Ode to the eucalyptus

It is summer again; a particularly rough one this year.  No rain, and then no rain, and heat that is epic and relentless.  Poplars, plane trees, loquats and willows and  almonds;   all are losing their leaves to the wind and scorching sun, and the smoke from the fires that are never far away adds a red filter to the landscape.  But trees are intelligent, and by throwing their leaves to the ground  they conserve their diminishing reserves by transpiring less moisture to the air, and at the same time create their own mulch as dropped leaves carpet their personal patch of soil.  It is sad to see, and their humans can be seen on watering days dragging rubber hoses around like ships’ anchors, sweating and swearing in consternation at the lack of moderation that nature sometimes exhibits.

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And yet there is a tree here in Italy (where it was introduced and thrived just as it has in any  temperate climate where ships and currents  have brought its seeds the world over) which seems to luxuriate in this weather.   Not drought, not floods, not cold (not too cold!) not even fire or the ax can deter them from occupying their position as conquering barbarian horticultural horde.  They persist, gritting their woody teeth and snickering at their vegetable cousins’  frail designer foliage.

With this in mind, I would like to post my favorite description of Eucalyptus trees, written by a fabulous author who traveled in this area over a hundred years ago.  He was a character, and I highly recommend my favorite book by him, “Old Calabria.”   His name was Norman Douglas and he was an undisciplined, embibing  Scottish wanderer with pedophile tendencies, a world traveler with no fear, and a tough old coot who could really write.

From “Old Calabria,” *  the author describes his distaste for these trees as he makes his way from the station of Policoro up toward Rossano Calabro, localities which are about fifteen miles from our house:

“You walk…from the station along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago.”  (circa 1875)  “Detesting, as I do, the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts have disfigured the entire Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria.  Soon enough they will learn that instead of preventing the disease,  it actually fosters it, by harboring clouds of mosquitoes under its scraggy so-called foliage.  These abominations may look better on their native heath:  I sincerely hope they do.  Judging by the “Dead Heart of Australia”–a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover– I should say that a varnished hop-pole would be an artistic godsend out there.

But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy.  A single eucalyptus will ruin the fairest landscape.  No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through those everlastingly withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chattering of ghosts.  Its oil is called “medicinal” only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue–objectionable, above all things, in its perverse, anti-human habits.  What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves–as if these were not narrow enough already!–towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade and maximum of discomfort to mankind?

But I confess that this avenue of Policoro  almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans.  Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil)  their foliage is here thickly tufted; it glows like burnished bronze in the sunshine, like enameled scales of green and gold.  These eucalypti are unique in Italy.  Gazing upon them, my heart softened and I almost forgave the gums their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect of precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing short of a scandal on this side of the globe…”eucalyptus summer 2017

 

  •  Norman Douglas.  Old Calabria, forward by Jon Manchip White, 1993 edition, The Marlboro Press, original publication 1915.  page 95-96
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