Gum, Ashley Hay, Newsouth (revised edition).
The colonists of the First Fleet cursed the eucalypts around Sydney Harbour (which were just as likely to be the closely-related angophoras rather than eucalypts) as axe-blunting, good-for-nothing-but-burning wood. But by the mid-1800s, partly due to the efforts of one Ferdinand Mueller, or Baron Blue Gum, eucalypts, and the Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in particular, were touted as wonder trees – able to grow anywhere, impervious to pests and curing any ill. On my parents’ farm in the Wimmera we had a blue gum, which, in that dry environment, greedily sucked water from the garden and rose rapidly to twice the height of any surrounding trees. Blue gums of course have become ubiquitous in the Western District and elsewhere for timber plantations.
Blue gums were promoted overseas, in places such as Ethiopia and California. During World War II one US solider uttered surprise at how many (of ‘our’) California eucalypts there were in Sydney. The UN, in its early days decided eucalypts were the answer to the world’s fuel shortages. Not everyone was convinced – while Australians had embraced their other-worldliness, eucalypts’ shagginess offended some aesthetically-inclined botanists, and others decided they were introduced pests.
If their difference from European trees took some getting used to, as is evident from celebrated painter John Glover’s loving but far-from-accurate portrayals of their sinuous limbs, eucalypts were a large part of the turn from Australian colonists thinking they were English to them thinking of themselves as Australian.
Ashley Hay declares Louis Buvelot to be the first European painter to get the eucalypts right – it was partly the shagginess and partly the light – later inspiring the Heidelberg School’s paintings, from the pastoral scenes of Arthur Streeton to the messiness of Frederick McCubbin’s bush. Hans Heysen created icons, copied copiously by lesser artists, partly by, with the upper border of his canvasses, lopping the heads off his red gums in order to convey a sense of implied, imposing height. He would bribe the local council to retain trees he favoured for his subjects. Albert Namatjira’s gums were similarly iconic, prints of his work livening eastern seaboard suburban lounge rooms with their vivid rock colours offsetting the pale ghost gums. (One later artist assumed Namatjira’s saturated colours must be artificial, until a visit to the centre confirmed otherwise.)
Les Murray wrote that gums are ‘stood scrolls best read unopened’. Beyond the utility of wood and oil, and the role of trees in mopping up carbon, Murray hints at the almost spiritual need for gums to simply be there. Belinda Probert notes in a recent book that eucalyptus is promoted as a ‘nostalgic’ scent by one cleaning company, an odd idea really when you think that eucalypts are well and truly with us (although as Hay notes, the oil is not as ubiquitous in the household as it used to be). But while eucalypts became firmly entrenched as cultural icons, well into the second half of the twentieth century, foresters continued to think about how to make a profit out of them, even with the growing knowledge that their use as a resource from natural forests was not unlimited. Hay writes that there was much discussion about how to manage forests, but still with the ideology that, simply, trees ‘were for felling’. The photographer Nicholas Caire photographed eucalyptus regnans, another mountain giant, before they were all gone, as he and others like Arthur Streeton worried they would be, so that his grandchildren would see how big they had been. Another photographer, Harold Cazneaux, photographed an old river red gum in the Flinders Ranges and, perhaps equally worried about the longevity of gums, entitled his photograph, in slightly overblown fashion, ‘The Spirit of Endurance’.
Forestry is one threat to trees – clear-felling an obvious environmental disaster. One conservationist likens logging to whaling, while Bob Brown likened the chainsawing of forest giants in Tasmania to the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan buddhas. Perhaps these statements seem less hyperbolic as we learn how connected plants in a forest are, how important older trees are in ecosystems, and just how impressive these specimens are. Media attention on individual trees in Tasmania helped conservation there. Lately our attention has turned to the climate. Although eucalypts have adapted to a fire-prone environment, raging megafires are destructive. Not only did recent fires destroy millions of trees; more frequent and hotter fires may outpace the trees’ ability to recuperate, and warming temperatures may retard finely-tuned reproduction cycles. Gums are great survivors but also finely balanced.