We bought our current house in a hot dry summer and the first thing I noticed was that the back yard was sheltered from the western sun by a clump of largish trees with bright green leaves. “Great garden,” the real estate agent said after he’d shown me through the house for the second time and we were out on the back deck, about to have that unpleasant conversation about money. Having no experience of gardening other than watching others succeed at it, I agreed. “They lose their leaves in the winter,” he said of the trees I was looking fondly at, “so you get sun when you need it.” I was surprised he knew so much about them. “They are beautiful,” I said.
We built a treehouse in the biggest of the trees. One friend hooked up a pulley to send snacks up on request by walkie-talkie. Another made a tyre swing he hung from the low strong branch. The treehouse had a trapdoor and I thought when our son grew too big for it, I might make it my office, using the trapdoor to get rid of bad ideas. We have a picture of our son from the first autumn in the house, diving into the pile of leaves he’s raked up. In the winter, especially cold for Brisbane, we sat on the verandah in the late morning and looked out to those bone branches against our blue sky and felt our own bones warm. In the spring came new leaves, giving us a cool shady back deck all through summer.
But the trees grew so quickly that within another year one large branch extended into the neighbour’s yard. Along with new leaves came hundreds of thriving saplings that were hard to pull up. We paid our son to weed. He found 400 one day. If he missed any, within a month were small trees that had to be hacked out. We had breakfast with our landscape architect friend who shook her head. Those trees are Chinese elms and an environmental weed, she said. They’ll take over the whole neighbourhood. Get rid of them. I resisted. It wasn’t just the western sun they protected the house from. The trees were part of our life now, friends who’d been kind to us, even if they were fugitives from the law of nature. To me, they were like The Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein’s book that gives all it has to a boy, first its branches where the boy plays, then, when the boy is grown, its wood to build a house, then its trunk for the man to make a boat and sail away.
But last year in winter, the treehouse eaten by the trees, now three times as big as the house and growing while we watched, I was finally convinced our landscape architect friend was right. We decided to cut the trees down. Half a dozen big lads arrived with chainsaws and carried our trees log by log to a waiting truck. I cried when I looked at our bald back yard.
Generous but needy, Chinese elms and other weed trees bring their gifts, but they also kill everything that isn’t them, including our hapless eucalypts with their fussy seed pods which are no match for the sprouting elms. Once they were gone, we couldn’t even leave the stumps exposed to use as a seat, as the old man in The Giving Tree does, because within minutes of exposure to light, the stump, even the roots of the old trees, put up shoots ready to grow again. We’ve put other trees in to replace the elms, a jacaranda, also introduced but not invasive, a coolamon that is native but grows only slowly. And I miss our trees.