Cindi Davey (PhD candidate, James Cook University) reviews Ashley Hay’s Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and their Champions (Sydney: NewSouth, 2021).
The study of Australia’s eucalypts takes on a new urgency every time our fire season is particularly intense. Concerns around climate change and the ever-increasing carbon saturation of the global atmosphere also make eucalypts an increasingly important topic in the maintenance of habitable spaces within this country. Ashley Hay’s celebration of the species, Gum, was first published in 2002, in the wake of the 2001 Blue Mountains fires. Following the 2019/2020 Black Summer, NewSouth released this second edition. It includes Hay’s reflections on more recent eucalypt happenings, and maintains the celebratory tone of the trees and their ‘champions’.
Hay begins with the gums at Botany Bay, including the local Dharawal people’s perception of them: the Dharawal believed that seven of the species endemic to the area were seven men (and their leader, the angophora), who worked to bring peace amongst the clans. The story also serves to illustrate the role these particular trees played as resources for First Nations peoples. This short introduction is followed by the arrival of the British, focused primarily on the botanist Joseph Banks who accompanied Cook on his first voyage (1768–71). Hay designates Banks as a champion of the gums for his role as an enabler of the European scientific community to study and classify the new plants. Throughout his career, Banks continued adding eucalypt species to his collections, but ‘died without having published a line about any of the things he had seen or collected’.[i] Though this section revolves around Banks, it is others who name the eucalyptus, collect First Nations names for the trees, and attempt to publish Banks’ collection of Australian plants. In this chapter, and throughout the text, Hay does include some of the more unenthusiastic perceptions, such as Cook’s initial assessment,[ii] but these are not examined in detail, serving rather to show how heroic the chosen champions are in contrast.
Surveyor Thomas Mitchell is the next titular ‘champion’ of the eucalypts. Though he was more concerned with the mapping of water ways, his work reflected a deep appreciation for the trees; his lyrical remarks on the Australian environment are quoted at length, supporting the lyrical style of this book. Hay’s next champion was already obsessed with plants before meeting the eucalypt: Baron Ferdinand Mueller, Victoria’s first government botanist. Mueller’s plant obsession specialised to eucalyptus, drawing ire as he attempted to catalogue species across state borders, and earning him the appellation of ‘Baron Blue Gum’. Unlike Banks, Mueller published his research: ‘1500 publications overall’ [iii] including the ten volume Eucalyptographia describing 100 different species in minute detail, not constrained to Victoria. Hay argues Mueller’s legacy, somewhat damaged by anti-German sentiment during World War I, was to make the eucalyptus a national tree, ‘just as Australia was about to see itself as a nation’.[iv] This is a neat segue into the influence of West Australian artist May Gibbs whose depictions found limited reception until she anthropomorphised the eucalypt with her now iconic gum nut babies. McCubbin, Namatjira and other artists are mentioned here, their striving for realism contrasting with Gibbs’ popular fantasy.
The text then leaves the artists and examines the work of South Australian forester Max Jacobs, principal of the national forestry school, who promoted eucalypt plantation and use internationally. Jacobs receives a sympathetic treatment, because of his push to plant eucalyptus, but this section contains little mention of the trees that were clear-felled for Jacobs’ plantation expansion, as covered so scathingly by Judith Ajani’s The Forest Wars.[v] Clear-felling provided impetus for the next major shift in perceptions of Australia’s trees: the rise of the environmental movement. This new way of viewing the trees cast earlier champions such as Jacobs as enemies of them, and used symbolism extensively to advocate for eucalypt protection across the country. Hay’s representative here is Victorian Geoff Law who championed the giant trees of Tasmania against the clear-felling practices of paper manufacturers. Law was a highly effective campaigner for forest preservation, affecting the priorities of federal politicians, and ultimately Australian law.[vi] The ways in which Australians related to and viewed our eucalypts gained another layer of complexity. Hay’s champions come from a variety of academic fields, their common thread being eucalypt promotion and that they all lived and worked in the southern half of the continent. The lack of champions from the northern half reflects the dominance of southern perspectives in national debate, and suggests that celebration of gum trees might not be as embedded in a truly national identity as Hay would have us believe.
At this point, Hay turns from structuring the chapters around specific eucalypt boosters, in order to focus more closely on ecological processes: fire and tree respiration. Fire and gum trees have been distinguishing features of the Australian environment for millennia, categorised here as ‘a dangerously cosy relationship,’[vii] This edition contains some discussion of the recent Black Summer, but is mostly illustrated by the 2001 Blue Mountains fires the year before the book’s first publication. Hay examines changing perceptions of ways to manage the trees, from firestick farming to exclusion, then acceptance of fire’s necessity to the life cycle of Australia’s biota. This discussion finishes with another new way of viewing the trees: through satellite technology to monitor fuel and moisture. The narrative then shifts backwards in time, to the emergence of the West Australian Meelup Mallee, whose age has been estimated at greater than 6000 years. This tree frames a discussion on newer ways of collecting scientific data, shifting classifications and experimentations in the carbon sequestration potential of eucalypts. Hay summarises how Australia’s eucalypts have been promoted over time, and ties these to new ways of viewing the trees that are developing, including plant communication.
The beauty of Hay’s prose helps to accentuate the importance of the eucalypt to Australians and the world, supported by the extensive “Select Bibliography”. How these carefully selected ‘champions’ have viewed eucalyptus over time and across disciplines highlights how integral the eucalypt is to Australian identity. However, the lack of champions outside the southern half of the country is disappointing, and reinforces the south-east corner bias inherent in much Australian literature. Furthermore, in focusing on promoters, less rose-tinted views about gum trees are under-represented, and limited attention is given here to the derisive attitudes that some sections of Australian society have for gum trees, as reflected by historians such as Geoffrey Bolton in “They Hated Trees”.[viii] However, Hay is honest in her aim: to celebrate the gum, and as such has produced a love letter to the trees, that makes for an interesting and absorbing read.
Ajani, Judith. The Forest Wars. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2007.
Bolton, Geoffrey. Spoils and Spoilers: A History of Australians Shaping Their Environment. 2nd ed. Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Hay, Ashley. Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions. 2nd ed. New South Wales, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2021.
[i] Ashley Hay, Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions, 2nd ed. (Sydney: NewSouth, 2021), 33.
[ii] Hay, 15.
[iii] Hay, 100.
[iv] Hay, 101.
[v] Judith Ajani, The Forest Wars (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), 32–52.
[vi] Hay, 175-180.
[vii] Hay, 204.
[viii] Geoffrey Bolton, Spoils and Spoilers: A History of Australians Shaping Their Environment, 2nd ed.(New South Wales: University of New South Wales Press, 1981).