It is one of those stories that circulates in the suburbs, almost urban myth, unexamined and curious. I first heard it when renovations began at the place I’d grown up in, a Californian bungalow in the south-east of Melbourne.
When carpet in the front of the house was taken up, my parents found Baltic pine floorboards. Their builder said it was common flooring in that type of house in that type of suburb. His story was that the Baltic pine had come to Melbourne as ship ballast. How romantic it seemed. This beautiful timber arrived at my childhood home from so far away, as if by happenstance. They were 80 years old and dotted with black knots. The grain of the timber was fine with long, black streaks and when the builder sanded the boards back, the raw wood was white and peachy.
The house had been built in the 1920s. Before that, the area had been planted as market gardens as early as 1842, and before that it had become and will forever be moorooboon, ‘the resting place’ of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. William Strutt’s picture called Bush Fires in the Moorabbin District, ‘sketched by the glare of the lightning and fires in my garden,’ he wrote, is an illustration of his property in Cheltenham in 1851, only kilometres to the south of where my parents’ home stands. His watercolour shows kangaroos and big native trees. It was preparatory work for his magnum opus painting Black Thursday, which documented the bushfire of 1851, so ferocious it not only burnt out one quarter of Victoria, but also threw embers so thick and high that a ship 40 kilometres from shore reported them falling on its deck. The planning overlays of the City of Glen Eira show the natural water courses that had once existed in this place and my mother and father both verify the plans with memories of a swamp at the end of her childhood street and a creek at the bottom of his primary school.
Back in the Californian bungalow, several years passed and the remaining carpet was dispatched. A different firm of floorboard specialists was employed, but they told the same story: it was Baltic pine and had come to Melbourne as ballast in ships.
By this time my interest in the world had awakened and I wondered which part of the Baltic it had come from. And in what sort of ships. And why as ballast? And what was being sent to Europe in ships that came back as light as feathers and as buoyant as sea foam? Was it wool, wheat? Who had commissioned its journey? As e.e. cummings asked, ‘Little tree … who found you in the green forest and were you very sorry to come away?’ because Baltic pine was one of the Christmas trees of tradition. The home and school of my childhood were clad and floored in Christmas trees. For a while I held onto the thesis of arrival as ship ballast, because we all hold onto ideas that shower upon us a blessing and a mystery and that may, through gentle unpicking, reveal some history of the world.
It was White Spruce or Norway Spruce, the tree called Baltic pine: Picea abies, literally the fir spruce. It was easy to see why it was called white as the raw boards were very pale. The species was wide-ranging and grew from the White Sea of Russia to the Baltic coasts of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Kalingrad Oblast and Poland, from the southern coasts of Norway, Sweden and Finland in a northerly direction, and in scattered enclaves throughout central Europe. From any of these places the floorboards may have come and I sought to find out where the green needles of the white wood had photosynthesised their last.
There were clues. At the time of Black Thursday, Baltic timber was imported to Victoria on British ships, by British merchants. From the 1870s, however, Baltic timber had been imported directly from the Norwegian ports of Fredrikstad, Christiana (Oslo), Drammen, Fredrikshald (Halden) and Grimstad by Norwegian trading families and their associates, now living in Melbourne. These families facilitated the export of Norwegian timber, which had become vital to Norway’s economy as it sought to control the debt it incurred in the Napoleonic Wars.
This second episode of renovations didn’t go to plan. The floor had sunk, so after the carpet came up, the floorboards came up for restumping. By now the boards were 85 years in place and as gently as the carpenter prised them away, they cracked and split. Recycled timber was investigated, but new Baltic pine boards had to be bought. The unfinished timber was the same—white with peach—but the grain was shorter and curled. There were no long, thin fibres, as in the old boards. Nonetheless, the carpenter assured us that it was Baltic pine and offered that it was grown differently in these times and climates, which changed the grain’s appearance.
I could believe him. Once upon a time, long ago in Fremantle, I saw a table made from a single slab of Eucalyptus marginata, jarrah wood. At the centre of the table, the grain was dark and dense, reflecting the time it stood in a forest of other jarrah trees. Further from the centre of the table, about where you might place water glasses, the texture of the timber changed: this was when the tree became an island, a lone survivor of the former forest in new pasture land. And at the table’s edge, where you put the cutlery, black flecks appeared—the consequence of modern agriculture and organophosphate fertiliser being added to the field. And then the tree fell, or was felled, and then what? The space of its absence, before the absence itself was filled by a housing development or plugged by whatever crop had grown around its base.
The man who made the table said the tree was 400 years of age. Whether his story was true, whether the story of the tree’s life was true, whether the age of the tree was true is all unknown, but we want to revere these things, because they tell us how the world was.
In the same way the timber tells a story of its life, it tells a story of our social fabric. From the 1870s until 1929 the Norwegian timber families did well with their import businesses. A history of one family, the Gunnersens, notes the consumption of Baltic flooring in Victoria at an annual average of 38 million linear feet between 1857 and 1887, before peaking at 68 million feet in 1886–87 and 48 million feet in 1888–89. In the same time, 100 000 immigrants were arriving annually in Victoria and they needed homes. In 1886–87, the figure was 200 000.
Victoria had no softwood timber of its own, and so, until the 1920s, the decade in which the Californian bungalow had been built, Baltic timber imports flourished. During the 1920s, however, Australian saw-millers persuaded the government to protect the local timber industry from foreign competition, especially Scandinavian and American, which had lower costs for extraction, handling, freight and labour. Import tariffs on Baltic timber increased from six pence per 100 super feet in 1916, to four shillings in 1921 and 24 shillings in 1930, which virtually prohibited further importation after that year. No more wild wood from Norway came to Australia. But in May of 1888, the peak year for migration to Victoria, in which 400 000 new residents arrived, the Building Societies and Mortgage Companies Gazette said:
Victoria is prosperous to an unparalleled degree, and there is great demand for houses by new arrivals from England and the neighbouring colonies and rents are high … Now our population has become imbued with the sensible notion that all must own an allotment of land, just as much as apparel or any other necessity. To say that subdivision of land is played out is nonsense.
More than 125 years later, in McKinnon, a few blocks away from that Californian bungalow of my childhood, a quiet little place called Claire Street is ‘gone’. The real estate agent meant that the street was now in the control of developers, save one house. Three properties have been bulldozed already to build a three-storey, 34-apartment complex, but the proposed plan has had a rough time in the Glen Eira Council and Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Council criticisms include a lack of setback from the road, inappropriate bulk and mass on neighbouring properties, poor design (something called saddlebag bedrooms, which provide the legally required but barely functional connection to natural light via a long corridor), and a lack of shade trees. Mr Joe Tucker owns the last house, tucked away towards one end of the street. I spoke to him about the proposed developments.
If you saw my place, it’s a very ordinary place. It’s no mansion, believe me. It’s just a lovely, lovely home, an ordinary home. But it’s nice. Or should I say, it’s nice to me.
I’ve lived here for 32 years. It hadn’t changed very much until recently. But where there were 12 houses, there’s going to be 125 apartments. When the TV stations came and all that business, I said it will be gridlocked. It’s not Sleepy Hollow any more. It’s not a place I’d choose to live now, obviously. I was looking for somewhere quiet, reasonably. But how they’re going to manage this traffic, I wouldn’t know.
In another part of that neighbourhood, a place I hadn’t been for a while, there was a tree in front of a house: green, early for spring, busily reaping more light than ever before, fresh-leafed and new. I stopped a moment and admired it. It was stunning. That evening I went home the same way. The tree was gone. The house was gone. The
debris of both were piled in a mountain beneath a backhoe chained up for the night, like the cyclone wire fence around the site. Whether the remains of a Norwegian forest, sold to pay down the debt of a 200-year-old war, were mixed there too, I don’t know.
In the suburb of my childhood, house prices have risen at speed and homes in every neighbouring street are being bought, sold, bulldozed and the land divided. The old gardens will perish, the old trees—being dangerous or inconvenient—will go. That thin crust of arable soil, where market gardens once fed Melbourne and, before that, where wild gardens fed the Boon Wurrung people, is scraped away to level the block, and I wonder if anything wild will ever grow in those places again. If a garden is a memory—of those who planted and harvested there and what they did to the soil—what happens to us, as a people, when the gardens have been obliterated? If a tree is Earth’s poem to the sky, as Kahlil Gibran once wrote, what is a 60-storey apartment building? As Mr Tucker said, ‘It is, to me, a beautiful garden. It’s a deep block, 150 feet, and there’s lawn, shrubs. It’s not a prize garden, don’t get me wrong, but it’s very restful.’
Elsewhere in Melbourne, developers demolished, without planning approval, the 159-year-old Corkman Irish Pub in Leicester Street, Carlton. Asbestos-contaminated waste from the pub has been dumped by the developers in a property they own in Cairnlea. There has been universal outrage and the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne launched joint legal action to compel the developers to rebuild the property. The Victorian planning minister has said, ‘Wilful and illegal destruction of our heritage will not be tolerated.’ Yet throughout the city, heritage buildings, by varying definition (which is the problem), are demolished without note. This was the spring and in the weeks that followed events coalesced to place the end game and not just the immediacies of urban development and planning at the forefront of my mind.
In the week before the Economist named Melbourne the world’s most liveable city for 2016, the sixth year running, three professors from RMIT launched their book Planning Melbourne: Lessons for a Sustainable City. The timing can’t have been coincidental because Professor Michael Buxton, first author, was cited widely in the press for his emphatic criticism of the city’s poorly designed apartments, struggling public transport system and health care, all topics covered in his book, but also several criteria on which the ‘liveability’ index is scored. Buxton’s commentary attracted the ire of Jeff Kennett, who mounted an energetic defence of his city, concluding that anyone who didn’t like living here could leave.
Later in the spring, in Quito, Ecuador, the City of Eternal Spring, a gathering called Habitat III was held. The United Nation’s fact sheet on this meeting helpfully explains that the habitat meetings are held every two decades, with Habitat I held in 1976 (Vancouver, Canada) and Habitat II in 1996 (Istanbul, Turkey). The habitat meetings are the UN’s conferences on Human Settle-ments and Sustainable Urban Development. Between 17 and 20 October representatives of more than 170 countries met to adopt the UN’s New Urban Agenda, aimed at making cities more inclusive, sustainable and resilient. Participating governments were asked to commit to non-legally binding standards for sustainable urban development, which should be a top priority for every one of us, given another 1.1 billion people are projected to inhabit Earth by 2030. The Australian government, however, did not participate in Habitat III, nor in the negotiations leading to the New Urban Agenda.
The international weekly journal of science, Nature, ran a series of articles on urban planning in response to Habitat III. One article, bluntly titled ‘Where to put the next billion people’, identifies Victoria, as well as the tropical north and a swathe of Western Australia, as suitable places that could theoretically absorb some of this number of people in a sustainable fashion. The back cover of Planning Melbourne notes that an estimated 1.6 million additional homes will be needed in Melbourne by 2050. Where will they be situated? What will they be made of? Will they be designed sustainably and to ensure the dignity of its residents?
• • •
The science of dendrochronology enables the telling of a tree’s history by examining the characteristics of the trunk’s concentric rings. They can tell stories of growth and structure, organophosphate, the land of origin and its climate. The tree lays down new growth each year, converting carbon dioxide and water, in the presence of light and chlorophyll, to oxygen and carbohydrates. It lays down a new layer of cellulose and starch just under the bark, and so increases its girth, by ever so much, depending on the generosity of the season. In the same way, a city grows outwards from its origin. The authors of ‘Where to put the next billion people’, Richard T.T. Forman and Jianguo Wu, say:
The reason why expansion is so damaging harks back to the origin of cities. Most settlements begin on good agricultural soil near a body of fresh water and natural vegetation. Buildings, cultivation, pasture and woodland often evolved in concentric rings … Urban expansion therefore cover[s] or pollute[s] once-valuable natural resources at ever increasing range … The exploding urban population is inundated with solid waste, wastewater, heat and pollutants.
But all this assumes damage and agriculture and even cities, because look below and above the concentric rings of Melbourne’s inner and outer suburbs and see a completely different way of existence: a body of fresh water, natural vegetation and a resting place. Look again, beyond the physical landmarks, natural or human, and see the same stories overlaid in time: histories of migration, expansion, industries failing, overseas labour, houses, ever-increasing populations, trade, imports and consumption. For those of us struggling with housing affordability it is no comfort that these stories repeat themselves over time. That everything shall come to pass. For the indigenous people displaced from their lands, it is no comfort. For those global citizens living in megacities where population density is already unbearable, there is no comfort. For those future citizens who might live in Melbourne, what reassurances can be offered to you?
In the face of these difficulties, a simplistic answer is unhelpful. A neat and tidy answer is unsatisfying. A wish is unlikely to come true, but as Melbourne expands outwards and upwards I would wish for enlightened leadership that engages with the real challenges of the future and that makes planning decisions with solid data and genuine respect for our natural and built heritage, obscure or obvious, and that may be fundamental to our quality of life, like water catchments, or just to understanding ourselves. I would wish that our city might grow in a way that allows us all, regardless of wealth or postcode, to live sustainably, in dignity, with access to the fundamental amenities that make a place genuinely liveable, and in neighbourhoods that allow for meaningful engagement with other human beings. I would wish that we remember the billions of people less fortunate than we are, who lack access to clean water and clean air.
Humans feel comfortable in open woodlands, the environment in which humankind evolved, so we need continuing protection for green spaces, in the city and suburbs and around their fringes. And we need trees, those life-giving, light-capturing custodians of our natural and human history, and whose presence, as reminders and symbols of new life, give us hope.
Note: The author visited Heroes and Villians: Strutt’s Australia, exhibited at the State Library of Victoria from July to October 2016. Gunnersen in Australia (1986) by Benita Carter is the history of the Gunnersen timber firm and family. Richard T.T. Forman and Jianguo Wu’s article ‘Where to put the next billion people’ appeared in Nature, vol. 537, 29 September 2016, pp. 608–11.