My father says that he’s going to chop down the pines in the corner of the garden. They have grown beyond the space, their silhouettes distorted from pruning over the years. Still, this has never stopped the pigeons roosting and mating on their broad, shaggy branches.
I stand at the kitchen window, looking down the lawn at these colossal peeks of green. It isn’t just the thought of the wide space their absence will create, the clear view of the neighbour’s house – that sense of exposure. It is the fact that they have always been there, huddled together, stretching shadows across the garden as the sun makes its journey each day.
I used to have a den in there where the ground was spongy with pine needles, and the air was spicy with sap. I took stubby logs from the woodpile and made a circle of seats; sat listening to the crackle in the branches as pigeons came and went. Sometimes, the neighbours would be in their driveway and I caught snippets of conversation. I would imagine I was on a stakeout, and make notes in a small pad. A girl in the village was missing and we were certain he was involved – though his wife was innocent. I had a partner – Jules – who I was sometimes in love with. I kept records of the times the neighbour came and went in his red van, peering through the pines to see what it was he was unloading from the back: narrow planks of plywood, sacks of cement – perhaps he had buried the missing girl in the foundations of the new building he was working on. When I heard him and his wife arguing I wrote: could she be his next victim?
All of this amongst the pines.
A week ago I had a friend to visit. We grew up on opposite sides of the river and spent most days of the school holidays, playing together. Back then we only had to dial three numbers on the telephone to reach each other.
What are you doing? we would ask.
And then there were several minutes of negotiation while we tried to persuade one of our mothers to drive us the few miles over the bridge so that we could do nothing much together. Often, we played outside. We might pick rose petals and crush them up into small portions of tap water, filling paper cups with this sour-smelling, lumpy mixture, and then tout our wares through the village as the latest eau de toilette.
On this particular day, we are trying to climb a tree in my friend’s garden. She has thrown a rope over the lowest branch and stands back, gripping, putting all her weight into it, while I try to scale up the other end. I’m not getting very far. Each time I just about manage to get both feet of the ground, I can only hang there, unable to pull myself further.
This isn’t working, she says, letting go of the rope – but I’m still suspended on the other end.
Without her weight to balance, I fall backwards onto the ground, reaching out my left hand at the last minute to break my fall. A sharp, hot pain races up my middle finger into my wrist and I scream out.
Now, her father is insisting that I just put my hand in the basin, which he has filled with cold water and ice. But I don’t want to. I’m cradling my burning wrist against my chest.
Come on, he says. It’s not that bad.
He’s trying to peel my hand away from me, and now he bundles it into the water, and I’m crying as the cold reaches through my bones and makes them throb louder.
As we walk along the Isis River, towards the city centre, my friend and I are giggling about this memory. She still carries the guilt of it. I tell her that actually I think I was more annoyed with her father. I was in so much pain – desperate for pity.
He was probably freaking out, my friend said. No one likes to phone up another parent and say that there’s been an accident on their watch.
This had never occurred to me. It gives a perfect explanation for his hurried, insensitive words, telling me that I’ll be fine in a moment. But I wasn’t fine. I ended up in the hospital with a broken arm. And then two weeks later, at the first ball I ever went to, I was certain no one was asking me to dance because of the hulking cast that overshadowed my neat, velvet dress.
All because of a tree that wouldn’t be climbed.
In 1829, Thomas Wilson was the first European explorer to set foot in Denmark, Western Australia. He had been travelling from Freemantle to Sydney, but his ship ran aground and needed recaulking. While he waited, Wilson decided to lead an exploration party west of Albany. He set off with an aboriginal guide and interpreter, two convicts, and several other navy men. Eight days after setting out, Wilson came to a stream, which he named the Denmark River, after a surgeon in the Royal Navy. He could not know that a town of the same name would rise upon its banks.
I sat on that shore many times when I lived in Denmark, watching ducks paddle past. Trees line the river’s edge, growing out across the water as if captivated by their own reflection.
Thomas Wilson was the first to recognise the future value of the Karri trees in Denmark – he described them as having ‘enormous girth and altitude’. Towards the end of 1895 a saw mill was assembled on the bank of the river and a tent town grew around. It was thought it would take fifty years to cut all the trees down, and by then more would have grown.
I fell in love with those Karri trees. Some of them grew up to 300 feet. The house where Dan and I were living had been built by his cousin into the side of a hill. On the ground floor a huge rock sat in the entrance hall, which he had assembled the building around. It kept the rooms cool. Even in summer, to place your hand on that stone was fresh and soothing.
The main room upstairs had a wall of glass that looked down the steep hill into the forest. In the bedroom above, you could see over the tree tops at the ocean– grey and patterned, giving up foamy strips, like lace trimming, to the wind. I remember standing at the window, the first day we came to the house. There was a sensation of my brain uncoiling – like an animal, waking from sleep – as I watched red and green parrots fly from treetop to treetop; pink breasted pigeons fluffing their feathers. I could watch the forest for hours. Dan and I called it tree TV.
These Karri had been there nearly 100 years, since the millers had left at the beginning of the 20th century. Their hope for a lasting sawmill had evaporated when they had destroyed most of the forest in less than 10 years. Even if it had taken 50 years to cut all the trees – their astonishing height and width was the result of centuries of unchecked growth. There’s a photograph, which shows a Karri trunk, hollowed out with age, a car cleverly parked inside. They were giants.
The town of Denmark remained after the sawmill – fighting through depression and agricultural hardship. The Karri trees grow on.
As we move into winter, the trees in Oxford stand in skeleton form, naked through frost and rain, but they will survive till Spring brings buds of bright lime. The other week, I played tennis with Dan in the park. The tock of the ball was loud in the quietness of autumn with so few people about. The tarmac had been swept clean, but a slope of leaves ran along the netting, at its highest in the corners. I had to tread into these mounds to retrieve the balls, feeling the bushy carpet underfoot. Soft, dry fragments fell from my hand, lifting up in the breeze, transparent in the light. Some of them had the tiniest traces of green.
Clouds of breath hovered around my face – almost grey in the dim light. The sun was resting on the roof tops, tired – making less of an ascent each day. Fewer squirrels hopped the tree-lined paths. Birdsong lacked that celebratory ring. Dan stopped to point out an ordered V-formation in the sky and we wondered if this was a group already on their way out to a kinder climate.
As we shift into the cold of winter, I have the feeling something is being taken from me – though a something I never possessed in the first place: shut up much of the summer, checking at the window to see if anything new was coming in; often disappointed as the rain continued.
I feel a relief with the days clouding over and dark sweeping in. I know what to expect. June and July, I waited for that freedom a run of hot days can bring – where the outdoors becomes my indoors and I can revel in space – but it never seemed to arrive. The turn of seasons always makes me wistful – autumn in particular. There is such beauty in this melancholy shedding, the slithers of gold that pile up on the ground. Whatever lies beneath the green of leaves in summer comes forth as the days shorten and the air cools. Branches spill. I have the sense I am being asked to be fascinated with life – as it goes on. Simply that. Such a clear and clean focus seems to give the most chance of really living – in the way that a light, concentrated by a magnifying glass can be quite dazzling and powerful.
And perhaps those pines at the end of my parents’ garden will be gone soon – this backdrop to a fragment of my childhood. But their memory will live on amongst broken arms and parrots and branches that grow towards the sun.