Not Unlike the Blue Gum in California - Ruth Niemiec
I have two distinct childhood memories linking me to places that in time grew into somewhat obsessions. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the cream plush carpet of the lounge room, running my finger over an imprint reading Made in Hong Kong in the pink plastic on the bottom of a toy elephant. The second is of receiving a bleach blonde Beach Barbie doll on some occasion, perhaps a birthday. Beach Barbie wore an orange and pink bikini and looked nothing like anyone I knew. A few years later I sat transfixed as I watched Pamela Anderson, who looked much like my Beach Barbie, save the lives of drowning beach goers in the Californian surf. It was much later that I learned the location where Baywatch was filmed. Santa Monica beach, California. I clicked through images of Santa Monica online. Paradise. Once I finished my writing degree, I told my then boyfriend that I would be moving to Los Angeles and we couldn’t stay together. He raised a brow and asked why. He didn’t seem too upset. He was simply perplexed as to why I had decided to move to Los Angeles out of all places. I hadn’t completely processed my own fascination with California, honestly. I told him it just looked like a place that would appeal to me more than Melbourne. He raised an eyebrow again and replied, “what about the crime rate?”. I felt my cheeks flush, but I was not discouraged.
I was in my late 20s. I wanted to leave my life in Melbourne behind. I felt tired and disenchanted with the experiences I had in my hometown. I met most of my days with mildly fluctuating levels of indifference. It wasn’t until years after telling my ex I was going to go to Los Angeles that I actually did. When the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles arose, I felt blessed. A chance to run from the grey that met me in my hometown. I felt like I was perpetually working dead end, casual jobs just to pay the bills and walking to the train over sleet grey sidewalks, under grey clouds with my umbrella being whipped inside out by the wind and always standing in line for a coffee.
I wanted palm trees and sun.
I arrived in Los Angeles in the Spring of 2017. I stepped outside through the sliding doors at LAX, slid my sunglasses down over my eyes and readied myself to be blinded by Los Angeles’ brilliance. I walked out to a smoking area and a view of a multiplex car park. The dream wasn’t shattered. I would need to leave the airport before catching a glimpse of what I had dreamt of, those achingly beautiful, tall palm trees against the perpetually orange Los Angeles sky. I hailed a cab. The driver was friendly and wanted me to tell him as much about Australia as I could fit into in that trip from LAX to Hollywood. He asked whether kangaroos roamed in neighbourhoods and in the city. A question I had been asked in almost every country I’d visited and one I just got used to answering politely and quickly. The driver told me he moved to LA from Honduras in search of better opportunity. I asked him if he had found it and he confidently offered that his children had received better employment opportunities and were both successful. He nodded in quite satisfaction and contemplation. I mentioned to him that I had no idea how wide the freeway would be, as I gazed out the window. Noticing I had trailed off, the driver offered “oil pumps.”. “Oil pumps” I repeated as I looked across the freeway at an oil drilling facility just beside it and perilously close to residential land. I had no idea about the urban oil drilling in Los Angeles. Where were the palm trees? When I finally made it to Hollywood, I saw the palm trees and the hills and understood the magic of the place. There is something about the outline of a palm tree against the sky that brings a sense of calm, a sense of ease. I wondered how all the palm trees made it to California. There is only one palm tree native to California and that is the Washingtonia filifera, also known at the Desert Fan Palm or California Palm. All the other species were brought there, most notably by Spanish Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, who in 1769 planted California’s first Phoenix dactylifera, known as Date Palms. It’s believed they were planted for ornamental reasons but also because of their biblical associations. The Date Palm is thought to have originated from regions near Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over the next few years, more palm tree seeds made it over to California and palm planting in the 1930s surged. In 1932, before the Summer Olympics, 25,000 palm trees were planted all over the city of Los Angeles to beautify the city. Those trees fulfilled their purpose. To look up and see the whitewashed, familiar trunks of a Tasmanian Blue Gum in a place I had flown to, desperately wanting to feel alien, got under my skin. I was not expecting to see the branches of the Australian native swaying gingerly and teasingly against the orange sky. That sky that in my mind held real estate only for palm trees. I shielded my eyes and gazed up at the Blue Gum and wondered how a native Australian tree ended up there, then went on my way to buy incense from a man dancing wildly to reggae and wearing sunglasses inside his dimly lit head shop. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, standing in the bush back home in Australia, running a flat palm over the smooth, cool bark of a Blue Gum that I found myself wondering again how Eucalyptus trees ended up in Los Angeles.
At random I would offer to people I knew that California was covered in Eucalyptus trees. One day an American friend of mine offered that they knew only that the Eucalyptus trees in California were a considerable cause of fires there. In fact the Tasmanian Blue Gum and Frank C Havens, the person who originally planted them received the blame for the Oakland Hill Fires of 1991, which killed 25 people and left many homeless.
It’s believed approximately twenty major fires have started in California’s Eucalyptus Forests between 1923 until the present year. Several botanists have said that the native scrub land of California’s hills is enough to set them ablaze and cause devastating destruction.
It is common belief in Australia too that Eucalyptus trees shed bark which acts as kindling when a fire starts or sweeps through and the trees themselves release a flammable gas when the oils in the tree heat up.
In 1788 a young French botanist on James Cooks third voyage, Charles Louis L'Héritiert de Brutelle gave the Eucalypti genus its first colonial name. L'Héritiert de Brutelle gave name by combining the two Greek words, ‘eu’ meaning well and ‘calyptos’ meaning covered, after examining the flower buds of a rough-barked tree from Tasmania's Bruny Island. By the 1800s the Eucalyptus tree had moved across the globe. It was well known in Europe and the late 1800s it became widely introduced in California. The Californian Gold Rush of 1850 caused a great demand for wood and the years of deforestation meant that the need for more wood increased. What appealed to entrepreneurs and Eucalypti enthusiasts such as Ellwood Cooper, Abbott Kinney and Frank C Havens was that Eucalypti, namely the Tasmanian Blue Gum, grew rapidly. They saw opportunity and started Eucalyptus plantations. The trees were known to grow rapidly and would be sold as timber, fuel, medicine for malaria and pulp. The possibilities were endless. Horticulturist Ellwood Cooper planted 200 acres of Eucalyptus in 1872. The Elwood Bluffs in Goleta California are to this day covered in Tasmanian Blue Gum. Cooper wrote a book titled Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees. An interesting read and snapshot of that era of Californian development.
Frank C Havens, a real estate and water developer grew his Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company between 1910 and 1914. Havens planted nearly three million Eucalyptus trees. But it was Abbott Kinney a tobacco heir, conservationist, water supply expert, tree expert and developer who established the Eucalyptus and its hopeful reputation in California. Kinney determinedly promoted the Eucalyptus and its benefits - at one stage giving out free seeds to residents of California. In 1895 Kinney wrote a book titled Eucalyptus. The book is another interesting cultural read.
By the 1900s there were many companies with Eucalyptus plantations. The Tasmanian Blue Gum was the most planted, but South Australia’s Sugar Gum, eastern Australia’s Forest Red Gum and the River Red Gum was also introduced.
The avid entrepreneurs investing in the Eucalyptus tree were shocked in 1913, when a report from U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that Eucalyptus wood was completely unsuitable for most timber uses once dried.
The sprawling plantations were abandoned. The Eucalypt forests of California today are the abandoned plantations of yesterday. Introduced flora and fauna is a soberingly real environmental issue across the globe. The introduction of the Australian natives into California has meant that the balance of the Californian natural ecosystem has been thrown off. Mostly, the Eucalypti doesn’t support the native wildlife, though the Monarch Butterfly, Heron and Great Horned Owl have been able to adapt and have found homes in the Eucalyptus forests of California.
Despite their bad reputation, Eucalyptus trees have been known to have some positive impact for the residents of California. For instance, they provide adequate windbreaks for farms and highways.
My time in Hollywood didn’t go as I had intended it to go, in more ways than one. A place I had so desperately desired and wanted to establish roots in left me feeling displaced. I suffered from the same hollow loneliness that I had in Melbourne. A feeling that only became bearable, something I could live with and through only with life experience and maturity and not by seeking a new home. I find that I was not unlike the Eucalyptus in California. Wanting to grow, but unable to find purpose and solid ground. Each morning, with coffee in hand, I stand outside my front door in Melbourne’s West, where I was born and have always returned to.
I gaze at the immense Red Gum Eucalyptus tree across the road at the park. I admire how it is a home to Rosella’s and how its branches provide temporary accommodation to red-tailed cockatoos passing through and am deeply humbled.
Ruth Niemiec (she/her) received her BA with a major in Professional Writing from Victoria University. She is a writer of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in English and Polish. Her latest work is forthcoming or recently published in Dumbo Feather (aus), Mamamia (aus), ABC Everyday (aus) Neon Literary Magazine (uk), Coffee People (us), Parliament (us) and Rhodora (in). Ruth is a love and relationships columnist for Perfumed Pages Magazine. Ruth reads creative non-fiction for Catatonic Daughters and non-fiction for Kitchen Table Quarterly. Her favourite novel is The Secret History.