The Trees of Man

Roger McDonald investigates what a noble work is wood

YOU must be a tree man, he'd said with isn't-everybody confidence. It was spring last year, and Roger McDonald was giving me enigmatic details of his work-in-progress as we stood in mid-afternoon companionship on my veranda, surveying the backyard. Then the light changed and he was able to focus on the borer-attacked chaos below. My mistake, I could see him thinking as I stated the obvious - the spirit was willing, the arborial labour patently weak.

Not so for the Sydney-based but rural-bred McDonald: the urbane author has had several stints in the big smoke (his present tour ten years and counting) yet he remains seriously country at heart. After all, you can take the boy out of Bourke but ...

Ironically given his background, it was only when he won a writing fellowship in his mid-30s and hightailed it to a 120 ha property in NSW's Braidwood that he became a tree man himself. That was in 1976, and since then through trial and much error he's planted veritable forests. And learned to appreciate what a noble work is wood.

Now he's published a book of that experience, exploring the mysterious, instinctive linkages between trees and man. It's a small if well cultivated collection of essays, meditations and word sketches: The Tree in Changing Light (Knopf, 179pp, $29.95) is, says its author, "a factual engagement ... that crosses over into the imagination, somewhat like a tree that won't have its growth dictated."

His text begins with a down-to-earth exposition of planting; then just as a tree grows, so the book branches out. "Once a tree is planted," he explains, "it begins to mean something. So the book traces that effect in my life and in my family's, and in the lives of a few tree planters, artists and scientists, a shearing rouseabout, a mentally ill teacher ... It also records a religious festival about trees, and several rural places in Australia and New Zealand important to me because of things to do with trees."

It does much more than that ... as with his earlier six novels and autobiographical Shearers' Motel, he delivers the subtle insights and no-nonsense clarities that have won him a loyal following. Among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Richard Ford, who told me recently that "Roger is a very fine author who would have an even greater international presence if he wasn't buried away in Australia".

The Tree is significantly shorter than his norm, yet it took McDonald "longer than anything else I've written to complete" - nearly ten years in fact. Part of that delay might owe something to the success of his last novel, Mr Darwin's Shooter, which was always going to be a hard act to follow after winning a triple crown of premier's literary awards (NSW, SA and Victorian) and the National Fiction Award. Nor was it just a success d'estime: worldwide sales topped the 100,000 mark. Post-Darwin, he actually completed another novel (working title Curly and the Major) before "retiring" it in dissatisfaction to write a book on commission (he's done several) called Barry Humphries' Flashbacks. Then came the finishing touches to The Tree in Changing Light. He denies feeling pressured by his Darwin delight, however: his writing equivocations were more from "the pressure I always feel to try something different, even if after all the heartache it turns out to be similar in ways that hopefully only I can tell."

The genesis for The Tree was the fatal 1992 plane crash of a friend, CSIRO tree scientist Wilf Crane, "a great inspiration to many people around trees, not least me." Crane's death prompted an essay/eulogy called "Death of a Tree Planter". McDonald's intention was then "to carry on with thumbnail sketches of inspired tree planters, and although some of that happened, the book grew organically in other directions." He'd return to it over the years, adding bits here and there. Most importantly, while writing the book his conviction grew that trees offer more than "shelter, timber, and aesthetic appreciation alone. Almost every aspect of trees suggests a shape for our psychological and spiritual existence. People always have a reason for planting trees, and they link to our lives. They have to be cared for early and we return to them, sometimes a lifetime later, to see how they're going. There's a conversation we have with them - taking in many aspects of life even if unconsciously." We are part of tree ecology, he enthuses, both in placing a new tree in the biosphere and in the "dreaming part" of our lives. "That's what the book wraps up, I hope - connection. For me, that's the spiritual underpinning of our lives."

McDonald, of course, was a poet before he became a novelist. Four years ago he told me that although he hadn't written poetry for almost 25 years, "I still feel myself drawn to the poetic underpinning of life, the way life turns back on itself and throws up images for us to adhere to." And writing reflected that and needed to evoke "the mysteriousness of life patterns, the elemental truth." So it is with trees, he says, and writing about them. "A tree has buried parts - the roots - and aerial twigs touching the sky. They catch the imagination at both ends. In the shadows, a tree can stay hidden but when light changes (say morning to afternoon light) a formerly unnoticed tree stands out. The way it responds to wind, light, landscape and soils tells an ever-changing story." As does his book, in memorable ways.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 29/9/2001

Copyright 2001 Murray Waldren

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