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.

2 comments so far

  1. Caity Raschke on

    Your last sentence just sums it all up.

  2. steven on

    they are ‘Tactile Ground Surface Indicators’ used by blind people

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