Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

plenty more

I couldn’t help it; yesterday I drove to Wahroonga to check out the train platform where those fig trees were cut down.

Wahroonga’s not far away, about 15 minutes north on Pacific Highway. But of course once I was there it took me longer than that to find parking. It was three o’clock, and this sleepy suburb was as gridlocked as a city center at rush hour. More than once I found myself at a standstill on residential streets. This is how it is here, even in the far-flung suburbs. Sydney’s population has skyrocketed past four million, but there never was a good set of plans to accomodate it with roads, infrastructure, or mass transit. It’s a mess. As sensible, relaxed, and reasonable as this place is, you won’t know it when you’re driving — the traffic is murder. Meanwhile the population is expected to be in the tens of millions in twenty years or so. So I came looking for one kind of suburban blight and found another.

Anyway, Wahroonga seemed like a pretty nice place, making my own neighborhood seem downmarket by comparison. Oh, they have a sushi joint in the shopping village? Nice. I’m jealous.

It was raining but I walked over to the train station to get a look at the trees. I have to say it didn’t resemble an ecological disaster. There were no jagged stumps surrounded by yellow tape. They’d already planted young trees to replace the fallen figs. If I hadn’t known there were huge, old fig trees there just two weeks before I would have thought the platform looked nice. Beyond that, the train tracks are surrounded by stands of trees. Wahroonga is very leafy and green, just like every suburb in the North Shore including my own. It’s not like there will be a shortage of oxygen, or beauty, with these figs gone.

But when I walked to the other end of the platform and looked at the two remaining figs, which are scheduled to be lopped down in turn this October, I got angry all over again. For one thing the trees are just amazing. They’re massive (though not nearly as big as figs can be, thanks to decades of pruning), and the wonderfully gnarled boughs are densely packed with lovely dark green leaves. Just looking up into the canopy towering overhead has a calming effect. I started thinking about how fig trees are intrinsic to so many ancient mythologies and religious traditions.

And the so-called safety hazard is a lot of hype. Sure the asphalt is a little disjointed where the roots are. But it doesn’t look anything like a situation screaming out for drastic action; it doesn’t look more dangerous than any other sidewalk you’d see in an average walk to the grocery store. The trees have been there for decades, and most of the supposedly helpless oldies RailCorp implies they are protecting have been too, and are probably used to stepping around the roots. This is where liability and paranoia take the place of common sense and enjoying life. I don’t want to live in a world that’s flat, sterile, uniform, and completely safe. A friend wrote, “I’d rather have a hair in my food than look at someone wearing a hairnet.”

There’s also a good deal of hypocrisy and thickheadedness about this “safety” excuse. Many of the train stations have a plastic safety strip running along the edge of the platforms. The bright-yellow or blue plastic surface is studded or cleated and is no doubt meant to keep people from slipping as they step on and off the trains. It’s the exact same thing you see in the New York subway. The only problem is when this surface gets wet, it’s actually far more slippery than concrete or asphalt. I can’t tell you how many times in New York I slipped while stepping on this stuff. RailCorp even have signs up warning people about slipping on the safety surface. (Try to get your head around that one.) So, if they were really all that concerned about safety on their train platforms, wouldn’t they remove these useless and dodgy plastic surfaces?

Fig tree massacre = epic fail.

Wanna read something incredible? While I was looking for articles about these trees, I saw this thread on a private forum for railworkers. These guys are actually gloating over the removal of the trees. The running theme is that the very few complaints about the trees’ destruction are coming from whingeing posh old ladies and tree huggers. Sample thought: “Fig smig. Plenty more where they came from.”

I guess a bunch of mullets have nothing better to do in their spare time than make fun of old ladies? Tough guys, hey? If I honestly related my thoughts about these yobbos I’d have to worry about my blog being flagged. Let’s just say not all residents of the North Shore who care about trees are polite old ladies. I’d like to meet them and give them a firm handshake.

It’s always liberals that are labelled “knee-jerk,” but this is a case of conservatives being knee-jerk. (Which probably only proves that everyone is knee-jerk when it comes down to it.) These guys probably never thought about those trees until it became a controversy. If they ever saw them while working on the trains or in the station, they probably enjoyed them. No one hates trees. But as soon as someone has the nerve to question what’s taking place, they come out of the woodwork, with dismissive slogans they learned from talk radio (or maybe, in this case, from their superiors at RailCorp).

I should appreciate these guys for their refreshing honesty, and for reminding me of the mentality we’re dealing with. That’s definitely an Aussie trait. For example, if an Aussie doesn’t like Aborigines, or immigrants from India, they usually won’t hesitate to tell you.

Anyway they sure are getting the world they deserve.

Mind you it’s not the trees I’m concerned about as such. In a way, that attitude about “plenty more” is exactly right, maybe just not in the way these guys think. What, me worry about the planet? Check out what George Carlin thought of worrying about the planet.

I first saw this performance when I was 18, already a bit of a budding environmentalist, and it was hugely influential on me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot again lately pertaining to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. True, his nihilism leaves me cold at the end of the day (he’s also famous, of course, as a raving atheist); but sometimes you need a pinch of salt to keep things in perspective.

Lately, probably because of a pervasive doomsday mentality in our culture, some scientists, engineers, and other thinkers have come up with various scenarios to describe what would happen to our buildings, our monuments, and our infrastructure should we suddenly disappear. I gave up worrying about the end of the world a long time ago, and I don’t exactly believe in the insignificance of the human race; but I find this stuff pretty fun to think about academically.

If the planet is doing fine overall, it’s doing even better in Australia. Nature rules here. This is one of the underlying themes of The Tree, the new film that got me interested in these local figs in the first place. And indeed, the relationship of people with this indomitable wilderness is a basic element of much Australian fiction. This continent is the size of the United States, with less than a tenth of the population; only a tiny part of its vast wilderness has been tamed by people. The rest never will be, not in a thousand years, if you accept the theories of environmental determinists like Jared Diamond — whether jungle or desert, it’s just too unforgiving, too harsh, too much for our meager knowledge and technology to control. If Aussies let things go, nature would consume our achievements here with relish, like so much buttered toast and Vegemite.

This might explain the yobbo resistance to environmentalism. Living in a place where people feel they’ve had to scrap for what small space they occupy on the land, a place where nature is so formidable and even deadly, why worry about it? Why shouldn’t people do whatever they want if there’s never any danger of nature succumbing?

But as I said, it’s not nature that’s in trouble, it’s us. And I’m not just referring to large-scale problems like climate change. At the risk of sounding shortsighted and offending George Carlin (I know he’s out there somewhere), what pisses me off about the removal of these trees is that it contributes to making our urban environment that much shittier. It’s not only about oxygen and preventing soil erosion. It’s about the health and well-being of the community, and preserving what’s unique and beautiful about the local heritage. It’s also about progressive planning: making sure our urban and suburban centers aren’t miserable, traffic-choked places with the same crap architecture and the same mulch-lined succulent gardens.

One of the protesters in Wahroonga pointed out that if she wanted to live in a place with no trees, she’d live in the western suburbs, which have an unfortunate reputation as an overdeveloped wasteland. And in turn, one of these railworkers wrote, “Typical North Shore attitude. I remember not that long ago, RailCorp removed the massive tree from High Street station. How many complaints? Zero! Westies have got bigger issues to deal with.” Presumably their sportscars and their barbecues.

So we’re seeing a supposed culture divide here. You’ve got the posh old ladies and the fruitcakes vs the tough, no-nonsense yobbos. I’ve been dealing with this dichotomy my whole life, because I grew up in a blue-collar community that viewed environmentalism as misguided at best. Well, I refuse to buy into it. Westies need green spaces and good planning too, even if they won’t admit it. Everyone needs sustainable living.

You know what? Forget it. Why should I keep explaining myself? Forget those yobbos. Forget George Carlin’s nihilism. Anyone who’d cut down a hundred-year-old fig tree without a really great reason (something on the order of possession by evil spirits), or anyone who’d justify it, is an asshole.

fig tree massacre

More follow-up to The Tree, the fine new Franco-Australian film which closed Cannes and recently debuted here in Oz at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s a narrative about a Queensland family’s odd relationship with the Moreton Bay Fig in their yard and their struggle to keep it from being cut down. (My review is on my other page; my last entry here is about French director Julie Bertucelli’s affection for Australia and her Redback boots.)

A few days ago, while getting samosas in the neighborhood, I happened to pick up one of those free local papers you see in every suburb — the ones you never really look at because they’re filled with non-news and lifestyle features for old people. But this time something grabbed my attention. To my surprise and dismay, I saw that life had mirrored art a little. The front page story was about the destruction of some one-hundred-year-old fig trees at a train station not far from where I live.

Apparently RailCorp, the state-owned enterprise that runs the commuter trains throughout New South Wales, decided the fig trees that graced the platform at Wahroonga train station were a menace to society. So they are doing away with them. Three of the trees were cut down last week; the other two will get the chainsaw in October.

Here you can see the trees as they were, strikingly situated right on the train platform.

Apparently the issue was the roots of the trees. Fig trees have very aggressive root systems that can cause a good deal of structural damage. (This is prominent in the plot of The Tree.) RailCorp claims the roots were irreversibly destroying the platform along with other infrastructure, creating public safety hazards, and that there was no cost-effective way to deal with the problem.

From what I can gather it all happened pretty fast. Wahroonga is an affluent neighborhood, the kind of place where you’d expect nice old trees would have some allies, but any opposition to this carnage was too little, too late. There was a hasty, badly-organized public forum; the mayor of Ku-ring-gai Council (the local governing body) appealed to RailCorp and various politicians to no avail and was eventually reduced to pleading; NSW Premier Kristina Keneally was alerted but she seems to have sniffed her nose at the problem. So down came the trees.

The maddening thing is there was no actual support for removing the trees, no outcry in the community that led RailCorp to make the decision. Now the community has lost the historic trees that beautified the platform and provided shade for decades, and no one’s happy about it — no one’s gained anything. It’s the worst sort of bureaucratic laziness, apathy, and penny-pinching that led to this outrage. To cut down one-hundred year old trees because they are supposedly in the way — because you can’t come up with the resources or imagination to work around them — there’s something willfully obnoxious or hateful about that. It’s a kind of violence.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now from Gaza to the Gulf of Mexico. But for some reason this ugly business has angered me most of all since I found out about it. They say you should think locally. This stubborn, mindless act by Railcorp represents everything that’s wrong with the way we conceive of and care for our living environments. I mean, call me a hippie or whatever.

I found two WordPress blogs written by local advocates of historic trees that cover this incident pretty well:

  • Saving Our Trees has plenty of information showing that RailCorp’s reasoning about why the trees had to go is a lot of bollocks.
  • Save Our Figs offers a great overview of architecture and design solutions for living with historic trees. Too late for the three which fell last week, alas.

By the way, I didn’t make up the title of this post: I found this phrasing on more than one online account of the story.

julie’s redbacks

Last week the Franco-Australian film The Tree had its Aussie premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. (I could just as easily have described it as an Australian-French film, but I like any excuse to use the word “Franco” in context.) I attended the screening at the State Theatre, which featured an introduction and a Q&A with the film’s director, Julie Bertucelli.

I thought it was a fine film; my review can be found on my other page. Set in rural Queensland, it’s the story of a family coping with grief, and their special relationship with the massive Moreton Bay fig tree in their yard. Though Bertucelli is French (and star Charlotte Gainsbourg is French and English) I found it a very Aussie film not only in its setting, but in the way its characters interact with each other and the quasi-mystical force of nature represented by the tree.

During her speech, Bertucelli highlighted the film’s dual citizenship. She said when she was at Cannes, where The Tree had the honor of closing the festival a couple of weeks before, a lot of people assumed her film was Australian and so was she. And being here in Sydney it was the opposite — people took it for granted that the film was French like her.

In her pleasant, low-key way, she went on to say she started to feel Australian while spending a year here in production. She offered as evidence the fact that she wore the same pair of Redbacks for that entire year, and continued to do so after wrapping the film. She even wanted to wear them that evening but thought it was slightly too formal an occasion.

OK, maybe it was an effort to ingratiate herself to a packed house full of Aussies. But in general she seemed very sweet and down to earth (perhaps more reasons to be mistaken for an Aussie despite her accent). That always goes a long way with me in the film business, and it put me in a good frame of mind before the film rolled.

Anyway — great choice of footwear, Julie. Especially for a gruelling year of film production in Queensland. If you don’t know, Redbacks are one of the most popular Australian brands of work boots and shoes. They’re the main rival to the classic Blundstone; like Blundstone they specialize in pull-on safety boots. These comfortable boots, often steel-toed, with the distinctive “pulling-on” straps, are a purely Australian phenomenon — Australia’s answer to Doc Martens, but not yet diluted by mass-marketing to fashion-conscious kids — and universally worn by workers of all kinds. Everywhere you go, you see truck drivers and tradesmen proudly the sporting same Aussie work uniform: cargo shorts, fluorescent safety shirt or vest, sunnies, and pull-on boots. Like Aussies, the boots are tough, practical, unpretentious, and stylish in their own way.

At the organic produce warehouse where I worked, I got to know a kid from India who’d been here for three months (about the same time as me). He was about five feet tall, a nerdy-looking engineering student with glasses. But he wore Blundstones to work, and that made him absolutely Aussie.

Redbacks are proudly Australian-owned and made, which is no longer the case with Blundstone. They are, of course, named after the poisonous spider which is a kind of wicked alternate national mascot — seen everywhere here in art, crafts, design, and marketing of all kinds (as covered in this arachnophobically-induced post.) I myself have a pair of Redback chef clogs. They’re as comfortable as could be, and dare I say kind of hip. If I was going to spend a year filming a movie in the Queensland countryside, I’d probably stick with my Redbacks too.

It was a small thing for her to mention her Redbacks, but as someone who’s lived in Australia for even less than the year she spent here, it stood out for me. I thought it was cool of her to admit she identifies with that part of Australiana. It made me inclined to like her and her film that much more.

Visit Redback Boots’ website — not only to browse through their great selection of boots and shoes, but to check out the funny little animated spider that follows the cursor around on the home page.

acknowledgement of country

One morning a few weeks ago I attended the official launch of the Sydney Film Festival at Customs House. The launch is essentially a press conference to announce the festival’s program and start the process of hyping it, with a presentation of the ad campaign, trailers for some of the films, and some speechifying. A couple of high-powered names showed up to add weight to the proceedings, including Miranda Otto, star of the festival’s Opening Night film, South Solitary.

The first speaker was Virginia Judge, Member of Parliament and Minister for the Arts for New South Wales. Before she spoke, she made a point of acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, and thanking them for their cultural and spiritual legacy. Then she went on to more mundane thanks and acknowledgemnts — the board of directors, sponsors, and so on.

I was pleased but slightly astonished. I have to admit it made me disposed to give extra consideration to everything else she said that morning. But I could not figure out the context. It certainly seemed done in some official capacity, and not on any sort of whim. Yet I’d never heard such a thing, and it seemed very fresh and unusual to my ears. Suffice it to say that no elected official or bureaucrat in America would go there unless there was a reason for it — unless they were stumping for a crowd of Native American voters, or commemorating a massacre or something. But I couldn’t see an overt reason Ms. Judge would do that in downtown Sydney (where there is not a significant indigenous population), at a film festival press conference. There were no particularly Aboriginal themes or collaborations of note, and I didn’t think there were any special guests of indigenous heritage.

That day I posted some of these observations on facebook. I mentioned that it made me feel good, even if it wasn’t off the cuff or from the heart. My friend Larissa, who is from here but now lives in England, responded by informing me that indeed, it’s an official thing. It’s a set of protocols that a growing number of organizations here in Oz follow at the start of functions or activities. It’s called Acknowledgement of Country. A more formal version, called Welcome to Country, involves an Aboriginal elder being present to officially bless an event or gathering. Sometimes a Welcome to Country can include a special fire ceremony.

I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t witnessed some sort of spontaneous gratitude on the part of Ms. Judge. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of such a protocol.

Last week I was at the festival’s Opening Night at the State Theatre. Before the program started, an Aboriginal gentleman, a representative of some cultural body, came onstage and addressed the crowd. He was quite a jolly chap and started by warming up the crowd with a couple of joking asides. (Before speaking, he bumped into the microphone, causing some feedback, and theatrically muttered, “Bloody hell!” earning a big laugh). He also magnanimously apologized for the rainy weather. But after a minute I realized I was witnessing a Welcome to Country. He explained that we were on Cadigal land; that the Cadigal band, part of the Eora nation, were and are the traditional custodians of the land on which Sydney is built.

He then welcomed us to Cadigal land — welcomed us warmly, welcomed us several times in fact. He was pretty articulate and polished, but chose to use a lot of slang for effect — for example, he referred to the Cadigal as the “mob” who run this place, and said that whatever mob we came from, we were welcome here too. He rambled a bit but I liked the way he talked. He called us all his brothers and sisters. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with that kind of outlook.

After he was done with his welcome, more functionaries and guests came onstage with introductory remarks. (Actually there were a few too many of them, and a few too many remarks. The crowd grew quite restless as the christening of the festival approached an hour.) Each speaker acknowledged the country briefly before moving on to the business at hand.

Being newly aware that it’s an official thing gave me a different perspective. If it’s not terribly sincere — if it’s just done by rote before some official stream of hot air, doesn’t that take something away from it? And what good is all the acknowledging of the “traditional” custodians anyway, since the Cadigal were decimated by smallpox before being systematically driven off their land? What claim do they actually have on the real estate value of this land and the tremendous amount of commerce that goes on here? What good does it do the indigenous people of Australia to take part in bureaucratic functions, and to have the right things said about them by well-meaning politicians, if living conditions are still so bad for most of them? What good are words?

Actually, words are pretty powerful. They say watch your words, for they will become your actions. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy enough to be cynical about the government saying nice things. But coming from a place where it’s much less likely for the government to acknowledge the Native American legacy — not to mention the crucial part in our history played by slavery — it’s pretty refreshing. So I think it’s good there’s an apparatus in place to oblige these official types to say these things. Mere acknowledgement is not enough, but it’s a start. It’s also yet another new thing I’ve discovered that’s utterly and unmistakably Australian. I like it.

So, come to think of it, I too would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I live on, and elders past and present, and would like to thank them for their cultural and spiritual legacy and its contributions to my writing and everything else I do.

Here are two links for information about the Cadigal and other indigenous people native to the Sydney area: