And a Christmas read
When did we stop seeing the sacred in trees? When did they become nothing more than a commodity, or worse sometimes just an inconvenience? Woke up this morning thinking about trees. They seem to be haunting my subconscious at the moment. The clearing of old-growth koala habitat has been a bit of a local issue here in Toowoomba of late, with new housing developments moving into previously untouched areas and a pretty brutal scorched earth policy has been pursued by the developers with the bulldozing of old growth, regardless of its environmental value. The clearing has been nothing short of reprehensible and a blight on Toowoomba’s reputation. Given the fact that distressed animals had to be rescued after the fact, it suggests the developer did not engage an adequate spotter catcher, prior to clearing, which suggests questionable ethics at the very least. (If interested check out this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPMYGOPEaH8).
Why is there no value placed on what is so irreplaceable? No plan to replace old growth with new “street” trees can ever replace what has been lost, nor do new plantings make much difference in terms of carbon capture, compared to what has been lost in those old trees. It is an absurdity. Not to mention the incalculable loss of habitat and its impact on vulnerable wildlife. Yes, we need housing, but I don’t think noble intentions of housing those in need, is the motivation here. Greed, always greed, is what this development is about.
Still thinking about the reverence for the huon pine in the Robbie Arnott novel Limberlost, and the last book I finished also made mention of trees and their sacred qualities, not a nature read, as such, just a light Christmas romance, but one of the characters is a dendrologist and for that character, the sacred is well and truly present in trees. A light read; The Christmas bookshop by Jenny Colgan. Apparently, I can’t get away from nature themes even if I try. The book is set in Edinburgh and the character Oke has a favourite tree; the Ormiston yew, (also known as the cathedral yew), one of Britain’s many documented ancient yews:
The smell of the deep ancient green made her think, and pause, and take in several deep breaths as she crawled through the narrow alleyway to the tree, a space cleared in the huge overhanging boughs. She was deeply, deeply cold, she realised. But here the wind was stilled, the snow could not penetrate the huge ancient branches, the heavy canopy of leaves. It was a cathedral of high green struts; stained green glass, brown-timbered pews. It was a place of worship. She slumped against the thickest of the multi-stranded trunks…
…’I see it’ ‘
What do you see?’
…’A religion without a church
The rustle of the leaves in the wind, the quieting sounds of the birds, the deep muffling of the snow.
‘This is your church’
Britain’s famous churchyard yews pre-date the churches they grow near, they belong to an older religion when humanity still revered the natural world and acknowledged our dependence upon it. Druids recognised the power and significance of the yew. A tree so long living it seems immortal. Dropping branches can root and form new trunks, through a reproductive process called vegetative cloning, thus giving the tree an association with resurrection and immortality. Even though these ancient yews do not get the protection they probably should, old buildings get more protection than the yews that have existed beside them for hundreds of years before the buildings were erected, they are still cared for with considerable reverence ( just for curiosity: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/28/britain-ancient-yews-mystical-magnificent-and-unprotected). In many ways the British seem to have more respect for their environmental heritage than we do here in Australia. Is that because our culture came as a coloniser, a usurper of the original people for whom this land was a birthright obligation, I wonder. For the coloniser, the land and all that is on it is just there to be exploited and that attitude is responsible for so much devastation.
In our fiction we are beginning to confront our uncomfortable relationship with the land on which we walk, certainly, it was an issue in Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost as he acknowledges our colonialist past with all its depredations, while celebrating the beauty and wonder of this land. The huon pine takes on special significance in Limberlost and like the yew, it is a species that can reproduce by vegetative cloning. There is a clonal stand in Tasmania that is apparently 10,500 years old, which must place it amongst the oldest living things on the planet surely? Like the yew, the huon pine must seem immortal. Prized for its unique rot-resisting properties the tree was once heavily logged for shipbuilding. It is the best shipbuilding timber in the world. It might be longlived but is also slow growing, logging huon pine rapidly became unsustainable. Now it is illegal to fell a huon pine and only naturally fallen trees can be utilised. It is a species with a very limited range and climate change is now adding an extra threat to its existence.
These remarkable trees are deserving of reverence, the huon pine’s remarkable rot-resisting qualities are due to the high concentration of Methyl Eugenol in the timber, the same oils that give the timber its rich scent, remarkable colour and high shine. The yew too has remarkable properties, mostly it is associated with death due to its high toxicity but those same naturally occurring toxins have given us a powerful chemotherapy drug, taxol, originally derived from the bark of the yew, a life-saving drug for some.
I wonder if our devotion to the Christmas tree is a reflection of a time when we felt closer to the natural world, although there is little natural about the plastic monstrosities we place in our homes today. Don’t get me wrong, I am very fond of our Christmas tree and all the memories attached to each decoration. We have a fake tree that is nearly thirty years old now, and a smaller juniper happily growing in a pot. The juniper comes inside for the season and goes back out on twelfth night, Epiphany eve, it seems none the worse for a short stint inside, weighed down by decorations and a string of lights.
Certainly, Christmas itself is celebrated at the time of the much older, more pagan festival of yule. I have a fondness for all the elements of Christmas but the pagan themes of coming out of the dark really resonate even though in the Southern hemisphere our seasons are reversed.
Do you have a favourite Christmas read?
Without question, mine is Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Hogfather a book that cleverly explores our traditions with humour, intelligence and warmth, a perfect read, probably my all-time favourite Discworld novel. Definitely my all-time favourite Christmas book and one of my favourite novels of all time. Basically imagine if the Grim Reaper steeped in to fill Santa’s boots while he was indisposed and you have Hogfather, check it out on Goodreads here. I don’t normally read a lot of light holiday-type fiction but Jenny Colgan’s novel The Christmas bookshop caught my eye. The idea of a bookshop in Edinburgh as a setting seemed very appealing.
I was not sure when I started reading if I would go the distance but it quickly drew me in, I liked the main character, Carmen, the less successful younger sister who goes to live with her successful older sister in Edinburgh to work in an old bookshop. I liked Carmen’s bolshie character. I also enjoyed the evolving story of her relationship with her nieces and nephew. The story reading episode that saw children fleeing the store in tears with claims of trauma, due to Carmen reading them the story of the little match girl, was great. Apparently, the cosseted children of the Edinburgh middle class had not been exposed to such a bleak tale, previously. The novel has a go at the sanitized world of over-parenting, saccharine positive thinking and the self-help industry, which I quite enjoyed. A bit family story, a bit romance, a bit about books, a bit of humour and a wonderful setting, all in all, a very enjoyable Christmas read.
Always looking for great things to read, so if you know a good Christmas novel please give me some suggestions.
Not really sure what this post was supposed to be about, really. Think end-of-year tiredness is catching up. Still have to finish catching up on Gaia challenge posts. Really looking forward to the Christmas break.