On reading Ali Smith’s Summer
When a continent burned and another melted
I’m reading Ali Smith’s Summer and I want to not believe her. I want to deny and scoff at that part where the English character Sacha is outraged by the deniers and dismissers of the Australian bushfires.
Not even when they see pictures of Australia burning do they admit it. Not even when half a billion dead creatures—meaning 500000000 individual living things dead—is only the death toll from one area.
What does Ali Smith’s Sacha know? She’s only a Greta-aged girl on the other side of the world. It can’t be true. Except I saw it tasted it breathed it too.
I’m reading the scene where Sacha’s mother Grace finds a gravestone inscription
The tree in me shall never die. Be I ashes be I dust. That is the tree that joins the sky. To earth and us. The tree in me shall never die.
and I’m worrying about a particular tree that will die soon, not all the trees across both hemispheres that have perished already, and not the tree I planted outside my borrowed window, but the tree that looms before the window I’m yet to stare out of at the new house.
When I stage my first tree blockade, I’m younger than the fictional Sacha, equally outraged, and protesting the axing of the purpling lilli pilli quavering over our front garden. My sister and I name it Treena, paint her name on a wooden sign, nail it to her trunk so it doubles as a nifty step, rig a pulley system with buckets and ropes in case of siege, and sit up there for a sulky afternoon with the ants, flies, wasps, waiting for somebody to protest at our protest. We’d probably just read The Magic Faraway Tree or The Castle of Yew. We’d certainly cried at Judy being struck by that falling tree in Seven Little Australians.
We climbed down. Treena stayed where she was.
I’m thinking now of William Blake’s words:
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.
This particular green thing, looming over the window at my new house, will be struck by a chainsaw if/when the Dangerous & Dying Tree Removal (DDT) form from the council has been approved.
I’ve visited the tree again, asked it to shuffle back towards the fence, but it seems bent on leaning ever closer, laying its glossy ten metre head on the roof. Imagine the somebody who carried this massive tree’s earlier tiny self in a muddy bag, on the floor of a friend’s car, in twist of newspaper, and said I’m going to plant this tree just there, in the corner, over the water pipes, next to the foundations. Imagine me saying to them, I’m going to cut it down.
While California, Oregon, and Washington State burn, I’m becoming obsessed by this one tree. Ants live on or visit it, as do birds, beetles, possums, bats, possibly a resident pheasant.
I’ve planted trees in every rented garden, cheap trees, local trees, sap-spitting trees, trees given or obtained by various means, trees I never stayed long enough to discover if they shriveled or flourished, just poked them into the earth, an attempt at offsetting heatwaves, emissions, rootlessness.
The Greeks believed trees had souls. The same Greeks who prospered from a system of slavery.
I want to think about what kind of tree it is, apart from dangerous, dying, doomed. Perhaps an alien alpine swamp-stuck blow-in relieved to be chipped into particles, or a smug camphor laurel weed, invader, escapee.
Instead I reread the opening line of Ali Smith’s short story ‘May’ in her collection The Whole Story.
I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.
Unlike the protagonist, I am not in love with the target of my worry.
The buds were like pointed hooves of a tiny herd of deer. The blossom was like—no, it was like nothing but blossom.
Unlike me, and perhaps a bit like the ambulant Birnam Wood in Macbeth, she wants the tree to come to her. Her partner isn’t so keen.
You can’t keep a tree in a house, I say.
Yes you can, you say. I’ve looked into it…
What about light? …What about its roots?
…We would need to keep some bees as well. Would that be ok?
I’m thinking of the felled and lacquered red cedar tree trunk moored outside a nearby town hall, and the frothing floods nibbling at its concrete plinth, failing to uproot its historic plaque as cars, slabs of houses and upturned cows bob past. I’m thinking of how the tree fellers of old floated the red cedars’ friends and relations down rivers until there were none left.
I’m reading about the paternal grandfather I never met, an Anglican reverend with a foreign last name, a name that became so dangerous by 1918 the Bishop of Adelaide advised him to prune and fashion it into something more cosy and familiar.
Every week, in every weather, my grandfather rode his horse around the yellowing greening browning burning snowing hills ministering, visiting, praying, christening, burying, and probably not being minded very much yet for his name. Come in, Reverend.
But this is the sentence in the Family History which sings to me.
He visited a family who lived inside a hollow tree.
There’s no elaboration, no footnote, no source, no index, no photograph, no-one living left to ask what kind of tree it was. Or if there was a wooden door for my grandfather to knock upon. If so, was he invited inside and was it wide enough tall enough for a family plus lone visitor to stand/sit and/or lie/kneel down in. Was it dark and soaring, cathedral-like. Did it smell more earth mould damp than dry dusty cupboard. Were there natural windows or did they chisel portholes and smoke holes and sky holes and air holes. Did they climb upwards with the snakes, spiders, hopping mice, and lizards when water rushed all about. Did lightning fizz their twig-crowned roof. Did bushfires send the nesting birds screeching from the leafy eaves, and send them throwing precious water to dampen it. Did they fall asleep as tree rings added to themselves, encircling them. Did they choose that tree on that specific patch of earth via the recommendation of former tenants, or serendipity, desperation, luck, camouflage. Did this family-in-a-tree come to this country squashed inside the creaking belly of a wooden ship, foundering or buoyed by circumstance, and were they glad or ashamed or unable to afford any emotion at all to be holed up in their new wooden house ship which didn’t toss and pitch to the same degree.
I’m thinking of Ellen van Neerven’s poem ‘A Ship-Shaped Hole in the Forest’ in her new collection Throat.
Such a sad sight: a ship-shaped hole in the forest
still recovering from the fright of colonisation
And Judith Wright’s ‘Eroded Hills’ in Five Senses.
These hills my father’s father stripped;
and beggars to the winter wind,
they crouch like shoulders naked and whipped
I’m remembering the tree carved into Sethe’s back in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And the New Orleans willow tree in N.K. Jemisin’s short story ‘The Effluent Engine’, where the dashing Haitian spy, Jessaline Dumonde, encounters the scientifically-minded Eugenie Rillieux, and what they find (freedom) behind the willows’ curtaining fronds, and what they gain (freedom).
In Ali Smith’s short story ‘May’, her adored tree is ‘unownable’.
Now I’m back in her novel Summer, reading the exchange between Sacha’s mother Grace and a neighbour who wants to cut down their trees.
And we said, we’re not stopping you planting your trees, go ahead, what’s the problem? And he said, I don’t want to look out my window and see trees that aren’t mine.
I’m thinking of the two sisters in Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. One of the sisters leaves town, moves elsewhere, and passes as white.
And I’m looking up at my own family tree, trying to picture the moment when my recently-discovered ancestors decided or realised they could pass for white—out of accident, or design, persuasion, bravado, duty, ambition, courage, survival, sorrow, safety, perhaps no longer bearing the visible signs of being born from both sides of slavery.
How to read in a world as it burns, melts, and floods.
How to write about those who vanish and re-appear.
From Ali Smith’s Summer:
But when the words that once meant a person meet a living breathing shape, it’s like when a lone bird sings in a tree… and then a lone bird many gardens away sings the same song back.
And I’m standing beside the tree, listening.
Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection Dreams They Forgot is published by Wakefield Press. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Award 2016. She lives in northern NSW.