Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Ancestral Shade

“Time was when, settling on thy leaf, a fly Could shake thee to the root — and time has been When tempests could not.”

COWPER.

If it were possible to recall the spirits of the departed of this Isle to solemn session and to exact from them expression of opinion as to the central point of it, the popular, most comfortable and convenient camping-place, there can be no question that the voice of the majority would favour the curve of the bay rendered conspicuous by a bin-gum or coral tree. Within a few yards of permanent fresh water, on sand blackened by the mould of centuries of vegetation, close to an almost inextricable forest merging into jungle, whence a great portion of the necessaries of life were obtained, and but ten paces from the sea, the tree stood as a landmark, not of soaring height, but of bulk and comeliness withal.

Generation after generation of careless coloured folk must have been born and bred under its branches. When the soil became rank because of continuous residence and insects of diabolical activity pestered its occupants, the camp would shift to another site; but there existed proofs that the bin-gum-tree localised the thoughts of those aimless, unstable wanderers to whom a few bushes stuck in the sand as a screen from prevailing winds represent the home of the hour and all that the word signifies and embodies. Many a one was laid to rest beneath its spreading branches, for it was the custom of the pre-white folk’s days to swathe the dead in frail strips of bark, knees to chin, and place the stiffened corpse in a shallow pit in the humpy which had been in most recent occupation. If the dead during life had possessed exceptional qualities, burial rites would be ceremonious and prolonged. With tear and blood stained faces (for the mourners enforced grief by laceration of the flesh) incidents in the admirable career of the departed would be rehearsed in pantomime. The enactment of scenes from the life of the hunter and fighter might occupy hours. The art of the canoe or sword maker would be graphically mimicked. The life of the woman found rehearsal from infancy until she passed from the protection of her father into the arms of her lover. If she had died childless, a protesting infant or an effigy in bark would be placed on her shrunken bosom, so that she might not suffer the reproach of matrons who had preceded her to the mysterious better country.

The ancestral shade was a birth-place, an abiding-place, a cemetery, and the soil grew ever richer, and the thick-trunked tree displayed its ruddy flowers and gave of its best in nectar for birds and butterflies and gauze-winged, ever-flitting creatures.

It was not a comfortable tree to climb, for its grey-green branches were studded with wens each armed with a keen prickle, long and tough. It offered the hospitality of its shade to man, but little else, save flowers to gladden his eyes, though it stood as a perpetual calendar, or rather floral harbinger, of some of the most excellent things in life. At a certain season its big, trilobed, hollow-stalked leaves changed from bright green to pale yellow and lingeringly fell, and often before the last disappeared, flower-buds registered the date with almost almanac exactitude. Then, as the rich red began to glow here and there, and impatient small birds to assemble in anticipation of the annual feast, the old inhabitants of the Isle would comfort one another with reminiscences of the “Oo-goo-ju,” the nutmeg pigeon, which was wont to congregate in such numbers that adjacent and easily accessible isles were whitened. There would be plenty of eggs then, and in a few weeks squabs quiveringly, helplessly fat.

It was a good tree, for it gave good tidings, and it centralised the shelter of the Isle. Its blooms were delightfully, dashingly red, and they lasted long — that is, if the camp — the soil rectified by sun and rain — happened to be in residence, for then the sulphur-crested cockatoos would be scared. Otherwise the profligate birds would sever the heavy racemes of flower in their eagerness for honey until the ground beneath glowed with a furnace-hued shadow. But there would be still plenty for the gay sun-birds and the honey eaters, while the grey goshawk would make the site of regular call, for the bibulous lesser birds could not always be on the alert, ready to dart into adjacent tea-trees. The hawk would abide its time, and have occasion, after its kind, to be grateful because of the tree and its seductive nectar which translated artless little songsters into shrill-tongued roysterers, careless of the ills of life, or at least less watchful for the presence of crafty enemies. Flying foxes would swoop into the tree at sundown to squeak and gibber among its repellent branches till dawn, when some, too full for flight, would hang among the lower limbs all day, sleeping with eyes veiled by leathery wings.

For many a long day the bin-gum tolerated no undergrowth. Despotic over its territory, the shade was clean but for a carpet of ferns, and its branches free from the embraces of orchids, save that which bears the ghostly white flowers which set off its own of bold red. But as it passed its maturity shrubs and saplings began to encroach, until it was the centre of a circus of upstart vegetation, though still stretching big, knotty limbs over the slim youths of yesterday. Anterior to this era a neglected fire had scorched a portion of its trunk. Decay set in. A huge cavity gradually appeared, betokening vital injuries. The soft though tough wood does not patiently endure the annihilating fret of time. Far up in a recess of this cavity a toy boomerang was found, placed there by some provident but forgetful piccaninny. At the date of the discovery of the missile the age of the resident blacks had passed away; but still the tree stood, stout of limb, while the encompassing saplings shot up until sun-seeking shoots caressed the branches and familiarised with the blooms, as if taking credit for the seasonal gaiety of the patriarch.

In the prime of life the wood of the bin-gum is of pale straw colour with a faint pinkish tinge, and tough though light. Sapless age makes it tindery, and the decaying fibre descends in dust — glissades of dust which form moraines within the hollow of the base. Then the end is not far off.

The old tree might have been credited with premonition of its fate. However fanciful to ascribe to it power of utterance, some phenomena, perhaps associated with the dusty flux draining its vitals, gave it distinct voice. On silent days it was often heard — a whispering, whimpering sing-song, pitifully weak for so great a tree, but not without appeal. Did it not suggest the sanctuary of some wood-nymph chanting never so faint a death psalm — a monotone which the idlest zephyr might still?

Disdaining to die while consenting to disappear, the great tree, proudly green of head, did not fall headlong, like a giant, in its pride, but subsided silently behind its leafy screen while all the winds were still, and as one who passes away full of years and with untarnished conscience.

Though the saplings and shrubs which fought for its place decently conceal its shattered relics, addressing glossy leaves to the face of the sun, is it quite vain to expect that its graceful proportions — a true and stately dome — will be transmitted to the most worthy of its descendants? Or that they will escape for so long a term the many mischances that befall soft-wooded trees? No; the bin-gum of the bay was unique. Afar off its flowers assumed a bricky shade, which contrasted with the sage-green background of huge and overtopping melaleucas, while but a strip of creamy sand intervened between its low and spreading branches and the shallow sea, with its varying tints of pale green and blue. So lovely and conspicuous a feature is not to be reconstituted under a century.

If it be permitted to assume that trees are sentient, that each — since it differs from all others in some material quality and condition — has its individuality, and that one may stand out from the rest as a figure and representative of its age, then was this old monarch which maintained its red robes to the last an examplar of the race whose births, nuptials, pastimes, deaths and burials it witnessed from the date when the good ship ENDEAVOUR slowly plodded along the alien coast. The dust of the witness is blending in common decay. A few months and not a trace will be discoverable, and what is left of those who rested in its shade? In the pages of history they will be unchronicled, for were not their lives less beautiful than the life of a tree, and their renown no more durable?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32