Posted by: Jan | 17 April, 2013

But where are all the trees?

On the afternoon of Good Friday, I went with Jill and John Robertson, whose generous hospitality I’ve been enjoying here in Canberra, to visit the National Arboretum.

What was I expecting? Kew Gardens?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The National Arboretum – just empty country? Where are all the trees?

  Canberra, the National Capital – 100 years of trees in the cityOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After all, Canberra is a city of trees: planned and laid out 100 years ago (and celebrating that now). The grand plan, which can be glimpsed in this view, of avenues and significant public buildings – like Parliament and the War Memorial – included the planting of thousands of trees, which are now tall and stately, being replaced where they have aged, stands of eucalyptus and casuarinas and indigenous shrubs like wattle, but also many introduced species – like London planes – which are deciduous and just starting to change colour. It is a green city, where you can breathe the air – and if this is boring, who cares?

So I thought a National Arboretum would be more of the same. ‘An arboretum is a living collection of trees cultivated for conservation, scientific and educational purposes.’

But where were all the trees?

The hillsides at first look almost bare. Then, when you look more closely, the trees are there, though sometimes hidden by the plastic guards protecting them from sun, wind and nibbling creatures – seedlings, saplings – 40,000 of them. A few have grown quickly, or were planted earlier, so there are little groves here and there. But most of this huge site – 250 hectares – is laid out under the sun as a dream of things to come.

First it was bush. Then the land was cleared for dairy farms. Then people planted trees for profit, ranks of dark pine trees like the Douglas fir of our forestry plantations. Then, in 2003, there were devastating bush fires, and the plantations were destroyed. Now the plan is to reclaim the land in a different way. To plant not just specimen trees, as you might find in an arboretum in the UK, but forests, each formed of a different species – 100 forests with 100 rare, beneficial or symbolic trees in each. It is a grand scheme – like the original plan for Canberra. That design took 100 years to become a concrete reality (concrete and brick and woodland and water, and people living and moving, working and playing among them).
Here, there were still signs of the massive clearance and reshaping of the site, that happened after the bush fires and all the planning. The site must still have looked very sterile when the first trees were planted. Then grass began to grow. And then, a panel in the Arboretum Visitor Centre records, in March 2010, the call of the spotted grass frog was heard. This sign of regeneration against all the odds, a small voice of hope, was one I quoted in a Bible Study/Contemporary Witness for the Uniting Church NSW Synod on Sunday 14 April. (I was given an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 49: 8-13, to work with, and linked it to Luke 13: 18-21, where human activity is a way of seeing God’s work. The Arboretum seemed to me a good example, too).

National ArboretumWe walked and sometimes drove around this site, on a memorable afternoon, taking in the view from Dairy Farmers Hill (where the rusty eagle has nested) seeing the cloned Wollemi pines, being brought back from the edge of extinction, reading about the cultural significance of plants like the banksias, looking where a ‘waterwise garden’ will be laid out, seeing one valley being prepared for the ceremonial planting of trees by dignitaries from all over the world, enjoying words from a poem about Australia, ‘wide brown land’ displayed in sculpture along a hilltop. And watching children running and rolling down hillsides that are now bare, but where, in 100 years, their grandchildren may play in the fragrant shade of trees where birds nest and frogs are calling.


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