Love Letters to the Eucalypt

‘You are Australia!’ declared Beryl Llywelyn Lucas, baring all in the opening line of her 1927 poem ‘To The Gums’. Big call, was my first thought. Surely lots of other things were also ‘Australia’. But I read on, because she had more to say.

Spin me no fair tales of wattle in its gold
or the bright and burning waratah…
Fragrant prettiness
or scentless show
are not Australia’s soul….

Our lesser beauties die
when hardship passes by
or desolations blow!

I came across this poem in The Bulletin, a radically nationalist magazine that was embarrassingly popular in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Aside from her charming enthusiasm for exclamation marks, Llywelyn Lucas was clearly very passionate about the gum tree. As a student of history (I was writing my Honours thesis at the time), I felt ill-equipped to judge the literary merit of her poem. Was it crap, or was it amazing? Either way, Llywelyn Lucas’ love for the eucalyptus fit squarely within a trend emerging in my research.

Leafing (ha!) through the Mitchell Library archives for twelve months, I uncovered a veritable orgy of Anglo-Australian poets, writers and painters panting and puffing about the eucalyptus.

For my thesis I wrote about 25,000 words on gum-tree-love, so I’ll cut to the chase, but what I found is that a) white Australians, from the time of Federation, were really quite fond of gum trees, largely because b) they believed that their English colonial predecessors *didn’t* like them. (See? Simple.)

Like Llywelyn Lucas above, white Australians invented a host of reasons to justify their ardent love (such leathery leaves! Such a gnarled trunk!), but each excuse could easily be traced back to the view that gum trees were just so Aussie.

Nationalism, after all, is supremely narcissistic – it’s where you love things that remind you of yourself. Ordinarily we wouldn’t admit to entertaining self-love of that magnitude.

Speaking of narcissism, can I quote myself here?

“By the time of Federation… (an) educated army of writers, artists and critics was making a concerted effort to discover a distinctive Australian cultural identity. In the manner of national self-definition generally, where the self is constructed negatively against a conceptual other, ‘England’ emerged as the disparaged opposite of ‘Australia’: old-fashioned, overripe and out-of-step with an uncorrupted, young, free society on the brink of greatness. Australians grabbed wildly at anything they could call their own, anything noticeably not-English… The gum tree was invoked to represent a perceived national temperament and was portrayed in terms otherwise reserved for the ideal Australian citizen: steadfast, long-suffering, dogged, loyal, humble, unpretentious and indomitable.” [1]

 The gum tree became a sort of nationalist pin-up. Its foliage, trunk, bark and form were described obsessively in print and in paint, with the slow-motion attention-to-detail of an erotic novel or a stalker’s diary. Some of the writing is so evocative, one can almost smell the fragrant leaves as they steam in the sunlight; see the luminous fairy-dust on the naked, barkless trunk; feel the hardness of the timber… oops, sorry. I forgot myself.

A prose piece published in The Bulletin in 1904 demonstrated this emerging obsession quite nicely. In ‘The Fascination of the Gum’, one ‘J.H.’ describes his astonishment upon discovering the beauties of the gum tree:

I who have always thought the gum a dull, monotonous tree, an alien from the green commonwealth… by what enchantment do I now love it?… that [tree] yonder is a mosaic worked up, edge to edge, like the washes of a free and delightful water-colour. Above is a delicate colour of purple and white; there, a cluster of stems in pale blue; over the path, one of sienna and dark red; and below me, a dream in blue and yellow. Here are fresh revelations to the opened eye…[2]

It’s kind of sweet, but also tragic. J.H sounds quite like one of the love-drugged suitors in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Celebrated photographer Harold Cazneaux published the photographic equivalent of a love-letter in 1941 in his photograph Spirit of Endurance, an epic hero shot of a monumental river red gum in the desert that became one of his signature photographs and which he later described as ‘My most Australian picture’. Hans Heysen and Henri van Raalte painted the gum tree in a similarly reverent manner, and were duly praised for their patriotism.

The trouble with nationalism is the way in which it dumbs things down. There are hundreds of remarkable species and even three genera of plants unified under the umbrella term ‘gum trees’. My favourite eucalypts are West Australian ones: E. macrocarpa (painted for me by Laura Jones), E. erythrocorys and E. forrestiana. They’re flamboyant and relatively petite. But nationalism is an exercise in branding, so rather than confuse people with the variety of real life, Anglo-Australian nationalism gave us a homogenised, lowest-common-denominator type of gum, with a tall trunk and long, grey-green leaves. Not to say I couldn’t like such a tree, but I reckon it’s about time we embraced the diversity, Straya.

[1] Can you believe that I wrote a whole CHAPTER on this topic. See Kaldor, Lucy, ‘Gum Tree’, in Harper, Melissa & White, Richard, & National Museum of Australia Press (2010). Symbols of Australia. Sydney, University of New South Wales Press Canberra, ACT National Museum of Australia Press.

[2] J.H, ‘The Fascination of the Gum’, Bulletin, 7 April 1904, ‘The Red Page’.