Once Upon a Tree War

Trees carry many layers of meaning: memories, scientific classifications, politics, personal baggage. They’ve been planted in urban areas as far back as ancient Rome, with bay lined boulevards an important element of the streetscape. Street trees, in particular, often form the focus of broader arguments around the human place in nature, and nature’s place in our towns and cities.

When five large camphor laurel trees were slated for removal from the café strip in my hometown of Bellingen, NSW, a passionate conflict broke out and the weight of meaning given to these specimens soon boiled to the surface. Those who wanted to keep the trees railed against the wanton destruction of history, the removal of vital shade and local character. Those who thought they should be removed asked how Bellingen could claim to be a town of environmentalists when it had noxious weeds spreading seeds from its civic heart. Some people felt that if we were to lose the trees the town would change forever. The camphor conflict engrossed the town for years, invoking lively debate about how we engage with the natural world and construct meaning from the inhabitants that share our space.

Camphor laurel, or Cinnamomum camphora, is native to China and Japan. Introduced to NSW as a shade tree for cattle, it was quickly spread by native pigeons, who got a taste for its fermenting berries. With its broad limbs and glossy green leaves, it is now the dominant species across many parts of the Bellingen Valley, its strong tiger balm scent ever present.

At the height of the camphor hysteria, local author and ecologist Ross Macleay boldly published an essay about the situation titled Heritage Weeds in Latte Land. Many people expected his thoughtful views would cut through the talk and vindicate their side of the argument, settling things once and for all. But to Ross, things were not that straight forward. I told him I was interested in his opinion because he was unique in being passionately neutral in this fiery debate. He corrected me, “I would say I’m passionately torn”.

Ross tells me the first port of call for those wishing to save the trees from the chainsaw was history. The history of Bellingen is interwoven with its trees. Trees brought the first wave of white settler population into the valley, in search of the valuable red cedar (Toona ciliata) which lined the river. The second wave of newcomers, the hippies, were drawn in by what they saw as un-spoilt forest, in need of protection through protest. More recent arrivals are often escaping the city as ‘tree-changers’.

Leaves and fruit of Cinnamomum camphora. Image from Wikipedia Commons

Pro-camphor researchers began to gather oral knowledge, which put the camphor’s age at well over 100 years, living pieces of the town’s history. Counter-claims pointed out that this insidious weed grows rapidly in our damp valley and judging by their size they could be as young as 50. Ross’s own sleuthing of photographs at the local history museum put the trees in their late 90s. He whispers to me that some of the town elders think they were planted as a World War One memorial. No firm consensus was reached, and Bellingen Council declared that their contested heritage status did not give them immunity.

How had these humble trees become a nexus for such a venomous and complex conflict?

Bede Brennan

Histories entangled with these trees were personal as well. I had played in the low-hanging branches as a child and climbed higher up in the canopies to drink wine as a teenager. My partner used to hide her lunch money in a hollow. Everyone in town had an anecdote involving something which had unfolded under those branches. It seemed even those supporting the trees removal had at least some fond memories associated with the trees.

With the tree’s history contested and inconclusive, the next battleground was science. Were these trees a valuable part of Bellingen’s ecology? According to one interpretation, camphor laurels are invasive aliens in the valley, colonists spewing poisons into the soil and intoxicating native birdlife.

According to the other side, these trees were part of an adaptive future, standing strong in the era of climate change; when any tree is a good tree. According to this view, the camphors were part of the hybrid future of nature, providing habitat for staghorns, rainforest epiphytes and nesting birds. “Why get rid of these few when there are millions of them by the river”. Even Bellingen’s environmentalists were split on this part of the debate, an aspect of the conflict Ross finds particularly interesting: “Both sides invoked Gaia”, he tells me. I overheard someone on the street point out the debate had flipped the usual order: “half the greenies want to chop the trees down and the rednecks are actively campaigning to keep them!”

Image by Bruce Jacups.

The fiercest debate occurred in the Letters to the Editor section of the local paper, the Bellingen Courier. When arguments reached gridlock, experts were wheeled out by both sides. Bellingen Council brought in an arborist, who with cool objectivity declared the trees unhealthy enough for removal. Futuristic and placeless looking montages by ‘out of town’ landscape architecture consultants were used as evidence either for a bright future for the town, or an “Orwellian regime of change” imposed by Bellingen Council. As Ross listed the cast of characters embroiled in the debate, it occurred to me how many lives revolved around building certain perspectives or understandings of these trees. It seemed, too, that the more information that was gathered, the less certain it was whether the camphors should remain or be removed. How had these humble trees become a nexus for such a venomous and complex conflict?

In search of a more conclusive perspective, I caught up with Chris Ormond, a local ecologist and an old friend. Chris is a staunch environmentalist and works as a bush regenerator, and as far as I was expecting, a leader of the anti-camphor brigade. But Chris told me that his opinion on the species has shifted a little, partly due to a recent trip to Japan where he saw camphors in forest groves in their natural ecologies, as well as incorporated into ancient shrines. He also pointed out that despite their allelopathic tendencies and large seed loads, camphors are far from the worst weeds in the area. They can be used as a tool in the regeneration of rainforest, by providing shelter while other species germinate underneath, filling an ecological niche left by absent native laurels.

Image by Bruce Jacups.
Image by Bruce Jacups.
Image by Bruce Jacups.

The day the camphors were to be removed, a band of protestors mobilized. A large police presence prepared for a showdown. People were dragged away, and eventually dispersed. I watched the surreal livestream from Melbourne, as the trees, and all their associated meanings, came down limb by limb. Despite the sadness, many reported a mood of respect and reverence. As the contractors brought down the old trees, they handed out logs and slabs to onlookers, to take home as a memento.

The campaign to remove the camphor laurels had won, even though to many in town the jury was still out. Perhaps in the end it didn’t matter who was right or wrong; this debate revealed an incredible variety of meanings attached to these trees for many people. As a landscape architect, this case made me reflect upon the sheer magnitude of importance woven into any decision about removing, or indeed planting, a street tree. While the waterhouseas planted in the camphors place will no doubt grow into grand specimens, infused, as they age, with Bellingen folklore, there is no doubt that many memories, and meanings, were desecrated the day the camphors were removed.

For the record, Ross agrees with me that surely the best solution would have been to plant strangler figs (Ficus watkinsiana) in the branches of each camphor. The native fig would have slowly encased, smothered and then replaced the weeds, in its own time.

You can read Ross Macleays ‘Heritage Weeds in Latte Land’ on Scribd. Thanks to Ross’s partner Jan, my partner Ella and friend Chris Ormond for their contributions. Thank you, too, to Bruce Jacups for the photos.

Image by Bruce Jacups.