This story was first published in The Big Issue #523 (21 Oct – 3 Nov 2016)
I’ve stopped collecting freshly-cut logs and tree stumps from nature strips.
I’ve stopped pulling over a little excitedly, opening up the back of the car, hauling the wood into the boot and driving off, a little triumphantly.
My back’s not up to it any more. Got to be careful these days. Got to think about muscles and bones, joints and nerves. About being able to ride my bike, being able to pick up and hold my grandchildren.
I miss the smell and the touch and the weight and the look of the newly-discarded logs, the timber timepieces. I miss the coarse brown bark and the smooth cut that reveals a gold cross-section of rings that mark the years.
I miss working out where to place them in the garden: either side of the garage doors, beside the back step, next to the compost bins, between a few old bikes living afterlives as garden furniture.
The collection started about 20 years ago, spontaneously. ‘Saw some wood in the neighbourhood and next thing I knew it was in the boot and then in the backyard. Something to sit on. Something to pop a cuppa on. Something to ponder.
I could stand at the kitchen sink washing the dishes and look out the window into the backyard and muse upon the life, and death, of trees. I could wonder what had become of their branches and leaves and roots. Probably mulched by one of those screaming machines that spits out woodchips.
The key was to not go looking for the stunted remains of trees. The key was to just happen upon a nature strip outside a house where a tree had been cut down. This may only occur a few times a year, even less. That’s okay.
Sometimes I hesitated, or was busy. Came back the next day and there was just a pool of sawdust on the green grass, and disappointment in the boot of the car. Were there kindred spirits collecting logs because they could sense the poetry of these fallen monuments, or were there more practical passers-by, swooping on free firewood. (And why not?)
Slowly I realised I was effectively creating a museum (of sorts) for this part of the suburb. Eucalypt logs from Power Street. Pieces of poplar from Victoria Avenue. Jacaranda leftovers from The Esplanade. This was local history, in a way. Local history that you could see and touch and smell. And sit upon.
When I moved house 15 years ago I took the burgeoning collection with me. (The removalists were a little puzzled!) Maybe a dozen or so logs. To a house that had no trees. None at all. I planted saplings in each corner of the small backyard: an apple tree (with three varieties), a wattle, two ornamental pear trees.
And I planted four of my old logs into the nature strip, like steps. One up, one down, one up, one down. Quite against the council by-laws about maintaining nature strips. Schoolkids seem to like them: a good reason for dawdling.
The logs and stumps that I first collected are now rotting, hollowing. Eaten inside out by bugs. By time, by history. You can’t sit on them. They fall apart when I pick them up one-handed. Eventually the bark and the wood, now fading in colour, will be dirt, part of the earth. The old circle of life, eh?
I’ve replaced the four nature-strip steps a few times, giving the schoolkids fresh steps every few years.
But with my ageing back I cannot replenish the museum. My back is not rotting or hollowing, but it’s weakening, bit by bit. It’s telling me I’m now closer to 60 years old than 50. It’s telling me I’ve got to be careful. It’s telling me I’m not a spring chicken anymore.
So when I see a fresh crop of former trees on a nature strip I might slow down but I don’t pull over. I might think about the possibilities – Where could these logs go? – but I can’t put thought into action.
There comes a time, doesn’t there, when you’ve got be happy with your lot, satisfied with what you’ve got, if – like me – you’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in this lottery called life.
The saplings in my backyard are now are all of a decent size. The apple tree bears Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Pink Lady apples. The two ornamental pear trees shower us with blossoms. The wattle’s youthful trunk helps hold up one end of the hammock in summer time.
All of the trees bring birds and shade.
The four trees are not too big that they need to be cut back, or cut down. But, eventually, they will reach their use-by dates. Well after I’ve reached mine, I hope. Long, long afterwards.
And then I guess someone will cut them down, and cut them up, and place them on the nature strip.
Postscript: This story proved slightly prophetic. A recent storm uprooted the 15 year old, eight metre wattle in our back yard. An arborist lopped off brances during the storm to stop the tree crashing into our lounge-room. And will return soon to cut the trunk down.