‘Ahh, the trees’. Not the most common thought one has when reminiscing about the places they’ve been overseas. Unless, of course, one is a botanist or has had a series of unusual experiences involving trees.
Strangely though, trees have been a continuous theme through many of my overseas exploits. There have been various times when travelling that I’ve been shocked to see trees from home in the places I least expected them. The first of these was when I was riding across a section of a Tanzanian mountain range and lo and behold, on the first day along a narrow dirt road there was a border of eucalypts planted by the roadside. I vaguely remembered at this point that eucalypts had been used around the world to help control road moisture issues as they absorb a lot of water. After the intense culture shock I’d experienced whilst travelling up to this point, the sight of these familiar trees was a pleasant reminder of home.
Another time that I had such an experience was when driving through Spain. We were on a major highway heading towards Madrid and I just happened to glance out the window and see a stand of eucalypts beside the highway at an interchange. It was a moment that would likely have passed by without note for most people, except for myself who was experiencing a moment of homesickness. The trees elevated my spirits and gave me a much-needed feeling of belonging.
I’m told by fellow travellers that they’ve had similar feelings and it has made me empathise with those who move to other countries and want to keep a piece of home close by. Perhaps this feeling is at the crux of humanity’s capacity to disperse introduced species - wanting to make a new environment feel familiar and ‘homely’. Colonialism has resulted in one of the greatest expressions of this need, and now, wandering around different parks in Melbourne, you can find oaks and beeches that are well over 100 years old; botanical markers from those early settlers.
I've found that this same phenomenon applies to Australians going to other parts of the world. When I was adventuring around Johannesburg in South Africa, I found eucalypts that were well over 100 years old, planted by Australian gold miners. Eucalypts have since spread widely across the country. Unsurprisingly, there is much discussion regarding the potential effects this introduction has had on the South African environment (just as there is in Australia regarding our own introduced species).
Whilst in South Africa, I had the most surreal and ironic experience when volunteering at a game reserve – we were asked to weed eucalypts (note: not an easy task). It felt quite wrong given that I expend great effort planting them at home to re-establish habitats. In this same reserve, I was happily greeted by monkeys in a stand of eucalypt trees near where I was staying. Watching them climbing and swinging through the very familiar trees, it became very clear that I wasn't in Australia.
Similarly, I went on a paddling trip on a lake in Uganda with another Australian friend. We both had a little giggle as we paddled in a canoe made of a hollowed eucalypt tree. The guide took great pride in telling us about eucalypts and how useful they are. We didn’t discuss the effects of their introduction; however, their damaging impacts on local environments have been widely acknowledged given their huge use of water in an otherwise water restricted continent.
Despite knowing this, all of my experiences with eucalypts overseas have been gratifying just as much as they are unexpected. Although they’re usually accompanied by a quick shot of homesickness, they also often give some quiet relief. Until travelling, I hadn’t thought about the effect that these trees have on me at home. They seem to lend a steadiness to a landscape and have become one of the most quintessentially Australian sights you can see.
Even now, many of the trees I see every day are special. The Manna Gum beside a creek in Ferntree Gully that I pass on my way home from work. The Candlebark that stands like a ghost amongst the darker trunks of the box trees on a drive through Wonga Park. The beautiful majesty of the Mountain Ash forests in the Dandenongs that stand like spectators, watching those wending their way through the mountains.
As a connection with place, trees can offer one of the strongest links. For the trees, it seems that they stand as silent witnesses to the passing of the world, not actively participating in the connection. For me, though, they provide some of the deepest ties to my overseas adventures.
Sarah is a botanist who has also had a series of unusual experiences with trees. She works at an indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne and is the Education Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond
Banner image courtesy of Sarah Bond.