wicking up the walls of our tents. They were iceboxes inside. Honestly, it was warmer standing next to your mount all night out in the horse lines. One of us always had to. The Arabs were starving and a horse made a good meal.
A few oasis raids later the magic went away, Johnny Turk turned out to be as good a shooter as us, and the tinned food they fed diggers on started to run us ragged.
‘Give a lot for some of me mum’s fruit cake,’ Butch used to say. We were smoking too much, starting to live on out nerves. Faces began to disappear.
Butch had a habit of going quiet. We were trotting out to a remote oasis in some hills. A stubborn Turkish garrison there was blocking a road or something – they never told us all that stuff, just turned us loose to get the job done.
‘Mate,’ Butch said coming out of his reverie. ‘If I get knocked today do something for me. In my wallet there’s a cotton pouch. Inside’s a handful of manna gum seeds from near home. Drop a few on the ground will you?’
I told him not to get all mopey, we’d be right – always were. But it didn’t turn out that way and we buried him not far from where the Turkish sniper got him.
I broke my trip and paid a taxi to take me out there again. One of the gums had sprouted and stood twenty metres tall. No sign of Butch’s grave of course but I knew this was the spot.
‘G’day mate,’ was all I could say.
I stand and gaze in wonder, dwarfed by the giant Eucalypts in this ancient temperate forest.
These pillars standing proudly as they have done for eons, like the columns of the parthenon, reaching earnestly for the heavens.
Songs of lorikeets and rosellas, a magnificent and lyrical choral ode filling the air.
Creeks distantly babbling and the undulating surrounds are filled with a veritable palette of earthly hues.
The remarkable verdure of the ferns that blanketed the ground contrast the decaying foliage nourishing the earth below.
Aromatic scent of gums delighting my senses, casting me back to times with my grandfather as we ambled down the well worn tracks.
This place speaks to my heart.
This is my home.
THE TREE ON THE HILL
‘It’s snowing!’ our older sister Sally announced. ‘Come and have a look, Nelly.’
We crowded around the window. Sally lifted Nelly so she could see the snowflakes falling from the leaden sky. When it stopped snowing the twins put on their jackets, mittens, and gum boots. I went to fetch mine.
‘You can wear my scarf, Bobby,’ our old Pop wheezed. He wrapped it around my neck. It covered my mouth.
‘Wait, boys, you can take Nelly with you.’ Mother bundled Nelly into her coat.
‘Hurry up, Nelly,’ Brendan yelled. After a while the twins took pity on her and grabbed her hands. ‘One, two, three,’ they counted, swinging her between them.
On the top of the hill I stood gazing in awe at the majesty of the redgum—a giant wearing a blanket of snow, his leaves encased in icicles like frozen grasping fingers …
The spell was broken when Brian pelted us with snowballs. Brendan put some snow down Nelly’s neck. ‘I’m cold,’ she whined.
We slipped and slid down the hill. Nelly fell on her bottom. The twins pulled her along the rest of the way home. Dinner, bath, pyjamas—we were all tired and for once nobody whinged when it was bedtime.
That night Pop died.
The snow had melted before the funeral. We stood by the grave as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Mother and Sally were crying. The twins, in their Sunday best, were well-behaved for once. Only Nelly stood out. She was like a little flame with her curly red hair and bright red coat.
‘Where’s our Poppy?’ she said in a loud whisper.
‘Shoosh, Nelly,’ said Brendan.
On the first sunny Saturday of spring we rushed through our chores so we could escape the confines of the house and yard. Our family liked a good rabbit stew. Pop had taught the twins how and where to set traps. While feeding the chooks, I overheard Brendan and Brian talking about going to check their traps out near the creek.
‘I want to come too,’ said Nelly.
‘Well you can’t. You’re too little,’ Brian told her.
They ran off, leaving her behind.
Shutting the gate of the chook pen behind me, I ducked down before Nelly could see me. I wanted to spend the afternoon climbing that redgum on the top of the hill.
The wind made a low, moaning sound through the swaying branches and I could see for miles. Our house looked so tiny from up there. I saw the twins jumping from rock to rock as they crossed the creek, and Nelly too, dressed in her red coat, trailing along behind them. The twins didn’t see her fall into the rushing water. I called out but they couldn’t hear me. I slithered down the tree getting cuts and scratches in my hurry to get to the bottom. I ran all the way to the creek.
It was too late to save Nelly.