The Global Gum Tree Invasion
You can’t grow up in the Australian bush without being aware of the blight of invasive pests, either because you’re hunting them out with pick, rifle, or poison, or because a tract of land has been rendered useless. Foxes, cane toads, rabbits, camels; prickly pear, lantana, buffel grass, bridal creeper. From desert to coast, hundreds of species have irrevocably changed Australia, almost as much as humans.
Of course, the plants and animals didn’t nefariously seek out a country to conquer. Our European forebears brought the pests to Australia. These men and women (but mostly men) harboured an archaic notion of replacing the uncultivated and uncivilised with the sort of respectable, noble plants and animals one knew back home—which is to say, throughout Europe, and specifically England. Beast and bush merely did what they were programmed to do: survive and reproduce.
It’s strange to think that once people realised how destructive introduced species could be they didn’t even consider stopping the practice; they doubled down instead, introducing new pests to destroy other pests. Made sense at the time, no doubt.
These days, things have changed. Australians have come to love their landscapes and native plants and animals, and hate the invasive species that threaten them (unless they’re brumbies; neither horses nor horse-lovers are rational).
For me—a lad from the country—it was a powerful and curious experience to finally leave Australia and discover that various Australian species, long the underdog, have reversed the flow in places. On a three month trip through South America, I was looking out a bus window, convinced I was seeing gum trees pocking the arid hillsides of barren Chilean farmland.
There are dozens of different species of gum tree, but they all possess similar characteristics: the laconic and irregular branches; either smooth and pale or chunky and nobbled bark that bleeds colour; evergreen leaves that sprout lime green then dull into leathery pastels; and the scent.
A gum tree is a eucalypt, and there is no mistaking the scent of eucalyptus oil. I had no doubt: our humble trees were reforesting the barren hills of deforested Chile. I presume it’s because the eucalypt is a famously hardy genus of tree. Plant it and it grows. Survives with little water. Builds bulk fast, and the wood of the trunk is good for building.
As I moved north I noticed more gum trees in Bolivia and Ecuador. I travelled to other countries, and again I saw gum trees reforesting slopes or lining the road, purposely planted. The Philippines. France. Belgium. Morocco. Spain.
And here, the motherland—England—the country responsible for so many Australian pests. I see them not randomly poking out of English hillsides, but planted in people’s yards as ornaments.
There is a certain route I travel every other day, and every time I do, without fail, I notice the two homes planted with gum trees. It’s involuntary. I cannot help but see them, gaze at them, smell the air for scent of them, any more than a rabbit can see a spotlight and resist the urge to turn and stare.
It’s the English winter when the gum trees are most obvious, for that’s the time when every other tree has shed its foliage. But not my gum trees. They stand resolute, covered in the hardy green leaves of a tree that doesn’t give a damn.