A Home Among the Gum Trees: the Pull of the Treechange

When the satirists Wally Johnson and Bob Brown (also known as ‘Captain Rock’) wrote the song, Give me a home among the gum trees in 1974 (which was later popularised by country singer John Williamson), they may not have anticipated that the track would become the iconic pseudo anthem it still is today (although perhaps they did; the duo first performed it in a government competition, which they did not win, in search of the new national anthem after it officially decided to scrap the rather unfortunate tune, God Save the Queen). The comedic lyrics relay the dilemma of choosing where to call home: There’s a Safeways up the corner/And a Woolies down the street/And a brand new place they’ve opened up/Where they regulate the heat/But I’d trade them all tomorrow/For a little bush retreat/Where the kookaburras call; the well-known chorus drumming home that a property in nature is the most desirable location of all, despite the luxuries of convenience available in the suburbs and cities.

As the popularity of Home among the gum trees tell us, it’s hardly controversial to claim that we are deeply affected by where we live, in many ways. The location of our home can dictate the pace at which we undertake our daily life; who we see and speak to regularly; how we raise our children; the values we are surrounded by and influenced to hold. In her piece on The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much, Julie Beck writes: ‘No one is ever free from their social or physical environment. And whether or not we are always aware of it, a home is a home because it blurs the line between the self and the surroundings, and challenges the line we try to draw between who we are and where we are.’

As I’ve crept towards my thirties, I’ve become more aware of the importance of where I reside. I have lived in the inner city for twelve years (in Sydney mostly, and a few years in London), and with each passing year have felt the effects of a daily disconnection to the natural world. As I try in earnest to seek out my city’s offerings of nature each day (taking my shoes off at the local park; making the gallant trip across jam packed roads to the beach; listening with intention and gratitude to the occasional chirp of birds overhead when they squawk), I reflect with a renewed and matured sense of fondness for my upbringing as an adolescent in Byron Bay, living beside the Arakwal National Park and a secret track through the bush which ended at the gloriously long stretch of sand at Tallows Beach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my being raised in the crucial pre-adult years surrounded by such accessible nature provided a salve for the rage of teenage hormones that flooded through my body.”

In my late teens I would walk along the beach each afternoon with my dog loose by my side. Apart from the odd waving local, I wouldn’t see anyone else. I would get lost in my thoughts. I would stretch at Broken Head where the surfers congregated before turning around towards home. Before walking barefoot back to the bush track towards home, I would dip my feet into the ocean and feel some realigning force of saltwater send a current into my feet and up my calves. I think back to this simple walk with such regard for all it gave me, and realise now how rare an opportunity it was to have it at my doorstep. I think too about my high school peers and how we turned out. I have no proof of course, but I suspect much of the intensity of high school and adolescence was tempered by the audibly roaring sound of the ocean just outside the gates.

Now, when I step out of my house, I can hear sirens and horns beeping on Parramatta Road, have to be instantly ready to converse with people outside my door, and am confronted by the daily procession of enraged drivers as they look impatiently for parks. When my dogs naughtily slip out of the gate, it is a matter of life and death as they make their way to the road. In contrast, my dog in Byron Bay was free to roam as she pleased; we only asked that she made it back before dark, a request which she always obliged.

Of course there are a myriad of virtues about living in such close proximity to the city; but feeling lightened by and connected to the ease and grace of nature isn’t one of them.”

Science is catching up to what many people have instinctively known for years, and what I am now discovering for myself: that living around nature is a factor, much like genetics and lifestyle, that directly affects our mental and physical health and even lifespan. Cities offer us spurts of nature here and there, it’s true, but not the unbridled and easy access that promotes a feeling of true liberation and wellbeing; the parks are just too crowded, too hard to park at, too far from our doorstep. Crowded urban beaches can be more akin to an amusement park than a site offering peaceful respite.

The treechange and seachange are concepts somehow embedded in the Aussie DNA, no doubt due to the spectacular beauty of our natural offerings beyond each city’s limits. Each morning the popular real estate website, Domain, features properties for sale on its social media pages. Most of them are idyllic country cottages and estates aimed at enticing city slickers who live in shoebox apartments and can hear their upstairs neighbour’s every movement. One of our most beloved TV shows was and is the ABC’s Seachange, a comedy drama which saw an inner city lawyer transition abruptly from Melbourne to the fictional Pearl Bay, a tiny coastal town. Such was the show’s resonance that it reportedly inspired real Aussies to make the same switch in droves. Perhaps it was the opening credits that convinced us of the undeniable appeal of relocating: the scenes of inner city life, concrete, traffic and horns beeping, the stress, which is juxtaposed with refreshing scenes of the ocean, green and blue, inviting, a salvation of sorts.

Given my own instinct which shouts at me ‘is this where you really belong?’ when I am confronted by the perils of traffic jams; concrete paths littered with cigarette butts and stressed out city dwellers, I wonder if it is an innate desire of most of us to escape into nature, to carve out a home which provides us with a sense of respite and a view of green.”

Is it an intrinsic human desire to live amongst nature? Does inner city living cripple us in some subtle and not so subtle ways? Or can we make do with the offerings of public parks within the urban jungle in order to exist within close proximity of the energy and opportunity of the city? These questions become even more pertinent when posed at parents and parents-to-be (like myself). Nothing sparks concern in an expectant mother and father than contemporary research which indicates that calling the city home is likely to be seriously damaging to human health. Such news was reported in The Guardian only last year, where US based nature researcher Florence Williams wrote that we greatly underestimate the effects on our health that exposure to high levels of air pollution, constant noise above certain decibel points (such as aeroplanes overhead) and the general stress of high density urban living can have. Williams quotes a study which revealed that “[u]rban living was linked to increased activity in the brain’s amygdala – the fear centre – and in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, a key region for regulating fear and stress.”

Coupled with my own instinct, this research has me asking myself the question, do I want my tender new human to experience his first sights and smells in the inner city, inhaling smog, being immersed in the hurried frenzy of human activity, or would I like him to experience a gentler transition, one in which he can look up and stare at the sky and the treetops, learn to walk on the earth barefoot, and be generally calmed by the rhythm of nature which had so recently brought him into being?

Admittedly, writing this has provided me with little clarity on where I should call home – I’m not packing up my tiny house in the hub of Sydney and heading off for greener pastures just yet. I admit I’m still enamored with much of the city’s offerings – the many farmers’ markets; the good coffee; the home delivered organic groceries; the Sunday opening hours. But there is a whisper in my ear that grows stronger when I remember the realigning power of my daily walk in nature as a teenager; and when my shoulders drop away from my ears on visits to the country or coast and I hear the roar of waves or the tribal tune of a flock of birds high in the treetops. A home among the gum trees, or nearer the ocean, one that offers the instant freedom that nature inspires, may be on the horizon.