THE TREE cover BellMT.jpg

Copyright © 1988 C. A. HOCKING

The Tree Lovers Society arranged to petition the residents of Barker Avenue in an attempt, once again, to stop the local council from cutting down the huge old pine trees that lined the street. Habitats for birds, cleaner air for the residents, that unique ambience that only exists in old leafy suburbs, all that and more. The council had started at the western end of Barker Avenue and removed four glorious specimens before we heard about it. A protest was arranged and I did my part, taking my turn on the roster to be chained to a tree for one eight hour shift every two days. We stopped the council for awhile, but we knew we had to do more. Seeking a court order hadn’t worked as the council had come up with all sorts of reasons to continue its terrible path of destruction. Damaged footpaths. Cracked roads. Falling branches. Nonsense of course.  When it comes to such things, it’s always about money, budgets and more money. Councils never consider the wishes of the people or the good of the environment.

So we organised a petition. Petitions had been successful in saving the trees on two previous occasions many years ago. Thirty-five years and twenty-two years ago, to be precise. I helped draft the new petition and was given the south side of the oldest part of Barker Avenue to canvas. I knew we’d have no trouble getting the signatures of the residents. I couldn’t see them wanting their street taking on the ambience of a paddock.

I parked my car under the biggest tree in the street, outside No. 2. So what if I felt the exposed roots scraping the exhaust as I pulled in. No damage done. I was feeling confident and a little smug as I knocked on the door. It was a pretty little house, bluestone with a bull-nose veranda which looked rather new compared to the rest of the structure. I noticed one of the windows at the end was boarded up. Perhaps the house had been burgled recently, although the weathered boards looked as if they’d been there a long time. Dusty cobwebs covered them from top to bottom.

It was cool on the veranda, the house being shaded by the tree’s heavy branches that reached across the roof to the back of the house. All around me was a thick layer of old pine needles, burying what may have once been a garden under a spongy carpet. The sounds of the street were muffled. There was a feeling of quiet, shabby, genteel serenity to the place.

The lady who opened the door suited the house perfectly. She was a sweet little old thing, somewhere in her eighties, her grey hair pulled into a tidy knot at the nape of her neck, her thin figure draped in a blue and white cotton smock, and a pair of old, red rubber thongs on her feet. She looked up at me with the gentlest eyes and the sweetest smile, and said softly, “Hello, can I help you?”

I nodded and smiled condescendingly. This wouldn’t take long. “Good morning, madam. I’d like to talk to you about the trees in your street.”

Her face lit up. “Are you the lady from the council? Come in, come in!” Before I could object, she grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me through the door. “Would you care for a glass of cold lemonade, dear? It’s so very hot out there.” She left me standing in the middle of her lounge room for a moment and returned with a tray of drinks and biscuits.

“Sit down, dear. Make yourself comfortable.” She indicated the worn sofa.

I said, “Well, actually, madam, I’m not from the council.” I took a glass from the tray, sat on the sofa and sipped the lemonade.

She paused by a long sideboard, tray in hand, and stared at me. “Not from the council?” She looked at my clipboard and folder. Suddenly, her sweet eyes narrowed and she slammed the tray down on the sideboard, making me jump and spill some lemonade down the front of my shirt. “Not from the council?” she repeated, her voice rising a little. I mopped at my shirt with a tissue from my purse and looked up.

She was glaring at me, her mouth pinched and white, and a nerve twitched below her right eye. I tensed and removed my glasses to wipe the lemonade droplets from them. It gave me a moment to reconsider my strategy. Obviously, she was one of those eccentric old ladies with unpredictable ways and would take careful management.

I replaced my glasses. “I’m Anne Richards from the Tree Lovers Society. I’m canvassing this side of Barker Avenue with a petition …”

“Petition!” she snapped and took a step toward me. “PETITION!” she cried. “And to think I let you in!” She took another step towards me and I instinctively cringed back into the sofa as she raised her hand. I raised my own to ward off the anticipated blow, but she deftly bypassed it and snatched the glass from me, spilling the remainder of the contents onto my lap.

“No nasty little tree loving petitioner is going to drink MY lemonade in MY house!” She spat out “petitioner” as if it was an obscenity. I was speechless, caught off my guard. She thumped the glass back onto the tray and turned to unleash the full impact of her hostility. “How dare you come here with another one of those disgusting petitions! How DARE YOU!”

Ahh, now I understood. I’d seen photos of the first group of petitioners standing on the council steps, celebrating their victory thirty-five years ago. I’d even laughingly commented that they’d looked like a bunch of wild, grubby hippies, and laughed again at the photo of the second group of successful petitioners with their big hair and badly fitting clothes. I’d heard that petitioners could be very pushy, very demanding back then. She must have had a bad experience with one of them. Perhaps even trustingly invited one into her home as she’d done with me.

But I wasn’t like those first petitioners. I was dressed in a conservative beige business suit and crisp white shirt, my hair neatly bobbed and my makeup applied with a careful hand. I had a degree in psychology and a good paying job. And I had a reassuring manner. I’d been told so many times. People liked me. I was no threat to her.

I composed myself, gave her my most reassuring smile and rose to placate the poor old dear. I was barely on my feet when she leapt forward with astonishing agility and pushed me back onto the sofa.

“You stay right were you are, girlie! I haven’t finished with you yet!” I opened my mouth to speak and she suddenly brought her hands together right in front of my face. CLAP! I was stunned. “Don’t you say a word! Not a word! If you’ve got the gall to come here with one of those damn petitions and your self-righteous do-gooder attitude, then you’re going to have to listen to what I have to say, whether you like it or not!”

I froze, afraid to move. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to be frightened or fascinated by the metamorphosis happening before me.

A moment ago, she’d been a gentle, kind creature, a cliché little old lady. Now, she was trembling violently, her face a corrugated picture of affronted anger. Wispy hair was working loose from the knot at the back of her neck and trailing across one shoulder. She hunched over me menacingly, her smock billowing down around her ankles, making her appear legless.

She took a deep, shuddering breath and launched into a tirade, the words coming sometimes staccato, sometimes running together, always in a shrill, cutting voice.

“I’ve lived in this house for over sixty years. I came here with my husband, Frank, as a young bride. Eighteen I was. This place was lovely then, such a nice house, and that lovely big tree out the front. Oh, yes, it was big sixty years ago. It shaded the front footpath and the front fence. We didn’t think it would get much bigger. We parked our first car under its branches, no-one had carports or garages in those days. Then the children started arriving. Six of them in ten years. They loved to climb the tree and collect the pine cones and rake up the pine needles into little piles.

“I had a lovely garden in those days. Roses and scented things and lots of flowers. I planted a row of hydrangeas along the fence under the shade of the tree. The pine needles made wonderful mulch.

“The tree got bigger. So did the children. They cut their feet on the pine cones. They tripped over fallen branches and broke bones. They fell out of the tree and broke more bones. Their bike tyres were forever getting punctures from the rotting cones. I couldn’t keep up with the fallen pine needles. They built up on my garden until they smothered the hydrangeas. Nothing else would grow there. The branches got so big that no sun reached anything, the roots crawled across the garden, robbing the soil of any goodness, and despite my best efforts, the garden died.

“I wrote to the council and asked them to cut down the tree. It was the biggest tree in the street, almost twice the size of most of them. Then some nosey do-gooder who didn’t even live in this street got up a petition to save the tree. The tree stayed. That was thirty-five years ago.”

She paused briefly for breath and kicked her thongs off. Hopping from foot to foot in agitation, she wiped perspiration from her face. Knotted blood vessels stood out on her neck and she clenched and unclenched her fists convulsively. I was mesmerised.

“The tree got bigger. We bought a brand new car. A huge branch fell on our lovely new car and squashed it flat. The insurance company wouldn’t pay out because, in their opinion, we had left our car parked in an unsafe position. I was just grateful no one was in the car at the time. So we built a carport. We wrote to the council. They agreed to cut down the tree. There was a petition. The tree stayed. That was twenty-two years ago.

“The tree kept getting bigger. One stormy night, another huge branch came down and demolished the carport and the car. Insurance wouldn’t pay up. They said it was the council’s responsibility. The council wouldn’t pay up. They said it was an act of God and not their responsibility. My husband decided to take matters into his own hands and arranged for someone to cut off some of the branches. The council fined him thousands of dollars. They said the tree was on council land and he’d broken the law by interfering with it.

“The tree got bigger. Another stormy night and another big branch broke away. It came right through our bedroom window, narrowly missing us in bed. It filled the whole room. While we were trying to get out of the bedroom, my husband became so distressed that he had a heart attack and died. That was fifteen years ago.”

She was shaking both fists at me now, her head trembling so violently that droplets of perspiration were being flung about her. The knot had finally given up and her hair floated loose and wild around her face. She was shrieking. I was terrified.

“The tree got bigger! The branches spread right across the roof. My rainwater tank dried up because no rain ever got through to the roof anymore. And the birds! Do you know how many birds live in that tree? Thousands! Their shit built up on the roof. In places, it set like concrete. It weighs a ton. It’s cracking the walls, the ceiling, the foundations. It got so heavy that it caved in the old veranda. And the roots underneath the house are lifting it. I don’t have an even floor in the whole house. My house, my lovely little house, is falling down around me. I want to move into a nice modern retirement village, but I can’t afford to until I sell the house. And I can’t sell it! Who in their right mind would buy this mess?

“And I’m not alone. At last, I have every resident in the street on my side because their own trees are now so big that their houses are cracking up. It’s not safe for any of them to go out into their own back yards for fear of a branch falling on them. All the gardens have died, they won’t even park their cars in their own street anymore. And the tree! That bloody goddamn tree is still there!”

Her eyes were bulging, red and insane. She was screaming and frothing at the mouth.

“Get out! GET OUT!” She ran to the front door and flung it open. “And tell your interfering do-gooder friends down at that society that if they stop the council from cutting down the tree this time, I’ll blow the bloody thing up myself – and anyone who is chained to it!”

I grabbed my clipboard and purse and fled through the open door as fast as my feet would carry me. She continued to scream and rant at me as I tripped over first one, then another tree root on my way to the car. With scraped, bleeding knees, I pushed a fallen branch from my broken windscreen, got in and accelerated away, knowing that the crunching bang under the car couldn’t be good and looking in the rear vision mirror to see most of my exhaust system lying in the street.

Two weeks later, the trees in Barker Avenue were cut down and removed. The newspaper reported that the street residents stood around and cheered as each tree went. A month later, I read that the most senior resident of the street had got up a petition and formed a neighbourhood action group to claim compensation from the council for all the damage the trees had done to their properties over the years.

I wished them well.

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