My (Plant)Father

You don’t yell in the bush. You walk through with the quiet and humble reverence of a visitor in a cathedral. That’s what I learned early on from dad.

If a godparent is someone who traditionally guides a child’s spiritual upbringing, my atheist/biologist father seems to have performed the equivalent role for me with the natural world. A “Plantfather” if you like? I’ve realised that over the years I’ve been piecing together bits of his wisdom and behaviour to create a philosophical kind of tapestry. Tapestry is too fancy a word, it’s a roughhewn ground cover at best, but it’s a way of living.

If you had been driving down one of the three roads that make up Tregeagle, a small not-quite-town of a couple of hundred people, near Lismore in northern New South Wales on 29 January 2011 you might have witnessed a man, stark naked, digging a hole and planting a tree, a Silky Oak. That would have been my sister’s boyfriend taking part in the modern day ritual of planting a tree on my parents’ property at my father’s request. Not the nudity part, that was an unexpected bit of spectacle the boyfriend added himself.

For some years now visitors to the family home have been adding more to the household inventory than an unpacked phone charger or a forgotten toothbrush. They’ll crack jokes about cheap labour while changing the landscape little by little.

When I was growing up dad was a biologist for CSIRO and we lived in Darwin. My parents bought a decommissioned government house, an elevated, louvred place typical of Darwin architecture. The yard was bare dirt with a single token tree for shade. Over the course of 15 years they planted with gusto until a thick jungle separated the house from the road.

For a decade dad was one of the four whitefellas on the Kakadu Board of Management, the policy governing body for the national park. The other ten members were Indigenous traditional owners of the land. It’s a time that obviously had a lasting influence on his thinking.

Cleo's dad, Richard Braithwaite, in 1969 examining a plant with a hand lens during a climb up Mt Tibrogargan in south-east Queensland.

My parents moved to northern New South Wales to a property that fell away to a few hectares of bush. Once when we talked about a very tall, graceful, but entirely dead tree that stood behind their house, dad mentioned how visitors would suggest they have it cut down because of the danger of it falling on the house. He told me, with no trace of drama, that he took the approach of the Aboriginal men he’d worked alongside – that you lived on the land and sometimes the land took you, but you should not be afraid to walk tall in your country without fear.

Another time, he told me about working on the Kakadu Board and suggesting the removal of all the introduced plants such as Poincianas, in order to return the national park entirely to native species. Some particular Poincianas were all that remained of the homestead of a pioneer from the early 1900s. To his surprise, some Aboriginal people who had grown up in the area disagreed completely, explaining that the introduced trees “show that [white] man was here”.

I guess there’s a bigger comment there about whitewashing history, but I also just like the idea of the story being told in the land itself. Something bigger than scratching our names in the dirt and carving our initials in a tree.

It’s something that comes back to me when I think about the tree planting ritual. Dad keeps a kind of visitor’s book, the context of each planting and planter recorded in a ledger with a scientist’s matter of fact hand, in unsentimental detail. Unsentimental, but there is gravitas in the facts themselves. The first ever entry records the planting of a tree by a Japanese family dad became acquainted with through his father’s POW experience. Another entry marks the occasion of a tree planted in memory of a deceased colleague by his bereaved family.

There are occasions on which my sister and I each brought a new boyfriend to meet the parents. The trees that they each planted, much like the relationships, have since ceased to be – one perished in a bonfire that got briefly out of control, the other didn’t survive a wallaby attack. The trees, that is, not the relationships.

Twelve months ago dad had an aggressive cancer return to his liver, which he continues to undergo treatment for. More than ever, nature is therapy, an allegory, a reminder of mortality.

Every year my parents send an annual ‘Christmas letter’. There are the usual paragraphs updating their friends on the lives of my sister and I, and always, a slightly lengthier paragraph dedicated to developments within the garden – from the long term investment planting of a grove of Magnolias to the get-rich-quick scheme of a fresh bed of bright and cheerful annuals.

The cancer remains in a holding pattern. When the time came to pen their annual update last year they wrote, “We are planting many long-lived plants that will take many years before one might expect a spectacle of flowering. We suppose this is a form of optimism.”

I trawl through the recent archives of these letters, tracing life within the landscape: “More macadamias are being planted by the neighbours, and familiar landmarks are being removed. The mango tree, the bamboo clump, the old pigsty, and the raspberry patch have all [gone]. Now the beautiful old Camphor Laurel strip is about to go. There is a Landcare group in the street, and while this should be a good thing, we sometimes find ourselves critical of their efforts to make the world a better place. Often, alien organisms are removed but are merely replaced with less attractive alien organisms of a different species. It seems like much damage is being done in the name of conservation.”

Perhaps dad of 30 years ago would have disagreed with his own ideas at 65.

They show that man was here.

Weighing a small mammal in Kakadu National Park c.1987. This was part of a capture release trapping program.