Whose Tree is it Anyway?

In the late afternoons I fumble on a yoga mat, doing an online class, while my baby son goes nappy free on his mat, crawling, writhing, playing. From my vantage point, out my glass doors, I watch the gigantic gum tree, standing tall and wide, stretching far into the sky from its trunk in the courtyard of a house close to me. I see lorikeets of vibrant colour sitting in trios atop their favourite branches. In the distance I can hear the sirens of ambulances on nearby Parramatta Road driving people to the hospital. I focus my eyes and drown out the audio of the highway. The gum’s greatness offers such a stark contrast to the urbanity of my environment that each day I am grateful for, and struck by, its presence. I often admire its colours – the muted tones of the trunk and branches, this perfect purpley-sand, and the soft olive of the leaves. Its presence is comforting, at once radiant and sage. It is so grand that one would expect to have to escape to the country to be in such close proximity to a gum like this.

And soon, this may be the case. The tree is under threat. My neighbour, its owner, wants it gone. He is sick of paying an arborist to take out branches. He is sick of his weekends spent raking and leaf blowing. He is completely over the damage to his house when it drops great, heavy branches. Despite it being there before him, he sees it as the interloper in his home, a vagrant who has parked in his courtyard and refuses to leave.

He blames it for growing so unruly and big in such a tightly packed residential space. How dare it prosper? Does it not know this is the inner city?”

To see it be felled would be devastating. I consider my options. Do I chain myself to it if the time comes? Is it enough to casually voice my disapproval when he speaks about his hopes for its destruction? Or should I boldly speak my truth? That I am inspired by the gum – the way it dares to take up so much space, to flourish despite the odds (and nutrient deficient urban soil). That to me, his tree incites a gentle worship; that to me, it isn’t his at all. Because of its expanse, its impact, it belongs to the community, and to itself.

My neighbour has the final word, a sentiment that he hopes will be the nail in the coffin for this tree: ‘It could kill a kid.’ I suppose he is theoretically right. A large branch dropped on his deck a few years ago, damaging it extensively. I sometimes see his teenage daughter letting off steam on a punching bag on the newly fixed deck. It is a horrible scenario to imagine. My approach is one that I suspect he would find flabbergasting: Don’t have a deck if it is so vulnerable. Build your house around your magnificent rarity of a tree.

Each year he hires a different arborist to survey the branches and remove what may soon drop. His hope and expectation is that one year he will find one who will professionally recommend its removal; indeed, he asks each one if they will. His last effort didn’t go well; the arborist, like me, took offence to his plan, explaining that his job is to protect the rarity of the urban native, not incite their downfall. Now he has found a lawyer who has a track record with pesky native tree legislation and plans to take on the council.

The news of this potential legal action insights a surprising emotion within me. Years ago, I did a doctorate exploring grief. It was about how reading about other people’s experiences of grief and writing about our own can be therapeutic. I came across the term ‘anticipatory grief’, which refers to the experience of mourning a person whose time is coming, before they are actually gone. As I look at my resident gum, I realise I am in mourning for its potential removal (a polite term which disguises the violence it would require to actually kill a great tree such as this one).

It seems an impossibility to farewell a tree which is symbolic of nature in a place where there is a distinct lack of, whose existence bolsters my own.”

My street’s beautiful gum is but one happy tree of its kind unlucky enough to find itself in the inner city, their presence, although protected by active local councils, under constant threat. The NSW state government’s rather unpopular road development project, Westconnex, is a recent example of how little value we place on even centuries-old trees which are dotted around our streets. Westconnex workers have, in recent years, demolished countless trees in Sydney, including removing eight-hundred at Sydney Park, one of the inner west’s most crucial outdoor spaces, to the dismay of local protesters, a group of whom camped for four months to protect the trees (notably with some seniors arrested for their efforts).

In a display of similar brutality, the NSW government’s light rail taskforce killed around 112 Moreton Bay fig trees, some dating back to the 1800s, which stood happily between the CBD and Randwick. Protestors of all ages and backgrounds fought with all their might, some chaining themselves to the great trunks and hoisting each other up to sit on high branches, doing all they could to the very end to protect them. Heartbreakingly, local councils had proposed alternative routes for the light rail which would help minimise the destruction of mature trees, yet the pleas fell on deaf ears.

The common line delivered by governments is that they will be planting trees to replace the ones they take. This may appease some, but the reality is stark – it takes decades for trees to build up to the kind of carbon absorbing capabilities we so depend upon them for; and just as long to re-establish the vital canopy and undergrowth which houses birds and animals. It is a short-sightedness which neglects science, and which one day soon, I suspect, will be shrouded in deep regret by policy makers and urban planners. The urban island heat effect – a term which simply refers to the fact that cities, bare of trees and full to the brim with people, transport, and buildings all radiating energy in close proximity, are significantly hotter than rural areas – is a real concern as the climate warms. The only solution is a simple one: to keep what is left of the trees and plant more too, an opposite trajectory to the one most cities are on.

Now, each day as I stretch, I stare out my doors at the gum, and imagine it is not there.”

In its place is a lot of sky, and a few tall palms. I imagine all the native birds have flown off, panicked, leaving their nests behind, searching for a new tree to call home, and are unable to find even one, or one that stands long enough to become a secure habitat. The familiar sound of the rustling leaves is gone, as is the sweet chirp of birds who aren’t minors, replaced by an amplification of manmade inner urban noise. My home is that much hotter without the tree, as is my entire street. Air conditioners run in the late afternoons when they would normally be switched off. Community gatherings have ceased too, the street now too exposed to stand in until nightfall, the arches of the gum’s limbs no longer there to reach over us, to provide a welcome canopy. The gum’s removal feels to me somewhat apocalyptic, a sign of things to come, as the sun shoots sharply into our eyes and we head inside for some cover. I miss it, as if it were a friend whose wisdom I often sought, someone whose energy had a unique ability to ground me amidst the flurry of life’s distractions. I cannot look my neighbour, the man who so hated it, in the eye. He tries to chat as we once did, but I can’t stand his admiration of the great space in the sky he has instigated. When I look out my doors and windows, I do not want to see rows of neat shrubs, carefully plotted and groomed, which do not dare creep beyond roof height. I want my old friend back – my gigantic, carbon absorbing, graceful, friend. How beautiful it was; how lucky I was to have lived beneath it.