Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park
At the south western end of Prince Alfred Park the canopies of two large Moreton Bay Figs entangle to enclose a flat, grassy area, with the sandstone remains of some prior vision for the place, including steps and two sandstone retaining walls. The area in-between the two walls, under the shade of the figs, is a flat, roughly square patch of grass, levelled into the slope, bordered by taller, thicker tufts of kangaroo grass and Dianella .
I have admired this space from the vantage of the nearby outdoor exercise gym for some time. It is a quasi-inside space, with the trees providing a roof and walls of sorts, and the flat, landscaped ground and sandstone elements further adding to the sense of a welcoming enclosure.
In the summer of this year I surrendered to the urge to breakfast under the trees on my way to work. It is now almost an everyday occurrence. Between 8-9am a man shovelling his oats, yoghurt and fruit from a plastic container is now part of the park mise en scène, along with increasingly diverse acrobatics performed by those hooked on the morning endorphins or calm that comes from deploying the body in states of controlled motion and resistance on the fitness gym nearby.
Recently, I have noticed other people inhabiting the space. Sometimes someone will be sunning themselves, leaning back against one of the large buttress roots of the figs. For a while a tent was pitched in the space. I could see the integrated feet of a couple through the gauze of the open flap.
The desire to document the diverse uses to which the space is put led me to approaching another couple who I have seen on a number of occasions canoodling between the buttress roots on what I presume is their lunch break. I felt conflicted by ruining their sense of privacy and my own desire to observe and share thoughts about the space. My request for a photo was turned down.
More so than other, common Sydney trees, such as plane trees, brush box and various eucalypts, the Moreton Bay fig makes a show of its roots. Combined with the large, spreading branches, which often come close to touching the ground, all parts of the tree seem involved in the sinewy display of unity and differentiation that the German philosopher Sloterdijk identifies as one of the key metaphorical attributes of trees.
The bulky, deep cavities of it’s buttress roots are one of the tree’s distinctive features. The these give the tree an architectural dimension reminiscent of grand, cavernous cathedrals. The Australian poet Robert Gary recognises this in his poem “Smoke” when he describes the tree as possessing a “Gaudi-like, visceral architecture” (cited in Hart, 166).
The spatial imagination of trees and vegetative life is a constant presence both in contemporary popular culture and ancient systems of human knowledge. Trees give tangible form to the integration of the contrasting forces of unity and differentiation which are central to earthly systems of life support and communication. Examples abound: the Winterfell heart tree in Game of Thrones, the sprawling, towering, viral vegetative network of the second series of Stranger Things, the role the tree played as a meme in the field of organic chemistry in 19th and early 20th centuries trees, and many variations on trees of life and trees of knowledge in ancient religious texts.
The Riddle of the Trumpalar
Climbing trees and building tree houses are common, fondly remembered childhood activities. Without houses of their own, children make use of their imagination and turn trees into places of play and dwelling. Finding good climbing tree or tree for a tree house still figures in the perceptual experience of adults who carry the residual memories of their arboreal childhood adventures and rudimentary homebuilding in the branches.
The magic and grandeur of a particular Moreton Bay Fig seems to have been one of the key pieces of inspiration for Judy Bernard-Waite’s children’s book, The Riddle of the Trumpalar (1981). The fig in question can be found in the bushland that rises up behind Trumpar Park Oval in Paddington. It is easy to see why this giant specimen would have provoked a fantasy of mystical beings and imaginary lands accessible only to those with active imaginations.
The Riddle of the Trumpalar is based around the efforts of two children to protect the particular Moreton Bay from the council, who plan to cut it down. The hidden value of trees, to adults and children, becomes manifest when the threat of disappearance becomes a reality. Unlike houses, which convey their amenity in a more obvious fashion, the ambiguous status of trees as spaces of dwelling for humans and animals often leads to conflict and public outcry.
This was the case in the summer of 2015-16 when the Port Jackson Figs along the south western fringe of Centennial Park were removed to make way for the new light rail. Residents and campaigners dressed in mourning attire protested on Alison Road with placards speaking on behalf of the trees. Poems that were originally written to commemorate the dead soldiers for whom some of the trees were originally planted were re-appropriated and used in banners of protest.
Trees and psychological comfort
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik devotes a significant section to trees in Bubbles: Spheres Volume I, his sweeping, anthropological analysis of intimate psychological spaces.
In an interview about the book, Sloterdijk points to the intimacy people feel towards trees: “People do not only identify with animals they also have brotherly and sisterly feelings toward plants. Trees are, as it were, the first plants to which you can really relate to. There’s an affinity that probably has something to do with this spherical form of the tree”. Sloterdijk speculates about the metaphorical correlations which underpin the widely known desires people have to hug, plant, picnic and live in the proximity of trees.
Among Sloterdijk’s great cast of diverse, often bizarre examples, is the role played by an old elm tree in the history of the unconscious. The tree in question was situated in the town square of the small village of Buzancy in the North of France. It was used by the Marquis de Puysegur in his experiments with the therapeutic techniques of mesmerism, which were a spreading trend in that part of the world during the late 18th Century. Henri F. Ellenberger describes the process in full in his book, The Discovery of the Unconscious:
The public square of the small village of Buzancy, surrounded by thatched cottages and trees, was not far from the majestic castle of the Puysegurs. In the center of that square stood a large, beautiful old elm tree, at the foot of which a spring poured forth its limpid waters. The peasants would sit on the surrounding stone benches. Ropes were hung in the tree’s main branches and around its trunk, and the patients wound ends of the rope around the ailing parts of their bodies. The operation started with the patients’ forming a chain, holding one another by the thumbs. They began to feel the fluid circulate among them to varying degrees. After a while, the master ordered the chain to be broken and the patients to rub their hands. He then chose a few of them and, touching them with his iron rod, put them into “perfect crisis.” These subjects, now called physicians, diagnosed diseases and prescribed treatment. To “disenchant” them (that is, to wake them from their magnetic sleep), Puysegur ordered them to kiss the tree, whereupon they awoke, remembering nothing of what had happened. These treatments were carried out in the presence of curious and enthusiastic onlookers. It was reported that within little more than one month, 62 of the 300 patients had been cured of various ailments. (1970, 71)
Sloterdijk sees this example as lending credence to his argument that there is a deep psychological connectedness between humans and trees. He describes the Buzancy tree as a “herbaceous magnetisation machine” that plays the role of a “metaphorical umbilical cord” connecting the individuals in a psychophysical companionship, reminiscent of the relationship infants have with their mothers (Sloterdijk 2011, 409).
“Puységur and the magnetised elm of Buzancy”, from the third edition of Puységur’s Memoirs…du magnitisme animal.
Expanding ecosystem services
The concept of ecosystems services helps to make explicit the value of trees by using the language and metrics that are palatable in positivist cultures. Scientists can speak persuasively on behalf of trees when they provide data that proves trees play a role in the reduction of pollution, temperature control and carbon sequestration.
However, as demonstrated by researchers at the University of Melbourne and The ANU, trees also provide important psychological and emotional companionship to humans, which escapes the typical measures used to assess benefit. Part of the research involves an email service that allows people to communicate with specific trees. Many of the emails show strong emotional connections, with responses such as: “I very fond of you [sic]”, “I miss you”, “It makes me happy knowing you are there”, and “It saddens me that your passing will be sooner than my own”. Interestingly, it was a certain golden elm tree on Punt Road in Melbourne which received the most emails. The legend Buzany elm lives on in the digital age!
Comparable research conducted by researchers at the Fenner School at ANU used a photo elicitation exercise to collect feedback from farmers in rural NSW about why they valued trees. The research participants were asked to photograph “significant features of their farm landscape, especially those that influenced their farm management decisions, and record what they captured and why” (Sherren, Fischer and Price 2010, 1058). The design of the research allowed for explication of aesthetic and emotional dimensions between farmers and trees, which might otherwise remain inexplicit. The written responses of the farmers indicate a nuanced relationship between the specific forms of trees and the feelings they provoke, with descriptions such as “gnarly”, and “scraggly” accompanying aesthetic evaluations including “beautiful”, ”funny”, and “interesting” (1060).
Trees inside humans and humans inside trees
The picturesque tradition in painting and gardening has long recognised the importance of well placed trees as framing devices for landscape or landscape features. Trees can add a vertical dimension that works in contrast and harmony with the horizon. Not unlike the spire of a church, they act as mediators between the heavens and the earth, screening light into tangible form. The lone trees that often frame the foreground of picturesque paintings seem to dwell in the middle ground between the undifferentiated mass of a forest and the more ordered, civilising forces of human activity and structure.
The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826, The National Gallery London.
However, the perspectival conventions of this tradition are only one, initial step in understanding of the dynamic spatio-psychological relationship that exists between humans and trees. In looking at a picturesque painting of Claude Lorrain or John Constable, for example, the viewer gains little sense of the dynamism and complexity that exists when we come to be inside something and of the role trees have played in the biological, emotional and intellectual evolution of humanity.
The Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte was a lover of trees. Magritte saw the trees as an “image of certain happiness”, which bear witness to the “more or less agitated spectacle of our life.” Magritte’s love of trees is perhaps most directly displayed in his series of paintings, The Voice of Blood, which add a further layer of understanding to the companionship shared between humans and trees. Sloterdijk interprets this series as an exemplification of the vegetative nature which supports “intellectual inhabitants” (373), describing Magritte’s trees as a ”detailed, spongy spheric structure” reminiscent of a womb. If the viewer puts themselves in the position of an foetus, experiencing their first audible sensations, this is something the title of the painting would also seem to suggest.
La voix du sang (Voice of Blood), René Magritte, 1959.
The most obviously distinctive element of the tree in this series of paintings is the sphere and the house which are contained in its trunk. The house and sphere are revealed behind two, vertically arranged doors that swing open in opposite directions. Sloterdijk notes “the humanly significant contrast […] between the organic form represented by the branches and leaves and the intellectually idealised and constructed figures of the house and ball” (370-373). According to Sloterdijk’s interpretation, Magritte’s tree is “pregnant […] with human subjectivity” (373) due to the presence of these anthropologically significant forms. The presence of the “geometric foetuses” in the trunk of the tree and its “nourishing foliar sphere” suggest a metaphorical connectedness to the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, which as Sloterdijk notes in his earlier analysis, are symbolically significant thought forms throughout human history.
Magritte saw the essence of a tree as something that is best captured when we are static, remarking that when humans move it is the tree who sees us, as it becomes witness to our activity rather than us to its. There are hints of an appreciation for one of the broader insights of relativity theory in this understanding: perception and temporality are the consequence of different, continuously changing event structures. Yet Magritte’s works to a certain extent remain limited by his surrealist emphasis on symbolic association and don’t seem to fully express the consequences of this understanding of time and perception .
William Robinson’s landscapes paintings of the forests of Beechmont in the Gold Coast hinterland suggest a more fully realised application of a relativistic understanding of perception in the medium of painting. Robinson’s distinctive contribution to the genre of landscape painting is arguably in the way his works—such as “Afternoon Light at Springbrook” (2001), the “Tone Poem” series (2007-2008), and “Springbrook with lifting fog” (1999)—eschew the typical perspectival devices of representative landscape painting and offer an alternative spatial model of a landscape that manages to incorporate both inside and outside perspectives on a single surface. His works hint at what’s possible with regard to making explicit the hidden architectural relations humans have with trees.
Afternoon Light at Springbrook, William Robinson, 2001.
In her dissertation on mathematics and art (2009) Janelle Robyn Humphreys uses the paradigmatic topological figure of the Möbius strip to interpret the twisting coherence at work in Robinson’s paintings (23-47). As she notes, “There is no single viewpoint from which to observe his landscapes as is often the case in landscape paintings based on linear perspective. The multiple or shifting viewpoints give a sense of topography that is twisting and turning, like the rotating earth” (29). In this sense, Robinson’s paintings are a kind of “geometry given body by motion”—an irresistible phrase of Steven Connor’s to describe the topological thought at work in the philosophy of Michel Serres (2004). His works express the encounter between humans and trees as a dynamically unfolding perceptual event over time. The sense his works give of multiple, differentiated perspectives, combining together in a united whole is reminiscent of combination of unity and differentiation which Sloterdijk identifies as a key metaphorical affordance of the tree thought form.
Returning to Cleveland Paddocks
The two Moreton Bay figs which enclose the terraced grass patch on the south western fringe of Prince Alfred Park were most likely planted in 1870. They are part of a border planting which conforms to the original designs of Benjamin Backhouse, whose plan saw the transformation of a paddock-like landscape into a Victorian era park, fit for the new Exhibition Building, the foundation stone of which was laid in the same year.
While old by human standards, these trees have been witness to a relative small but changeful period of history associated with white settlement. Like many landscapes in Sydney, the landscape design interventions of Backhouse came after a denuding of the original landscape. John Rae’s 1850s painting of the Cleveland Paddocks (as Prince Alfred Park was known to white settlers prior to 1868) shows a bare landscape, crowded with settlers and their horses, dogs and cattle.
“Turning the First Turf of the First Railway in the Australasian Colonies at Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales. 3rd July 1850”, John Rae, (Source: Mitchell Library)
A small group of what appear to be indigenous Australians in European clothing sit on the ground in a circle off to the right of the picture. They are seemingly marked out from other people in the painting due to their seated position, backs turned away from the view north, towards the city and harbour, which is admired by the rest of the crowd. Unlike the other people in the picture, who seem at home in the outdoor activities of recreation and spectacle, this small gathering seem like inhabitants who are profoundly at odds with the new logic of dwelling, labour and play that has seen their country changed beyond recognition.
As Don Watson has so compellingly shown in his cultural history of the Australian environment, The Bush (2014), white settlement in this country is in significant part a history of acute intervention into the landscape—’landscape’ is itself a word which denotes a certain, thin, two dimensionality, associated with traditions of aesthetic representation and design for visual improvement. It is impossible for white settlers to adequately imagine and experience the architectural affordances and symbolic systems of life support the treed environments would have offered to the peoples who inhabited this country for so long prior to the colonial project.
If the vocabulary and syntax of Bill Neidjie is any indication, the relationship between indigenous peoples and their arboreal companions was informed by an understanding that humans and trees are cohabitants of a unified sensorium anchored by feeling, rather than clear and distinct visual perception. Story About Feeling is the transcription of talks between Neidjie and Keith Taylor in 1982, which to western eyes reads as a combination of narrative, poetry and metaphysics. One chapter is devoted to trees. Neidgie writes, “That tree e listen to you, what you!/ E got no finger, e can’t speak/ but that leaf e pumping his./ Way e grow in the night while you sleeping…/ you dream something,/ that tree and grass same thing…/ e grow with your body, your feeling” (23). This fragment of Neidgie’s work seems to suggest that in the dormitory condition in particular it becomes explicit that humans and trees participate in a shared activity, as though in sleep humans are realising an inner vegetativeness that is more obscure in waking life. It would be tendencious for this author to speculate about the extent to which Neidjie’s language and philosophy was widely shared across indigenous nations. However, set alongside what we know about how the landscape in Australia prior to white settlement, it is clear that the first peoples of this country had a more benevolent and sustainable relationship with these vertically enhanced members of the plant kingdom.
What are the different ways in which humans come to possess a place? I wonder about the constraints that the form of knowledge associated with real estate and all its attendant concepts enforce upon thinking about places. My trips to the place underneath the fig canopy in Prince Alfred Park are becoming more frequent and the range of activities I undertake there become more varied and bold. Is its latent insideness becoming explicit as I stretch shirtless under its branches, as I make it the place where an increasingly large number of my thoughts emerge and become articulated? Will the couples embracing, smoking, walking their dogs and sun baking under its branches become attached to the place as their life takes form here? How many different practices and ways of being are yet to be unfolded and stabilitised in the endlessly growing archive of pursuits we give the indicative but perhaps overlooked name ‘recreation’?
List of works cited
Bernard-Waite, Judy, The riddle of the Trumpalar, Gosford, N.S.W.: Ashton Scholastic, 1981.
Connor, S. “Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought,” Anglistik, 15 (2004), 105-117. Available from: http://www.stevenconnor.com/topologies/
Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970), The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
Hart, Kevin., Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Kendal, D. Wilson, A. and Pearce, L. “Loving emails show there’s more to trees than ecosystem services”, The Conversation, July 24, 2015.
Humphreys, J. R. “Shadows of another dimension: A bridge between mathematician and artist”, PhD Dissertation, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Creative Arts, School of Art and Design, 2009.
Neidjie, Bill. Story About Feeling. Keith Taylor (ed),Broome: Magabala Books, 1989.
Sherren, K., Fischera, J., Price, R. “Using photography to elicit grazier values and management practices relating to tree survival and recruitment”, Land Use Policy 27 (2010) 1056–1067.
Sloterdijk, Peter., Spheres, Volume 1: Bubbles: Microspherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.
Sloterdijk, Peter. “Satan at the Center and Double Rhizomes: Discussing ‘Spheres’ and beyond with Peter Sloterdijk”, interviewed by Tom Boellstorff, LA Review of Books, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/satan-center-double- rhizomes-discussing-spheres-beyond-peter-sloterdijk/ – !
Watson, Don. The Bush. Sydney: Penguin Group, 2014.