Photo by Kevin Laminto on Unsplash
My mother was an early tree whisperer. On sweltering summer days she’d dragoon her three young children into schlepping buckets of water across the road to a spare suburban park so that we might quench newly planted striplings and coax them into leaf. More than sixty years later these trees are muscular giants offering shade and beauty and a generous green bower.
Our back garden harboured an orchard of fig, apple, citrus, but best of all a broad hipped, sturdy mulberry tree that grew barely a skip from the backdoor. Uncle George, a man who loved the grain of wood so much he crafted beautiful wooden bowls in his workshop, was a bachelor with a mischievous spirit. He nailed planks between the boughs for a hidey hole where we would scramble up to escape trouble or make believe or sit and think.
Lit by dappled light through a dense canopy of gnarled branches our cubby was a version of the wardrobe door imagined by children’s author C.S.Lewis. Once in its woody grasp we crossed a threshold into enchantment where the scenarios and characters and kingdoms were shuffled and dealt depending on who was captaining our ark.
As well as encouraging imaginative flight to other realms this arboreal great aunt taught us to appreciate the world we inhabited when we came back to earth. Without blackboards or chalk we were shown the passage of the seasons and the inter-connectedness of birds, seeds, insects, bark, fruit, worms and soil.
The excitement of feeding mulberry leaves to silk worms kept in shoe boxes exposed our fertile minds to a riveting life cycle. These first pets plumped corpulently into caterpillars as they munched towards their grand finale spinning gossamer threads into soft creamy cocoons. This miniature cardboard diorama showcased close-up nature’s ingenious design.
In summer the first mulberry fruit would bud, tight fisted in delicate shades of pink. We’d watch and wait impatiently until they puckered fat and sweet and black oozing a purple juice that dyed our clothes and our skin and the paving stones below as we crushed the luscious fruit underfoot, traipsing scarlet footprints inside with a wallop from our mother who had told us a zillion times to be careful with her carpet.
The mulberry harboured us when we were at sea in ourselves. We could disappear up here to lick wounds and find solace and listen to the sounds of the wind rippling and rustling above. As the days shortened and the mornings became frostier we’d lose our cloister as the foliage thinned carpeting the ground in yellow.
Nobody ever injured themselves tumbling from our perch. Our childhood wasn’t free range. We didn’t disappear on bikes through paddocks or swim in creeks. We didn’t even go camping. Our parents were bookish indoor people. But we had our tree to carry us beyond the fence line.
I’ve thought of this tree and its comforting arms many times in the past few years since delving into the lives of early 20th century adventurers, Kate and Gustav Weindorfer, who were fascinated by nature. When Austrian born Gustav got off the boat in Fremantle, Western Australia, he felt saddened by the drab, dry shrivelled eucalypts in summer. But he grew to love our native flora. On the arm of his Tasmanian wife, Kate, he discovered the high country wilderness of Cradle Mountain. They built a chalet beside a forest of myrtle, beech, and King Billy pine, a strong, pliant timber endemic to Tasmania. Gustav split logs by hand for their forest home.
Whenever they were apart they spoke to each other in letters about trees, the Sassafras blooming in her birthday garden or the stranger she could not identify from her train window as she flew past on her way to the Gordon River, “a fairly high tree with yellow spikes” asking if he knew its name. They understood the slow growth of forests and the tiny soil building army of mosses and lichens, wondering even then what centuries old trunks may reveal about past climate patterns through the growth rings in their grain.
They taught me to see trees as individuals with names and strengths and distinguishing traits. I’ve been reminded on this journey of other significant trees in my past. The sprawling pepper tree that grew in our tiny backyard when we lived in Washington D.C. I think of its fish fern shaped leaves and tiny peppercorns and the green buffer this tree provided against the grimness of our tough inner city neighbourhood. We planted a flowering cherry in the pocket handkerchief patch of dirt in front of our house. Twenty years later this tree stands tall and gracious, showering pink blooms in spring like confetti along the street.
As I’ve shifted between cities that are creaking from the strain of rapid expansion I’ve counted the felling of large old trees in established gardens as family homes are bulldozed to make way for newcomers in townhouses and apartments. There is no room for greenery in the squeeze to accommodate housing.
The disappearance of trees from our urban jam and deforestation more broadly across the globe may partly explain a resurgence of reverence for these natural wonders in literary fiction and books that explore how trees talk to each other, warning of impending predators or ensuring that weaklings in their forest family get a greater share of scarce nutrients.
At a time when life is calibrated by a swipe and deliver momentum I pause more often than I should to remember the mulberry tree in our back garden with gratitude and a deep affection for its gentle, sturdy embrace.