Like the great Horace Rumpole I have reached the age where I prefer mostly to read books I have read before. Thus I have recently been enjoying two old favourites, and in both I found stories which will appeal to my friends, the fellow-members of OLAF (the Old Lags of Australian Forestry, a group of grumpy grey-beards, convinced that the world was a better place when we were running it).
The first is Cider with Rosie. This is Laurie Lee's beautiful and poetic recollection of his childhood in a Cotswolds village in Gloucestershire, England, in the years during and just after World War I. Lee had five uncles on his mother's side, two had fought against the Boers and all five were cavalrymen during the Great War. He remembers them "as khaki ghosts coming home on leave from the fighting, square and huge with their legs in puttees, smelling sweetly of leather and oats".
After he returned from the war, Lee's Uncle Charlie:
... took up work as a forester, living in the depths of the local woods with a wife and four beautiful children. As he moved around, each cottage he settled in took on the same woody stamp of his calling… the house would be wrapped in aromatic smoke, with winter logs piled up in the yard… and in the kitchen there were axes and guns on the walls, a stone-jar of ginger in the corner and on the mountainous fire a bubbling stew-pot of pigeon or perhaps a new-skinned hare.
[Uncle Charlie] became one of the best woodsmen in the Cotswolds. His employers flattered, cherished and underpaid him; but he was content among his trees. It was a revelation of mystery to see him at work, somewhere in a cleared spread of the woods, handling seedlings like new-hatched birds, shaking out delicately their fibrous claws, and setting them firmly along the banks and hollows in the nests his fingers had made. His gestures were caressive yet instinctive with power, and the plants settled ravenously to his touch, seeming to spread their small leaves with immediate life and to become rooted for ever where he left them.
The new woods rising in Horsley now , in Sheepscombe, in Rendcombe and Colne, are the forests my Uncle Charlie planted on thirty five shillings a week. His are those mansions of summer shade, lifting skylines of leaves and birds, those blocks of new green now climbing our hills to restore their remembered perspectives. He died last year, and so did his wife – they died within a week of each other. But Uncle Charlie has left his mark on our landscape as permanent as he could wish.
It would be good to think that Lee's Uncle Charlie might be recognised more widely than in this lovely memoir, but this seems unlikely. The work of the forester matures slowly and late, and is nearly always taken for granted by subsequent generations.
I have also been re-reading Henry Lawson's wonderful short stories from his While the Billy Boils collection. One of these stories, His Country – After All, concerns a stranger, travelling in New Zealand. The stranger is an expatriate Australian now living in the USA and he regales his fellow coach travellers with a prolonged and sour criticism of Australia, enumerating all the reasons he no longer lives there:
I went away first when I was thirty five – went to the islands. I swore I'd never go back to Australia again; but I did. I thought I had a kind of affection for old Sydney. I knocked about the blasted country for five or six years and then cleared out to Frisco. I swore I'd never go back and I never will.
He re-emphasises his disdain for his homeland at length and is full of praise for the beauty and rich utility of the New Zealand landscape. Then:
The coach had climbed the terraces on the south side of the river and was bowling along on a level stretch across the elevated flat. 'What trees are those?" asked the stranger [breaking his unpatriotic argument], and pointing to a grove ahead on the roadside. 'They look as if they've been planted there'.
'Oh, they're some trees the government imported' said the coachman whose knowledge on the subject was limited. Here the stranger sniffed, once by accident, and then several times with interest. It was a warm morning, after rain. He fixed his eyes on those trees. They didn't look like Australian gums; they tapered to the tops, the branches were pretty regular and the boughs hung in a shipshape fashion. There was not the Australian heat to twist the branches and turn the leaves. 'Why!' exclaimed the stranger, sniffing hard. 'Why dang me, if they aren't Australian gums!'
As the coach approached the plantation the stranger became aware that:
There was a rabbit trapper's camp amongst the trees; he had made a fire to boil his billy with gum-leaves and twigs and it was the scent of that fire which interested the exile's nose and brought a wave of memories with it.
'Good day, mate!" he shouted suddenly to the rabbit trapper, and to the astonishment of his fellow-travellers.
'Good day, mate" the answer came back like an echo – it seemed to him – from the past.
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