Of Eucalypts

August 2017.

There is a tree, an old eucalyptus, by a creek I cross walking my children to school each day or on my way down town for a cup of tea.  For a eucalypt there is nothing peculiar about it.  It’s like the many others along that creek, or any other creek, river or woodland for that matter.  But then that ordinariness is what makes it exceptional.   It is your typical old gum, with beautiful pristine bark poking through the cracked and darkened old bark that is shredding and shedding, its branches are twisted and knotted, some mid branch other at the junction of two. I realised that I’ve seen this old knotted tree before. I’ve seen it everywhere in the Australian landscape.

Over the last decade the notion of the Rhizome, as suggested by Deleuze and Guattari, has become the dominant metaphor for theory and theory development. The tree, the previous fad, has become a clichéd, incomplete and overused way to structure thinking, many argue. I wonder if it is, though. These old knotted trees of the Australian landscape, these trees that act as a canvas for the changing lights of the bush, are in some ways more rhizomic than structured European trees. Are they a post-colonial theory in themselves, where old European knowledges and traditions are taken and twisted, bits broken off, new bits emerging, where somehow they withstand the harshness of the Australian landscape, the devastating fire, only to regenerate in floods and good seasons?

There is something terribly clichéd about evoking a tree in philosophy.  But I’m not evoking any tree here – I’m referring to eucalyptus trees and their influence on my thinking upon southern theory.  See, I’m over the rhizome, the ultimate cliché of northern theory as travelling theory and its cultural domination. There is something self-assured and hidden about the rhizome, like a subtle acceptance of cultural dominance and ubiquitous of culture and power. The gum on the other hand reveals the ongoing struggle of growth.  As we accept the rhizome as theory we accept the culture and social conditions that created it.  More so, we reproduce them, for if the rhizome is northern culture its very lack of a beginning or end reinforces the normality of that culture and those structures. This lack of a beginning or end, the constant state of in-between-ness, is what is deemed attractive about it as metaphor.  That it has no genesis, seeks no pinnacle, no roots and no regular structure like a tree is its strength. However the eucalyptus is not like European trees in that regard. Its un-European-ness is what took early landscape artists so long to understand.  The rhizome as a metaphor for culture has been compared to the spreading of water, slowly trickling into available spaces, often leaving no trace between particles.  Is this not like colonization and cultural domination?  When overt it is resisted, but when it is slowly and gently allowed to percolate over time it becomes hegemonic.

If regularity, predictability and chronology of growth are the failings of trees as theory, then the eucalyptus is rhizomatic. Its irregularity is its regularity. As one’s gaze follows the gum, it is just when you think it will bend one way that it turns in another, defying gravity, aesthetic and expectation.  Except this is its aesthetic. Aesthetic is after all a matter of taste, itself a marker of culture, social power and inevitably the perpetrator of violence and domination. Order, structure, regularity do not accord with the Australian climate and landscape: unlike the rhizome, it is a land of extremes rather than the endless middle ground.

My tree, with its branches twisted and gnarled, is a visual representation of how my brain often feels.  Especially last night after trying to understand and make sense of vexing issues or mount an argument, there are the butts of dead branches, reminders of ideas that grew but then didn’t go anywhere or were broken by the weight of counter-argument. Just as I have followed ideas to reject them or re-sprout them in new places or with new ideas, the eucalypt juts out a new branch or shoots out in a new direction from a seemingly dead branch.  My tree’s bark is shedding, new growth and shedding of the old, it seems to happen just as I move on in my development into new understandings of myself as a human, person, researcher and so forth.

How do I express an emotion through words? That feeling when you are at once elated and animated with the excitement of ideas but equally frustrated, torn and angry, as your head just can’t quite expand enough to make it all visible – that’s what I see in my eucalypt.  Indeed I see the world through eucalyptus.  As I struggle to find the words to express my thinking on a topic, I find a vision of the twisted, gnarled, shedding eucalypt that emerges in my mind’s eye is the closest to the thought I have as yet unexpressed within me.

I should say that my topic invariably revolves around the rural – how the rural is its essence, and distinct and different from the metropolitan-cosmopolitan world.  The rural is, of course, ubiquitous globally as not modern or urban. But other than similarities in relative location, population density and economic base, each rural is distinct and different.  It exists at the intersection of the unique social, cultural, geographic and economic influences that make up each distinct place.  My place is the Australian bush and my initial interest is bringing the Australian rural from outside policy and modern culture to a more equal position.  See, in the modern world we loose our connection with place and places.  We become placeless.  When we do this, we are missing something in our soul.

It takes me back to my formative time ‘out-back’ when I used to travel out and camp overnight, invariably with the swag tied to a eucalypt, and as I watched the sun set and the colours of the eucalypt change, its character change.  I came to feel ‘at home’ in those moments but thought nothing more of them. But now, thinking of my eucalypt I’m transported back to that time and the ideas and meanings I draw in my work, now from a ‘rural standpoint’ – and not in the sense that I look back with nostalgia. Instead, the past, present and all that went between are one, expressed in the shape, colour and form of the eucalypt. I’m not meaning to steal from Aboriginal ontology here, though I recognize the similarity – maybe there is an influence of my learning about beginning to know place. Perhaps I am slowly appreciating the insight of the belief system as I pull away the bark of northern-ness in my soul to reveal new growth.

Just as David Tacey wrote about the sacred evoking Jungian ideas – there is something to be said for how engaging with nature is restorative.  But it’s more than that, it’s a bit like Nicolas Rothwell’s meanderings in his outback, and the unnaturalness of European civilization on this land.  Belonging yet not belonging.  That we are formed through northern theory somehow leaves us forever on the outer and somehow never quite rooted.  It’s in response to this that my eucalypt stirs something within.

It could compare with the rhizome, I suppose, in its unpredictability of shape and form and the randomness of dead branches, new shoots, twists and gnarls. And sure, there are native rhizomes – the kangaroo paw, for example. But perhaps another difference is that the rhizome is hidden whereas the eucalypt changes and evolutions are exposed for all to see. There is something honest about that; it’s not afraid to go down unproductive paths, change its mind, evolve and change.  Maybe this is what is better for academic work, too often faced with judgment we hide behind our positions and present the finished product – rather than expose the thinking, struggles and changes.  Does this fear of change hold back our development: if we were more eucalypt-like, would we happily follow a path and change our mind, evolve our thinking and shed old ideas to expose new ones? I think I like that the disturbances CAN be traced – there is something more objective in the jagged and dead stub of a branch than trusting the methodology of the researcher that produced the latest breakthrough presented in isolation from its production. With the eucalypt, every avenue explored and discarded is evident.

As I struggle to make sense of what is before me, and as I struggle against my own resistance and its symptoms of avoidance and procrastination, I see that eucalypt again.  This time in a form growing in a parched paddock, branches dead from drought akin to the mental drought of avoidance, but new branches of flood and the abundance of hope and reinvigoration.  Just as drought hits the eucalypt, a drought of compassion and humanism hits the social world, but just as flooding rains come so does hope and the prospect of a better future – if only the occasional shower but enough to stave off despair.  That it has to survive an irregular and harsh climate that has no structure has becomes its structure, a structure in which it thrives. The eucalypt defines place to me, and is the focus of decolonization and re-inhabitation: it was appropriated but also offers insights.

The eucalyptus is arguably a central part of the Australian cultural experience, defining the bush, art, and culture.  Though the name itself is northern.  Can we escape this northern theory when we learn to think, feel and read in an imported language?  Even eucalyptus is an imported work tied up with Western science and known European ways.  Etymologically the word derives from theGreek words eu-, well, and kaluptos, cover, meaning ‘well-covered’, describing the cap that covers the flower resulting in ‘Eucalyptus’.  What about the names used by various Aboriginal nations, Jarrah perhaps? Either way, there persists in art an unnaturalness to the depiction of the eucalypt. While not as striking as northern reinterpretation enacted by the early ‘European’ artists, who were either European born or trained in European taste, a true depiction remains elusive.

Just like the immovable object young men like to wrap their cars around on country roads, northern theory is equally impenetrable to many young students having grown in different lands. It becomes a barrier to progress as the eucalypt is to the car.  Part of what makes my eucalypt stand out is how it is juxtaposed against the false landscape of where I now live.  The landscape around me has been homogenized to produce a safe European landscape to match the supplanting of European society so beautifully expressed by Wild in Bradstow. I am writing this in Bradstow where I now live.

There is vulnerability in thinking eucalypt; perhaps it’s linked to the honesty of exposing failure and change.  Physically, eucalypts’ as ‘widow maker’ are known for dropping branches like a dropped thought.  One is never sure if the branch will fall or break under your weight, like an idea that may fail when challenged or in the face of the winds of change.  Then there is the vulnerability of living in a harsh land – will they survive the next drought or be washed away in the coming flood, or is that simply the nature of harshness? Society is equally harsh, when the façade of European aesthetics and manners are removed, the character of few, yet direct, words is left. Action not conversation, labour not thought.

The trick of the metaphor of the tree being slow, long-lived and somewhat ageless in the face of contemporary debates, like Greybeard in Tolkien, is to conjure a view of  European-ness as eternal.  Perhaps here the desert sands are more so. But do they themselves conjure thoughts of ancient Arab-Lands? That’s not so bad I guess, those lands preceded, and facilitated, the European thoughts I need to escape. Thinking the eucalypt may help us move beyond the mistakes of this past.

We tried to ring bark them, not wanting to engage in new thinking.  Do we ringbark them still when we turn to science and European theory to try to classify them? – an impulse that Holland, in Murray Bail’s ‘Eucalyptus’ found futile. Now those dead limbs remind us that we’ve been thinking here before the rhizome.  Thinking in public, not mysterious or hidden, we can look back at what didn’t work and ponder the connection to environment and history that led to false hope.

Indeed while Don Watson and Murray Bail hint at something about the eucalypt in terms of philosophy and the emergence of a southern theory, I think Pyne captures it most succinctly: ‘is not only the Universal Australian, it is the ideal Australian – versatile, tough, sardonic, contrary, self-mocking, with a deceptive complexity amid the appearance of massive homogeneity; an occupier of disturbed environments; a fire creature” (Pyne, 1992, p. 25). In a post-humanist sense we have created them as they have created us. It would seem that trees are fundamental to human existence, for without the eucalypt we may not be able to think here.

Now in the ultimate irony gums are overseas, the basis of Brazil’s biofuel, tackling Spanish salinization and California’s deforestation – only to be a bushfire hazard. Travelling theory perhaps, not suited to local conditions…


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