Naming Calls – Chapter 1
She is mine. Or at least, six metres of her. Diameter one-and-a-half metres. Weight seven tonnes. Delivered today on Ken Mathers’ flatbed truck. The result of a year’s worth of favours called in and a few strings pulled at Parks Victoria.
For years she lay alongside the boggy woodland trail, awash in a feathery green sea of bracken. Skipper and I walked by her many a time: I would cast an appraising eye and think ‘If only …’ and ‘What if …?’ Skipper would poke an appraising nose and cock his leg.
She came down in a wild storm twelve years ago. She’s in pretty good shape considering. Just enough rot and borer attack to give her timber extra character.
Why must you anthropomorphise inanimate objects as ‘she’, Dad?
It’s a matter of emotional attachment, I guess, Freya. The people I love most are female. Anyway a tree is not inanimate.
The manna gum gets its name from the sugary secretion which oozes from wounds in the trunk and hardens. This ‘manna’ is an important food source for many small woodland creatures. The foliage of the manna gum, conversely, is toxic to most animals – except the koalas that doze high in the canopy, zonked out on narcotic leaves. Dreaming furry koala dreams.
The tree is also called ‘ribbon gum’, as the bark peels off in long ribbons during summer, leaving the upper trunk and branches a smooth white. By reflecting sunlight this cools the canopy, reducing water stress in dry periods.
The manna gums along our morning walk stand straight and tall. We wander in a Gothic cathedral of stately pillars with a filigree vault of dappled green, backlit by an azure sky. These are young trees that were seeded into dense woodland.
This fallen giant, by contrast, grew slowly. She twisted herself out of the earth, spreading luxuriantly into the sky. It must have been more open country back then, tended by Yorta Yorta custodians according to their needs and customs. Thus the young tree had no need to shoot straight up, in order to seize a patch of sunlight in a crowded sky.
Manna gum is a medium-dense hardwood, easy to work with power or hand tools. However seasoning is difficult. Which is why this naturally seasoned, wind-felled specimen …
Dad, the readers won’t care about the technical details. Can we get on with the story, please?
Well, I maintain that this is relevant. Besides, who is telling the story? Are you going to keep on interrupting, Freya?
I pace around the section of trunk in my workshop. View her from different angles. Pat her and run my hand along her. Sit with her and listen to her, my cheek pressed to her skin.
Skipper wags his tail and cocks an ear in slight concern. Kelpies are not good at contemplation: they prefer frenetic action and a full to-do list.
I hear the wind in her leaves, the lonely call of the currawong and the whistle and crack of the whipbird. The steady munch of borer grubs in her sapwood and the scratch of koala claws. The patter of Yorta Yorta children’s feet as they play around her base.
The echo of the woodman’s axe is followed by the groan and crash as her siblings are felled. Curses and songs in English, German, Irish and Cantonese as diggers scour and sift the creek for the yellow metal.
I haven’t yet decided what she will become, but she has sown a seed in my mind.
Next week in ‘Naming Calls’:
Inspiration strikes in the middle of the night, but Freya is sceptical …