Destinations Magazine

The Ghost

By Russellvjward @russellvjward

The first time I saw an Australian tree, I thought it mighty odd. Words like spindly, scraggly and misshapen sprang to mind.
The trees here were unfamiliar. Some were exotic and tropical, others seemed better suited to a desert or arid plain.
The trees in my neighbourhood didn't look like the oaks of England or the birch, ash, elm and maple; the yew, whitebeam and hazel. Picture a drawing of a typical tree: mushroom-like, bright green, thick with leaves, and supported by a solid brown trunk. These were the trees I remember from home, vastly different to the gnarly eucalypts of this new environment.
The ghost gum in the backyard was a prime example.
It sprawled above our lawn, its patchy foliage offering no shade from the sun. The late afternoon light shone  through the tree as if it were translucent. I knew trees with dark bark, but the trunk on this tree was milky white. I liked the way the ghost gum sighed as the wind moved through its leaves, but I'd spend hours raking up the leaves which constantly fell to the ground.
The bark on the gum's trunk would peel once every year.  Like a snake shedding its skin, the tree would give up its bark, leaving behind a shiny, smooth surface. During a storm, the ghost would often lose a limb. In the morning, I'd find one of its long, twisted arms lying on the grass, an end buried in the ground.
During a conversation with my father-in-law about why the tree was so brittle, he told me it was also called the widow maker because its heavy branches often fell on to innocent victims beneath. I shuddered at the thought of my wife standing under the ghost on a windy day. This was not a proper tree, clearly no good at providing any shelter and plainly dangerous to those stood below.

The Ghost

Photo credit: Mark Wassell (Flickr Creative Commons)

Some months later, I watched a documentary on the Australian outback.
One image stayed in my mind. A picture of a lone ghost gum in the middle of the outback landscape. The ghost stood in contrast with the blue skies and red rock like a pale white sentinel guarding the land.
It looked majestic, this denizen of the outback, stark in its pristine whiteness. It was graceful yet hardy, obviously enduring a range of difficult climates. Australia's landscape is harsh and unforgiving, weather-worn and storm-beaten, yet this tree looked as connected to the land as the kangaroo or wallaby.
Australia isn't rich in the sort of cultural heritage and history you might find in the grand cities of Europe. It's too young and has been too far removed from man over the centuries. Instead of ancient towns and cities built by human hand, Australia has old objects of a different kind. Its rugged landscape is its castles and stone keeps, the eucalypts are its royal kings and queens.
It dawned on me that I had my own beautiful piece of the Australian landscape growing in our backyard. The ghost gum. The tree that I believed served no purpose.
A few weeks ago, a storm hit hard and the tree came down. In the blink of an eye, the ghost was no more.
The brightly coloured lorikeets no longer sit in its lower branches, the sulphur-crested cockatoos are gone from its top. I no longer have to clean up the gum's scattered debris, but I miss doing so. I miss its messy touch.
Most of all, I miss the connection it gave me to this wild and untamed country. I regret the passing of my own piece of Australiana.
I feel guilty at having thought so little of such an important tree.
What exists in your local neighbourhood that is unique to the place, that is connected to where you currently live? And have you ever seen an Australian ghost gum?
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