Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Telling Trees: Eucalyptus, "Anon," and the Growth of Co-Evolutionary Histories

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Telling Trees: Eucalyptus, "Anon," and the Growth of Co-Evolutionary Histories

Article excerpt

A new poetics is evident in a developing genre named here as "co-evolutionary histories." This essay considers the relation of oral and written traditions to landscape and trees with reference to Murray Bail's novel Eucalyptus and Virginia Woolf's "Anon."

Murray Bail's 1998 novel Eucalyptus posits two distinct traditions throughout, both in approaches to trees and in modes of narration. Broadly, these two approaches could be summarized as, on the one hand, scientific, rational, straightforward, and written, and, on the other, intuitive, natural, circuitous, and oral. This essay relates Bail's novel to Virginia Woolf's late, unpublished essay of about 1940-41, "Anon," which emphasizes the connection that existed between an oral tradition and the landscape and open air, before Caxton's printing press and the predominance of the printed word changed a communal "audience" into indoor, individual readers and writers of texts. The essay also refers to more recent writers, including Michael Pollan, who seek to recover "the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world" (Pollan xiv). These contributions further displace the once prevailing, confident anthropocentrism in relation to the natural world, highlighting instead the agency of non-human life forms, the interdependency of species, and the co-evolution of their histories.

The novelist and short-story writer Murray Bail uses the generic name of a well-known tree, an Australian icon but a common export, as the title of his novel, a fanciful story of the Australian outback. Ostensibly, Eucalyptus sits unproblematically in the genre of fiction. However, my claim is that the novel Eucalyptus can also be situated within the "new poetics" of "co-eveolutionary histories," although most of the other titles in this genre are categorized as "popular science." Entitled simply with the name of a tree (or genus of trees), who are the eponymous main character(s), the novel also focuses on the human behaviours prompted by those trees, and the modes of narration used to express human/arboreal relations.

At the human core of the novel Eucalyptus is the tale of a man called Holland who, after acquiring property in western New South Wales, despite scarcity, time-constraints, and environmental adversity, collects and cultivates as many species of eucalypt as he possibly can:

  On days when Holland secured an especially rare specimen he felt like
  a pearl-diver who has burst to the surface, holding up a treasure.
  Certain eucalypts were rare because they rarely took root beyond a
  narrow radius. They were sensitive to drainage, lime in the soil,
  degrees of frost, elevation, rainfall and God knows what. Some
  stubbornly refused to grow in the month of March, others the week
  after Christmas. One tree would thrive in the shade of another;
  another would not. They were hypochondriacs demanding esoteric
  manures and watering by hand.

  How he managed to cultivate to healthy size a Darwin Woollybutt
  (E. miniata), or those born in sandy deserts, is a mystery. The
  Silvertop Stringybark (E. laevopinea) requires 1000mm rainfall every
  year, and the Snow Gum, its name proclaims, thrives on altitude,
  sleet and ice. Somehow he had eucalypts coming forth on ordinary
  ground when normally they demanded clay, flat marsh or granite. After
  many false starts he encouraged the little Yellowtop Ash, so called,
  to poke out of some rocks. And so on. (44-45)

Obsessed with eucalypts, he creates what is "virtually an outdoor museum of trees" and becomes "a world authority in a narrow field" (45). But these trees are not the only thing in his care--nor are they the only living things on which he tries to impose his nurturing will. His beautiful daughter Ellen, who had once been his helper and had shared his interest in the trees, is now listlessly yearning for a life and interest of her own, perhaps in Sydney. …

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