I. Fig Roots
… all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be― Virginia Woolf
are full of trees and changing leaves.
I’m tramping along a railway embankment in the wake of a Bankstown train, clinging to a cyclone fence for dear life. I’m on the look-out for a weeping creature, commonly known as Downy Wattle. Railway corridors are reckoned to be a promising hideaway for neglected species, I remind myself as I scan the blue-metal scree, dodging trolleys and pitchfork weeds, angling for a glimpse of the elusive Acacia pubescens. It’s a search party of sorts. Street haunting, Virginia Woolf called it, when she stepped out one wintry London evening on the whim of purchasing a pencil, in pursuit of something other.
I find that I care about this shrub I’ve never seen, whose rattling pods I strain to hear. Acacia pubescens is endemic to Dharug Country. Before Europeans invaded, Downy Wattle thrived in a woodland community on gently undulating Wianamatta shale soils of Western Sydney’s Cumberland Plain, sheltered by Eucalyptus moluccana and Eucalyptus tereticornis. Now Acacia pubescens is vulnerable, threatened with extinction.
Of Downy Wattle’s story, I have only second-hand accounts: diary jottings, ecologists’ field notes, scientific reports and recovery plans. Since 1788, ninety per cent of Downy Wattle’s habitat on the Cumberland Plain has been cleared for livestock grazing, farming and urban expansion. Now only a few islands of Cumberland Plain Woodland remain as refugia: fragments of an ecological community that once extended from Bankstown to Rookwood and Pitt Town. Sightings of Downy Wattle are rare. Yet my hopes of finding a specimen safe in the city, sheltering behind Bunnings, squatting on a roundabout, or trembling on the verge, have been buoyed. Ecologists surmise that we city dwellers may be the last chance of survival for vulnerable species: first by identifying them, then by providing protection from mowers, weeds and habitat fragmentation. By offering care.
Yet I worry whether I can identify Downy Wattle at all. In in my knapsack I have a reproduction watercolour of Downy: a delicate botanical composition painted in Terre Verte and Cadmium Yellow. Acacia pubescens, Plate 194 in Addisonia, the New York Botanical Garden’s journal, executed by one Mary E. Eaton in 1916. She was a talented wildflower artist in days when botany was one of the few sciences deemed suitable for women. Eaton has numbered Downy Wattle’s vegetal parts from 1 to 4. Here’s a branchlet bearing bipinnate leaves and racemes of globular flowers, and a single inflorescence, pod and seed. Roots are absent. I run my hands over the pale lemon parchment. It’s smooth and cold. I’ve read that Downy’s branchlets are felted in fine down, but my print barely hints at the soft hairs.
I ruffle through my sheaf of notes. There’s a cautious concord that Downy lingers in neglected enclaves of Western Sydney. Specimens have been spotted along railway embankments near Yagoona, Bankstown and Punchbowl Stations. Along waterways of Duck River and Salt Pan Creek. Although the reports are littered with dubious sightings, surely I can find some trace of Downy, perhaps wilting behind a carpark? I mull over floristic lists and vegetation maps. A scattering of evidence points to Downy having taken root at Rookwood Cemetery, in patches of remnant woodland. Yet it pays to heed the pulse of Country. As Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann foretells:
Wildflowers will not grow
Where the bone powder
I need to get my bearings. I spread out maps of Bankstown on the railway embankment. It’s peaceful here under the fig trees. Domed mother trees with great grey arms outstretched. There’s no grass. Here the ground is a fecund rubble of decaying leaves, fig fruits and overland roots. I’m perched on a root which rises from the earth. Care-worn. I wonder about these sinuous roots climbing out of the soil. Emissaries of a kind. Elders with a knowledge of soil, that subterranean kingdom of passages, pores and doorways, where fungal hyphae commune with root tips.
‘If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes’ avows artist and filmmaker Agnès Varda. There are probably fig trees inside me. I’m a fig-tree-hugger from childhood. I feel tenderness towards these grey-skinned giants. Kin of my childhood where I was more tree than flesh. Ficus microcarpa lined the street where I grew up. ‘Strangler fig’is anothername for the small-fruited fig; a villain’s epitaph.The Dharug word for fig tree is Tam-mun, recorded in Lieutenant William Dawes’ notebook of Dharug vocabulary, compiled 1790-91 with the assistance of Dawes’ language teacher, a young Dharug woman, Patyegarang.
I sense that Downy Wattle is becoming part of my inner landscape too. The careless uprooting from its habitat troubles me. I grieve for a lost woodland, for creatures teetering at time’s edge. I think of Rainer Maria Rilke as he climbed a cliff path at Duino:
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
One of my maps is an aerial view sprigged with yellow triangles designating sightings of Downy at Rookwood. I could use Google Maps to navigate my way there I suppose. But I’m a wayfarer, not a navigator. Wayfaring is more akin to Mrs Dalloway’s dallying than a navigator’s calculated triangulations. It’s trail-following, trusting that happenings along the way create a storied knowledge. ‘All knowing’ writes David Turnbull, ‘is like travelling,’ a journey along a meshwork of trails, interior or worldly. Wayfaring comes naturally to me, as I have a map-reading dyslexia: I like to think about roots not routes.
Is that a sigh? Plants speak a language without words. Ecologists such as Monica Gagliano implore us to enlarge our idea of language beyond lexicons that privilege human speech: ‘In order to hear plants speak, we must leave plenty of room for the untranslatable (and hence unspeakable).’ When I kneel on the dry mulberry tufa of fallen figs, although I can’t see any sign of Downy Wattle, I’m sure I can hear soft breathing.
A trail of bronze koi fish, shiny in the charcoal-coloured pavement, guide me along the Old Town Plaza to Bankstown Station. Lustrous reminders of fish who swam in the Plaza fountain. As I hop from fish to fish, I hesitate, wondering whether fig tree roots shudder beneath my weight, below the promenade of bitumen and steel scaffolding. For roots travel far beyond the halo of the canopy’s drip line. Imagine the burden of their travail: roots tunneling in search of nutrients, air and water, across miles of uncharted terrain. I worry too about Downy Wattle’s chances of survival in the compacted city soil. The sound of crying roots would be hard to bear. Myths of mandrake roots shrieking when pulled from the ground disquiet me.
Strange to think how care and crying share roots in the English language. The Proto-Indo-European root of the Old English verb carian means to ‘cry out, call, scream’. Similarly, the Old English noun cearu connoted ‘sorrow, anxiety, grief’ as well as ‘burdens of mind.’ Such grievous, inward cares, ‘breast cares’, were locked in the heart-chest cavity or breostcofa. Perhaps that’s where the fig nestles: in a coffer in my chest. I wonder which hollow of my body might shelter Downy Wattle, a castaway, deracinated from its woodland home. The Psalmists knew of suffering. Words of the Hexaplar Psalter gather like broken stalks, shorn of leaves:
I haue no place to fle vnto, no man careth for my soule.
II. Stolen Seedlings
Late morning. It’s sunny and busy all day on North Terrace. Timber steps lead to the railway concourse and platforms. I saunter along the Terrace inspecting melaleuca trees planted in a garden bed overseeing the railway tracks. Downy has been known to fraternise with paperbarks. But I cannot see any shrubs with hairy branchlets here. The soil is parched, dotted with orange juice bottle tops. No seedlings at all. I poke a stick deep into the garden bed. If I could plant just one seedling of Downy Wattle here, it might reproduce itself, with the help of pollinating insects and birds. Flowers of Acacia pubescens, like those of the fig, are bisexual, each flower having both male and female parts, so a single plant can self-pollinate. The difficulty is that Downy Wattle is a shy seed-setter. Just a fraction of seeds fall to soil and predators often steal the papery pods before they reach the ground.
I watch and wait, mulling over birth rites of acacias, attending to the gentle hubbub. The low hum of a Lidcombe train, carriage doors yellow as wattle, mingles with honking ibis and a maqam wafting from a car radio. Travellers come and go. The noun ‘care’ is a traveller too. By 1400 ‘care’ had acquired connotations of a sense of attention. Being attentive, attending, being present and waiting (related to French verb attendre ‘to wait,’) have all come to be part of caring. ‘Everything beckons us to perceive it…’ insists Rilke.
A man in an embroidered kaftan is attending to his daughter as she trots around pigeons and ibis under plane trees at the station’s entrance. She’s got curly black hair, just as he does. Suddenly he hoists her high upon his shoulders. Now she has a bird’s eye view. Bankstown, the platform sign says. I’m reminded of one of Aunty Fran Bodkin’s stories, told in The Plant Hunter. Aunty Fran is descended from D’harawal people of the Bidiagal clan; she’s a botanist and D’harawal knowledge-keeper. When Aunty Fran was three, she was taken from her family by a government agency. She ran away from her foster carers, and somehow found her way home. Aunty Fran recalls how as a child, her father would take her to Central Station. He’d make her memorise every train station in New South Wales, telling her: ‘Remember, if ever you get taken away…find a railway line. Once you find a railway line you’ll find a station, then hop on the train back to Central and walk home.’
‘Why is life so tragic,’ asks Virginia Woolf, ‘so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.’ Do places care? Do pavements care?I watch ibis stalk humans along the path to the station. Their black, hair-clip beaks snap fearlessly between commuters’ legs. Arecent Finnish study suggests that children to-ing and fro-ing from school become ‘entangled’ with the pavements beneath their feet. Social geographer Kim Kullman observes that such child-pavement ‘entanglements’ give rise to animal patting, collecting of stray bottles, and taking care of other children at zebra crossings. Children become intermingled with their surroundings, in a relational caring where listening, observing and touching connects place-dwellers in a habitus of care.
Walking, wheeling, scavenging, scootering, yarning, knitting: it’s a medley of motion on the lawn outside the station. Pigeons, ibis and ravens squabble in waves, while fallen leaves cackle in a parched tongue. There’s a phosphate whiff of bird poo. It smells a bit like a zoo. Box seats, candy-striped like slices of birthday cake, wait under a plane tree for a children’s party that’s yet to begin. A woman breaks crumbs from stale buns, her shopping trolley parked by a tree trunk. After feeding-time, she heads across North Terrace for Target. Birds bicker, tussling for titbits and the day’s gossip.
III: A Garden Inside
‘I am rooted, but I flow,’ writes Woolf. Wayfaring allows my thoughts and sensations to swirl and cascade, giving lie to the conception of place as a fixed topology, pegged down by map coordinates. Whatever a landscape or place is, it eludes the cartographic eye. What of the Cumberland Plain’s vegetation before European settlers intruded? Botanist Doug Benson concedes that our window into Sydney’s pre-nineteenth century landscape is narrow, limited to First Fleet diaries, augmented by descriptions and plant specimens collected by botanists such as Joseph Banks and Robert Brown. Yet even when Brown travelled across the Cumberland Plain between 1802 and 1805, he noted in his diary how European activities were disturbing the woodland flora. I’m off to the Bankstown Knowledge Centre to discover more about the demise of Downy Wattle’s habitat on the Cumberland Plain.
There it is: a boxy building whose louvred windows twist and fold like origami paper. The doors of the Knowledge Centre glide open. It’s a library. I was expecting a bookish place, even a leafy forest of books. The Latin word libre derives from leaf, rind or inner bark. As I wander across the hushed, vaulted space I’m astonished. What’s sprouting within the library, Latin librarium or ‘chest for books,’ is an inside-out garden. A jungle of verdant, cavorting plants growing three-storeys high. I ascend the staircase, shelves branching at nodes into a thick-leaved cornucopia. Now I’m entering the canopy, breathing with maidenhair ferns, philodendrons and a creeping fig.
The library’s climbing garden forks like a taxonomic tree, a hierarchical classification scheme. Humans love to classify things, from angels to acacias. ‘The list,’ Umberto Eco declares, ‘is the origin of culture.’ Taxonomies embody the mythologies, cultural obsessions (and vanities) of those who produce them. Reflecting on his experience with repatriation of Indigenous artefacts, and their role in reconstructing cultural identities, Sydney University curator Matt Poll remarks,
when European naturalists encountered unfamiliar plants and animals in Australia, they created a new taxonomy of both scientific and common names. But taxonomic knowledge is a feature of all cultures. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already had their own taxonomies in place.
Tim Ingold insists that ‘…knowledge is not classificatory. It is rather storied…Stories…draw together what classifications split apart.’ It’s the inside-out configuration of this library’s garden that leads me to a plant story. For the fig’s fruit is an inside-out garden. Ficus florets line the inside of an urn-shaped structure (the synconium), which becomes the fig’s ‘fruit’. Pollination of Ficus flowers involves an extraordinarily devoted, mutualistic relationship with another species. Each species of fig tree is pollinated by a specific species of chalcid wasp: fig and wasp depend utterly upon each other for survival. A kind of desperately caring allegiance. Figs provide a place for wasps to lay eggs and mate, while wasps pollinate the fig’s flowers. Imagine being bound so intimately to the hospitality of wasps.
The fig-wasp dance is a form of reciprocal care. Such reciprocal caring is at the core of Dharug traditions, practiced for tens of thousands of years on the Cumberland Plain: care for country, care with country, and attunement to other-than-human entities. Deborah Bird Rose writes how ‘Indigenous philosophical ecologies situate humans within the communicative world of pulse and flow…within a myriad passionate calls for response and connection.’
Downy Wattle calls to me. I do not doubt the sensibility of wattles, whatever their lowly ranking in the taxonomy of Linnaeus. There, Acacias, members of the Kingdom Plantae, are condemned for being sessile and unspeaking. Yet my quiet, internodal readings at the library have revealed the tenacious nature of Acacia pubescens. In times of adversity, Downy Wattle’s roots ‘sucker,’ reproducing by vegetative means. By suckering, an individual specimen of Acacia pubescens can create its own community: new individuals spring up and spread from a single plant. A tentacular rebellion. Or just a will to breathe and become.
As I trek along Rookwood Road, eyes peeled for Downy Wattle’s bipinnate leaves, I wonder what kind of listening and attunement is asked of me. ‘Who shall compute our harvest?’ asks Rilke.
I wish I could speak in the language of leaves.
IV. Earth Rites
I reach the East Street gate of Rookwood Cemetery in the slanted light of late afternoon. Camphor laurel leaves crush underfoot. ‘Twice I’ve spoken of sadness. Is that essential to the modern view?’ Woolf asks as I pick my way through kangaroo grass and tilting headstones. Angel wings, Agave leaves and bunya pines spear the sky. This place breathes into me: honeysuckle, gallica roses and clay.
I’m a time traveller in the oldest part of the cemetery, where curvilinear roads are lined with date palms. I pause to touch a terracotta urn on a grave: the pregnant, urceolate form of a fig’s fruit. Here, plants hold vigil, rustling and swaying, sentinels of the skyline. Rookwood is a garden cemetery, a child of the Victorian era. Romantic in design, Rookwood’s winding pathways and bold plantings follow the Gardenesque style. At a circular garden bed, I can see traces of the Mortuary Railway Line which ran from Redfern through the cemetery, stopping along the way to collect mourners and corpses. Disembarking mourners were immersed in a place of quiet repose and contemplative tranquility. Plantings were chosen for symbolic qualities. There’s aloe for bitter sadness, fennel to ward off devils, dark-petalled geraniums for melancholy, and roses for love.
Where is my endangered Acacia? I’ve travelled such a long way seeking Downy Wattle’s company, almost convincing myself that our fates are entwined. Now that I’ve reached the necropolis, I tremble. A pilgrim at a crossroads. Beyond the tombstones, at Rookwood’s boundary, there’s a dark green remnant of Cumberland Plain Woodland waiting. Tall Eucalypts protecting a wildish undergrowth. Does Downy Wattle grow fiercely in that thicket? I might stride out there purposefully and identify Downy Wattle, battling incursions of lantana and African love grass. But what if I find no trace of Downy?
Either way I want to weep.
The Victorians knew how to weep. Even in the Antipodes. They lamented and grieved in Parramatta silk or black bombazine. I haven’t even a black frock.
Did they wail, and cry, and weep for the wild creatures? Did they mourn the sundered trees, gather fallen leaves and lock them in a brooch to grieve everlastingly?
How is it that we in the West have forgotten how to mourn? It’s as if our gaze has been trapped by microscopes, taxonomies and economies, as acacias, rice-flowers and grass lilies disappear.
‘Virginia,’ I say desperately, ‘surely Victorians knew more of mourning than we moderns do.’ Headstones lean into us, listening. I run my fingers along shallow letters, ‘Dearest One.’ Names are everywhere. Names pricked into stone or metal, on tombs and crematoria niches. Derrida, I tell her, writes that bestowing a name is ‘a foreshadowing of mourning.’ But Virginia Woolf has wandered away, down a serpentine path to the pond, her cloche hat bobbing under the camphor laurels.
Wadanguli is the Dharug name for wattle.
I know Downy Wattle abides with me, if not beyond the Celtic cross and chapel, within my ribcage. A place Rilke knows:
O I that want to grow
The tree I look outside at’s growing in me.
If I gave Downy Wattle an epitaph – carved it on sandstone with my chisel – I would borrow a line from Baret’s ‘Beehive’:
A plant: the slippe of a tree that was planted in the earth.
I mourn that in my human skin, I skim the earth’s mantle. I have no roots to reach into the earth’s care. My companion plant, Downy Wattle, knows of a life anchored in earth.
I kneel. I plant my hands in the soil.
Acknowledgements: My sincere gratitude to Dr Catriona Menzies-Pike, Editor, Sydney Review of Books, and Ms Vandana Ram, Director, Bankstown Arts Centre, for their wonderful encouragement, support and inspiration.
This essay was commissioned and published as part of a digital residency program for Western Sydney writers offered by the SRB and the Bankstown Arts Centre.
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