CONVERSATION WITH A TREE
STORY #69 - BOTANICAL SABBATICAL - Tim Rogers - VIC (Musician, Writer & Radio host)
Today was no day for sensible footwear. As the public got wind that it was being released from bondage, the pavements of Melbourne were being reintroduced to human perambulation by the skittish, pitter-patter of sporting wear. Bugger that. For the first stealthy walk of the autumn, an autumn like no other, I was shod in a leather boot. A slender size 12 with an austere heel. In an autumn like no other, each step today shall resonate with a flam. A signature tone very closely followed with a grace note. It sounds like "I'm out. I'm out. I'm out. I'm out....". It was no day for sensible footwear.
Fifty minutes would do it. From home to the Gardens along St Kilda Road, for a hopefully dry ramble around to experience what Henry David Thoreau had called being "lifted up by the ears". When Nature, both celestial and earthbound beckon our attention and whisper to us of ways to navigate this life of "quiet desperation". Three years ago I had seen an exhibition on Thoreau in New York City. The volume and vigour of appreciations by the museum patrons was so combative against Henry's beatific ruminations almost to be comical if they weren't so maddening. I was reminded of this absurdity as I stepped out onto the street outside my apartment block which has been largely vacated and ponderosa silent for two months to narrowly avoid being blindsided by a lady top to tail in LuluLemon active wear talking to her telephone with the authority of a dictator. The subject was, I gleaned, lunch. Or a state ordered execution.
A hundred meters and three turns from my home is the house of a woman I simply denote as Nonna. I posit a guess that she is in her seventies and of Mediterranean heritage. She will often be found sitting outside her house at a simple table setting on a shallow patio. There is often an ornately decorated cup on the table of what my layman's appreciation guesses is china with curlicues of gold flake and royal blue at the lip. The kind of teacup that should be part of an heirloom set. Her hair is dark, with a purplish hue in the sunlight. Large framed sunglasses and earrings of gold, lightly coloured floral dresses to the knee topped with a purple cardigan. Though I have never seen her upright, I guess her to be 5'4"and a sturdy, healthy figure. I sincerely doubt I will have to identify her in a crime investigation but these little details have new prescience as our neighbourhoods have become our worlds. Though she gives meagre response to my greetings to her as I festoon by, my salutations have become incrementally more dramatic. A nod of her head and a lift of her hand with no great dedication is all the encouragement I need. Dreading that I make her feel uncomfortable, I cannot resist a tarantella or a 360 degree flourish as I pass. She is, in my estimation, the overseer of our neighbourhood. As I flit about with unnecessary urgency, her poise makes me feel... subservient. Protected.
Fifty minutes in largely a straight line. Fifty minutes and twenty years of memories. Within a five block walk from the Junction Oval toward the city I pass the properties of two psychologists, a psychiatrist and a drug dealer all once on speed dial, all employed in a less unsure time. This stretch of pavement is normally a quiet and reflective respite in the odyssey of home to city: the hubbub of St Kilda behind and the tussle of Melbourne town kilometres ahead. The sidewalk ordinarily feels as if it was laid for a huge populace that is yet to arrive. These days the whole town does. Facades and set dressings for a film yet to be shot. The humourless office blocks of St Kilda Road not patrolled with suited workers tugging on cigarettes with aggression normally reserved for revenge planning, or couriers bent at the waist on their bikes defying all chiropractic advice as they scroll through telephone directives. My face gripped by a frown I had to stop and chastise myself. Was I always this lugubrious? This judgemental? I'm even lambasting ghosts. Continue to stride, boy. "You're out. You're out. You're out."
Perhaps my senses have become more acute in this autumn like no other, but as I proceed along the arterial to the gardens I can smell and feel them. Though a little less hypnotic, they are the Sirens hypnotising an impractically dressed Ulysses. I begin to notice other humans in a similar trajectory. Couples in sportswear, as dry yet moisturized as no performing sportsperson anywhere, parents holding hands in what looks (to me) like defiance rather than affection as their children fossick through the plumes of leaves looking as oven baked as almond biscuits. They look delicious and I want to munch a fistful as I walk. I silently implore the other pilgrims with my hypnotic powers- do NOT converge in the gardens. Do NOT. You do not need to be dragged upward by the ears as I do. Proceed along your own pathways. Let me alone diverge into the one less taken, it will make ALL the difference.
I have heard Central Park referred to as the lungs of Manhattan. And when strolling the undulations of the Big Apple's core the term "lungs" takes on an onomatopoeic quality. Breathing deep whilst in the fifty one blocks of respite and relief the word "lungs" curls from my mouth like a lover's whispered desire. A secret shared in a shelter from the city's mad cacophony. Melbourne's gardens are not the salacious type, and they command a different dedication. Respectful and silent as if walking into Nonna's house. As bitumen gives way to grass each step is taken with forbearance. An approach to the Botanical Gardens is steady and calm, care taken to not leave any disruption. Just as I had hoped my ears my eyes my heart were being lifted upward. The stride of the preceding journey- arrogant and mistrustful- had given way to benevolence. The elements of this "house" that are native to this country and those that are brought from abroad coexist in a Rococo display of possibility and unlikely confluence. The Southern Africa Collection- part of a continent I may never now visit displays Succulents with leaves as corpulent as cows tongues bedding opposite Camellia Japonicas in varying states of display. Buds that are as coy as a first date, (one of the budding plants is named "First Prom") and flowers brash as Vaudevillians. I have never mapped a walk through the gardens, letting my route be guided by an invisible hand. Today I notice the little temperature fluctuations, as arid garden beds become small jungles of Caryatid- like vines and trees. My senses seem renewed and receptive after months of dormancy. I feel a familiar respiratory tightening and my eyes moisten. This garden contains gifts from a planet so fecund and diverse now reduced to a common fear, and here on this ramble around I am compelled to mouth awkward prayers for a world briefly within my touch.
The herb garden is a humble respite from surrounding glories and I'm pleased to find Common Foxglove. An oxymoron if ever I have heard one as what could be common about a Fox's glove? Poisonous if ingested I make a mental note to employ it if ever I write Elizabethan period drama. The delicate structures of stem and leaf in the Herb Garden invite a deeper level of hush. I'm alone, and wish I had a cape to cloche me as I fossick malevolently amongst the ingredients of a wicked tincture. I have been gifted a childish imagination and here in the Garden my imagined selves are Puckishly rampant. Just a few hundred meters and from streets of apprehension I've strolled as an Accidental Tourist, Peter Sellers' Chauncey Gardener and Snow White's witch.
I haven't had a conversation with a sentient entity in weeks so when I find myself talking languidly to a Yellow Box Eucalyptus tree I'm mindful not to bombard it with everyone one of my hibernate thoughts. The tree is thirty feet tall, bowed languidly like a foppish drinker standing at the end of the bar whilst adrift in memory. It's bark is pale but with titian streaks like nicotine stains. A plumage of leaves similarly pale compared to much surrounding it but impressively coiffed, the Eucalypt reminds me in an instant of my Grandfather.
- Ullo Ted
- Ullo Son, look at you all dolled up!
- Gotta be prepared for anything Pop.
- Lotta folks these days lookin' like they're out for a run, but they ain't running they're just talking fast. And what's with the little face masks son?
- Tell you another time Pop. You holdin' up orright?
- Yeah. Happy as Larry's live- in lover. Look at that lake will ya? Times I wish I could lean on over and swish about a bit. You know what I say son, can't do it today, maybe I'll write it on the list of things to do tomorrow.
- Been writing a lotta lists Pop.
- Gotta be prepared for anything son. Lists are a little way of showing optimism. Keep at it. Now you best be scuttling along.
And so I do, with the light footfall I came in with until a diminutive tractor purrs into a semi-circular parking procedure twenty meters to my right on the lakeside and my little reverie is broken. A gentleman in Hi-Viz work wear heaves himself out of the driving position and stops as I give a meek greeting. He has closely cropped red hair and a florid complexion, I guess similar in age to mine and a swarthy build that suggests dependable Center Half Back who would rate his game on spoils rather than possessions.
- How ya doin?
- Wouldn't be dead for quids
- How've the humans been these weeks?
- Here? Ahh, sunny day like this, it's like nothing's going bezerk out there. All just grateful to be outside and breathe a bit.
- I hear ya. Hey, thankyou.
- For what?
- All this.
And that's when I feel a need to cry so I walk on.
- Orright mate, be good!
Said with rum energy as he proceeds with the unheralded task of tending quiet joys that give solace and succour to a shocked and bewildered town.
The return journey is always quicker than the departure isn't it? My return home is swift as I'm being lifted by the ears, and I think again upon Thoreau. Thought to be hermitic or at least a loner, my attraction to him was thus, feeling my own solitude was something to be proud of even before this autumn like no other. The hour wandering a slice of the Gardens has me socially spent after one brief conversation with a gardener and others with ghosts. I think of the faces I encountered on my walk. The terse, gripped expressions on the approach to the Gardens that gave way to wistful, relieved ones once inside. There were some nods of the head and gentle smiles with strangers, all the communication I required for a day.
My feet were protesting about sartorial choices made by half way home but the hushed sunset was confluent with my thoughts on a day that I achieved very little but was given so many gifts. My feet could wait for relief. I took a slightly longer route to pass by Nonna's house. A little light framing the drawn blinds was enough to attract a respectful nod of my head. I whispered
- I've had a marvellous adventure in inappropriate footwear.
Just as Nonna looks over our little suburb with quiet benevolence, our Botanic Gardens watch us from close proximity, watching our hurried, harried desperation while memory, wisdom and acceptance sit quietly. Perhaps this town's lungs, but also it's eyes.
I arrive home as darkness truly falls, energized. With that energy I sit looking out my third floor apartment window at the occasional rustle of leaves and the slivers of light leaking from pulled blinds of neighbouring apartments. And I do for a long time.
STORY #79 - Niki
I speak to him and he speaks to me, Across sky and sea We are one, I and he, A bountiful eternal entity.