What a Difference a Tree Makes
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'What a Difference a Tree Makes' really turns Emily Bronto on

Let Bikwil unveil the charm of 'What a Difference a Tree Makes'

What a Difference a Tree Makes!

In What a Difference a Tree Makes! Bet Briggs lovingly explains — both in prose and in verse — her response to the wonder of trees.  

I'd always cherished a dream of living in a place where I had planted all the trees, had grown up with them and had my own park or forest to walk in, in solitude and silence

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What a Difference a Tree Makes! — Bet Briggs


Years ago John and I planned to write a book in praise of trees. We conceived the idea while driving to Wentworth Falls. The long and winding ascent through the villages and magnificent wilderness of the Blue Mountains allows ample opportunities to observe how trees grace the landscape singly, in small groups and en masse as nature decrees and as a gardener with skill and imagination can design. That day, John, the long-experienced horticulturist and I, his trusting assistant, saw the passing country, natural and man-made, with shared wonder and excitement. At each turn of the highway, wherever we looked, both the vista of the wild and the closer view of cottage gardens, lovingly planned, refreshed and stimulated our perceptions. As often happened between us our thoughts connected: we were in tune. A glance, a smile and an enthusiastic exchange of ideas flowed. Then one of us said what we were both thinking: "What a difference a tree makes!" And the idea of writing a book with that title was born.

A song we knew influenced us, too. We must have heard it at the time on the car radio: Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan singing What a Diff'rence a Day Made. For we hummed along, then sang the opening bars in our own. words: "What a difference a tree makes!" Convinced that they worked we agreed we could feature them like a bar of music on the cover or title page.

We never wrote the book. Seeds of the ideas we discussed remain however, in notes. John wrote on four unnumbered scraps of paper. The theme of the book was to be man in the landscape. Under a heading "General Focus" he outlined our reasons for writing it: aesthetic was one, another was “us (people, he meant) as custodians of trees". He then encapsulated these ideas in this statement "About Trees":

They are the oxygen banks, clean the air, prevent erosion, give shade, shelter and privacy. Their wood builds our houses, their fruit help feed us, their dead tissue converts to fossil fuels: coal, gas, oil, that we are so dependent on. They control pollution by converting carbon dioxide. The future depends on trees.

He also listed seven chapters or sections describing trees in settings in town and country and trees in relationships with people and animals. For section headings he suggested using short literary or musical allusions to relate to photographs therein and for a cover illustration "something like Village Smithy tree imagery". I wonder now what prompted the latter. Was he remembering a real smithy, one he had perhaps known as a boy growing up in the 1920s in Trafalgar, Victoria? Or, as seems more likely, was he thinking of Longfellow's poem The Village Blacksmith which begins:

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

I think John would have known the poem; it has been round a long time as a poem and a song. Longfellow wrote the poem in 1839 and it was set to music in 1854 by an English opera and oratorio singer Willoughby Hunter Weiss who made a fortune from it but whose compositions apart from this are forgotten.

Longfellow was well-acquainted with blacksmiths. An ancestor of his was a blacksmith at Newberry. The purpose of his poem was to praise him; it also describes an actual smithy that stood under a chestnut tree on Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts near the poet's house. The vivid image in the poem of strength and endurance of tree and smithy would have looked well on the cover of our book and been a fine example of the theme of tree and man in relationship.

Another evocative example of that theme comes from our own colonial history. While reading journals of the First Fleeters I learned that the first divine service in Port Jackson was conducted by Rev. Richard Johnson, chaplain to the settlement, on Sunday 3 February 1788. According to Captain Watkin Tench, one of the most reliable of contemporary observers and an elegant recorder of its scenes, the service was performed “under a great tree . . . in the presence of the troops and convicts, whose behaviour on the occasion was equally regular and attentive.” That tree, according to a later source, stood either on the site of Macquarie Place or George Street North. We may never know.

Although we never wrote the book, and I regret that, we lived the ideas, which are still valid. More than ever the future of man and the landscape, indeed the planet, does depend on trees and the future of trees depends on us. The idea of us as custodians I endorse, but see with dismay our continuing failure. Despite our knowledge of the value of trees, despite protest from many who are staunch guardians we are still wilfully and ruthlessly exploiting the world's forests, destroying vast tracts of wilderness and denuding the planet to its and our own detriment.

The death of a tree, like the death of a child is a tragedy, a death to be mourned by all people. When John and I came to live in Lane Cove in 1988 there was a silky oak growing in a neighbour's garden. From my back door I could see it standing strong and majestic, at every point beautiful, from base to top of its straight, stout trunk to the spread of its graceful limbs. Each year it blossomed into gold. One summer it was especially abundant, a full blaze of blossom. Nightly, flying foxes came to feast. A year or so later, about 1992 it died. To my untutored eyes its death was sudden. Was it age? To me the tree had seemed young and vigorous. If it was age, perhaps that very profuse flowering the season before its death was part of the process of its dying, a defiant final blossoming. When I saw what was once beneficent limbs bare and grey like scaffolding round the trunk I grieved for the tree, for its loss of life and for the loss to the lives of the flying-foxes which had depended on it for sustenance. For me it was like losing a friend. It compounded my own great personal loss. For John had died in 1990.

My one consolation for the loss of the silky oak was that while it lived I had propagated some of its offspring. Over several seasons dozens of its seeds had propelled themselves like little helicopters into my garden. Wherever they landed they had grown strongly. Save for one seedling which I left where it was thriving I potted the rest, nurtured them and eventually gave them to friends. So the life of the original one now goes on in others planted and settled in other gardens in Sydney and elsewhere in the State. The tree I kept at home is flourishing, a young tree slender and beautiful, straight and strong, and it promises to be as graceful and elegant as its parent.

John and I were custodians. We loved trees, loved planting them, in effect creating our own parks. I'd always cherished a dream of living in a place where I had planted all the trees, had grown up with them and had my own park or forest to walk in, in solitude and silence. Together John and I achieved aspects of that dream several times. On an average-sized residential block at St Leonards, our first home where we lived for seventeen years, we created a little park. We retained an old plum tree near the back fence and in the gardens back and front of the house we planted about thirty native trees, mostly eucalypts and bottlebrush, and along a side fence a hedge of appleblossom hibiscus. On our acre at Wentworth Falls during the 70s and 80s the pattern was similar: we added to natives already growing there. After clearing away blackberries and other scrub and weeds, we planted more natives and a few deciduous trees like weeping willows and box elders and along one boundary between us and a neighbour a hedge of photinia: a judicious mix of natives and exotics which John advocated as appropriate in the right setting. In 1987 at Fountaindale on the Central Coast, on a hillside which was once home to fowls and sheep, we created a miniature forest on less than two acres we planted more than two hundred native trees, "our contribution to the Bicentenary,” I said to John, half in jest, adding in earnest, "better still, to the greening of Australia!"

I wanted to go on planting trees with him. Without him and his guidance and skill, without the sharing, I no longer have the desire. Yet I am not deprived. I live in this leafy hollow with aspects of the old dream around me: trees in my neighbour's gardens, trees in my own where I can, when 1 choose, work and walk in solitude and silence. And I am, in my own way, still a custodian. I still care deeply about what happens to them.

The beauty and value of trees to my life, in truth to all lives, is above price: it comes as a gift. Poets in praise recognise this. Reading them delights me. So many beautiful poems have been written. A few of my favourites leap to mind: John Shaw Neilson's The Orange Tree, Philip Larkin's The Trees, several of John Blight's: Trees in the City, Garden Eucalypts and "Old Man Planting Trees", David Campbell's "Scribbly-Gums" and "The Silence of Trees", James McAuley's "Palm", Judith Wright's "Rainforest" and Joyce Kilmer's "Trees". How easy it would be to compile an anthology! I could start with Kilmer's. Who, I wonder, has not heard these opening lines:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

I first heard them being sung at home. My father sang them accompanied at the piano by my mother. Dad had a lovely voice. He sounded a bit like John Charles Thomas whose voice I often heard on the radio as I was growing up. Thomas sang Trees, too. It was probably one of his most popular recordings. I hadn't heard him for years but did quite recently. The quality of his singing and his diction is as pleasing now as it was before.

Trees brought fame to composer and poet, too. Like Thomas they were American. Oscar Rasbach composed the music and G. Schirmer published :the song in 1922. Schirmer, in fact published it in five languages. Rasbach gained national recognition after it was performed by famous Wagnerian contralto, Ernestine Schumann-Heink who recorded it as well. Among others who also recorded it were Nelson Eddy, Robert Merrill and Paul Robeson. To my surprise and delight I discovered recently among my collection of old LPs I have Robeson singing it. Now there's a splendid voice! He, like Thomas, enriches every word of the song.

Long before Rasbach was acclaimed Joyce Kilmer had won national fame when his poem was published in Poetry Chicago August 1913. Though it has the title Trees the twelve lines refer throughout to "a tree", as it happens "an oak tree at Ryder's Lane and Route 1, New Brunswick, New Jersey", the town where Kilmer was born. (I found this information in The Great Song Thesaurus (1989), a fascinating book full of such little treasures as its title implies.) Oak trees are renowned for their longevity. It would be a joy to know that Kilmer's is still standing. Kilmer did not live to hear his words given further life in song. In 1918 he was killed in action in France in the second battle of the Marne. He was 32. His widow, Aline, also a poet, gave permission for his poem to be set to music. Though the oak tree is probably long gone as are the makers of its song and some of its singers, words and music and voices remain: in a way custodians of its memory.

"Poems are made by fools like me", Kilmer wrote. Here's another fool. Over the years I've written a few, some finished, some not, about trees living and dead. One, unfinished, is about a Phoenix palm at dusk with birds in its crown. It grew on Sydney University's campus near the spot where the little Darlington Post Office once stood. I wrote a couple of poems about the old plum tree at St Leonards and another about the young trees I could see just beyond the window of the back room I used for a study. I wrote these poems during the years John and I were creating our own landscapes. There were times though when I wrote nothing, perhaps hadn't the need. He and I could become so absorbed in the shared joy of cultivation that it was fulfilling enough. The landscape we shaped and nurtured itself became the poem.

Trees, however, always stir me to respond; at once or months, even years later, to try to write words in praise and wonder, in contemplation or in pain. I felt an immediacy of response not long after John and I had come to live at Lane Cove. He was frail but resolute. The silky oak was still living then, too. One evening in 1989 in late summer or early autumn, two young boys passed among the trees in my neighbour's yard — taking a short-cut, I guessed. They stamped through tall grass and chattered loudly. In anguish but meaning them no harm, under my breath I wished them quiet. They were, after all, in the presence of trees. The boys, unaware of trees and me, moved on as quickly as they had come. The grove was quiet again. I watched for a long time and was held by its green stillness. Soon after I wrote:

The Forest

Go into a forest,
Speak, if you must,
in whispers.
Better, in silence,
to the silence.
walk the green aisles,
breathing the forest,
its stillness.
Above all,
enter, as you would,
a loved place,
unafraid, at peace,
The forest is the first

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