My Dad Bill, the Tree Planting Obsessive

How many people can claim to be the direct descendant of a tree planting aficionado? A particular breed of obsessive with a thorough (some may argue neurotic), appreciation of the careful craft of nestling a tree into the earth. The obsessive in question is a seventy-year-old crow bar yielding, spirit level balancing pharmacist by the name of Bill. I’m a bit of an authority on Bill and his craft – he is my dad after all.

Diary of Bill's perfectly planted trees - Fraxinus raywood

Bill’s the kind of guy who enjoys life’s simple pleasures – a well stacked shiraz cabinet, his steak cooked medium, (turned once on the BBQ), a good murder mystery downloaded onto his kindle and a backyard of trees planted straight and level. Far from being simple himself, Dad is unassumingly intelligent, has a heart of gold and means a whole lot to an entire community of people – he’s the person you call in the middle of the night if your shop window has been smashed in or if a little old lady needs rescuing from a lizard in her lounge room. Bill is the bee’s knees. Which makes his perfectionist tendencies all the more lovable, or maddening, depending on which day you ask Mum.

I always knew Bill had his quirks. But the full extent of his tree planting fixation was revealed to me a couple of years ago when I returned home for a six-month stint between finishing a uni exchange to India and the beginning of the next semester.”

I hadn’t lived in close proximity to Mum and Dad for a few years and we were all re-acquainting ourselves with each other’s eccentricities. I was also experiencing a form of reverse culture shock from my time abroad, and gardening seemed to be one of the few activities that calmed my inner turmoil. Digging in the dirt during the dead of winter while my ears went numb was good for my soul, something I think Mum grew to understand. ‘Lu’s got a case of the digs’, she would say into the phone as I slid yet another box of plants from the soil littered backseat of my car.

My parents LOVE trees. Their sizeable backyard is less of a garden and more of a tree park, with every spare inch planted with trees, and surrounded by paddocks that are also full of trees – the only open area they are willing to sacrifice is the cricket pitch. They’ve got all of the New England classics, like the liquidambars, claret and golden ash, oaks and crepe myrtles, mixed among native eucalypts, callistemon, acacias and banksia and the odd exotic or two thrown in as well – cercis, conifers, magnolias.

Every single one of these trees is bang-on straight up and down, expertly tucked into the ground by my Dad, Bill.”

I’ve studied his planting method over the years and he’s got it down to a fine science – crowbar in hand, he measures out the site, ensuring equidistance with other surrounding trees. He then proceeds to slam out the hole with the crow bar, feeling for the masses of misshapen basalt rocks hiding below the surface. With a gentle hand, his crowbar and a post hole shovel, he manages to expertly coerce each rock out of its place and into the light in one full piece, a weird magic trick that leaves a perfectly sized hole for the tree to sit. This is where it gets fiddly – with the tree in the new hole, he places a spirit level against its trunk, pushing and pulling the stem backwards and forwards in a weird dance, until the little yellow bubble floats perfectly in the middle in every direction. Sure of his leveling, he then back fills the hole, the spirit level remaining flush against the tree until the last grains of soil are tapped into place. I will admit, it’s weirdly satisfying to see the end result – the organic bones of the tree shifted into alignment by my father’s clever hands.

Diary of Bill's perfectly planted trees - Prunus 'Snow Fountain'
Diary of Bill's perfectly planted trees - Liriodendron tulipifera

So, when I started rolling up the driveway, unloading new additions to the tree family and announcing that I would be the one to dig the holes and plant them in the ground, you might see why Dad broke into a sweat. Unlike him, I wasn’t comfortable with the crowbar and post hole duo – both were too heavy and awkward in my hands. I found kinship instead with the ancient looking mattock, though the iron pickaxe top sometimes slid down threateningly if I hovered the tool above my head for too long.

With Dad’s eyes burning through the back of my head, I proceeded to dig, the pick smashing the rocks under the ground into tiny pieces I’d retrieve by hand later, once I’d made a decent sized chasm. Everything about my style jarred with Dad’s graceful process, but it felt good to be throwing such force into the ground, and in the end, I was left with a nice sized hole for the new tree to establish itself in and a pile of broken rocks to signify my achievement. I might have got away with it if I’d only used a spirit level. Or at least made a show of it. Grimacing through the window as he watched my chaotic and disorganised attempts, tutting at the wonky trunk that he’d be straightening in secret later, I’m sure Dad made a promise to himself.

The next tree I planned to plant, he would make sure he was there to oversee.”

He didn’t have long to wait. We’d decided to replace a mimosa tree that was failing to thrive thanks to the cockatoos using its stem as a bungee stick. The new addition was one of Mum’s favourites – a golden ash with a joyous golden trunk. As I loosened up my muscles in preparation for the mattock attack that was about to take place, Dad appeared, his bucket hat, garden shorts and planting tool kit revealing his intentions. ‘No Dad! Go inside Dad! I actually enjoy digging these holes Dad!’, I cried on deaf ears. I did appreciate his company though and we soon came to an agreement that he could assist, where needed and when asked. But when I ran back to the house to drag over the hose before beginning, I became keenly aware of Dad crowbarring, digging and leveling in triple time. What treachery! All that was left for me to do by the time I returned was point the hose. ‘I think we’ve done a good job,’ the tree planting fanatic said warmly, admiring the perfectly positioned stem. I only nodded, silently kicking myself for forgetting the hose earlier.

I know enough about human beings to understand that we are a product of our context, and that Dad’s perfectionist tendencies began long ago, in another time and place. He’d grown up running riot with his brothers in the Royal Hotel in Tenterfield, where his parents were the publicans at the time. From the way he tells it, the joys of living in a hotel were constant, with the freedom to roam and play all day and choose whatever you’d like for dinner off the menu each night. Dad was allowed to keep his own aviary in an enclosed backyard beneath the courtyard staircase, where he collected and bred finches, budgerigars and turquoise parrots. It was a love he probably learned from his own father, who had begun collecting and breeding orchids in a shade house out the back after returning injured in 1945 from a WWII Prisoner of War camp.

Dad became a collector of various subjects over the years – he was the proud breeder of forty or so woodland ducks, which he housed in the backyard of the hotel until their mysterious disappearance one Christmas Eve. ‘I know what you’re thinking but duck definitely wasn’t on the menu that night. I checked,’ he told Mum and I when we asked for a summary of the cold case. He also has countless books and tins of rare and unusual stamps and coins collected over the years, each piece carefully catalogued, notated and preserved in chronological order. So, I guess it’s only fitting then that he became a tree collector as well, creating something of a tree museum with Mum in their backyard on the hill, the careful, fastidious craft of preparing and planting each tree an extension of his curatorial methods and abilities.

I also think, like me, tree planting is good for Bill’s soul, with his particular style and obsessive attention to detail providing an outlet for a mind that is otherwise pelting at a hundred miles an hour for the rest of the day.”

But as much as my Dad is an obsessive, he’s also a romantic. And I knew grudgingly that day while we stood admiring the newly planted golden ash that he wasn’t just absorbed by its perfectly vertical placement. He was thinking of Mum and his kids, his grandkids and whoever else might stand under the canopy of the golden ash in the years to come, enjoying its shade and happy colour amongst the forest of other trees in the museum. The experience surely made all the better for the trees being planted straight.

Whipper snippering beneath the canopy of each tree is serious business!