To each its season

Australian, 29 May 1993

From a fear that autumn’s calm and colours would dissolve in rain and wind I kept quiet about how close to perfection my preferred season has come in Canberra this year. Now that autumn is ending, nothing is put at risk by paeans to the sublimity just past.

Growing up in Brisbane, I never felt the year to pass as four seasons. There was the February wet, monsoonal and whipped by cyclones. And there were August cold snaps during which the water in the chook yard froze. Even four years spent in Melbourne, with its boasts of the complement of seasons in every day, did not entrench a sense of the year’s divisions, though it introduced me to anew twilight zone.

As winter approaches, my regret is that Canberra will not be knee-deep in snow for several weeks. If it were, I might enjoy spring the more, instead of its being my least favourite time of year. That dislike comes not, as T. S. Eliot alleged, because of its cruelty in dragging lilacs from a dead Earth. Rather, its squalls spoil opportunities for enjoying its promised warmth. Canberra’s spring Floriade is a mistake: the national capital should promote the wonders of its autumns as a waxing time.

A thought, at once futile and self-defeating, arose late in April as I walked among Canberra’s gardens. The sun was setting after yet another almost alpine day, its soft lights still able to enrich deciduous leaves already shading towards cinnabar, cadmium and raw or burnt siennas. No breeze stirred, not any bird. I too stopped moving to reflect: “If I could choose one instant at which to keep the world forever, this surely would be it”.

No sooner had this prospect formed than the reason why such a freezing would not satisfy asserted itself. The pleasures of autumn are those of contrast and change. To snap the year shut at any instant would be to deny ourselves the delight of innumerable other moments like this one. Moreover, the delicacies of autumn are intensified by memories of searing heat and brass monkey frosts. Abolish movement and we lose the thrills of expectation and dread.

Dangerous though it can be to make analogies between the domains of nature and those of politics, their points of intersection nourish our humanness. I particular, the ways in which we appreciate nature are not innate.  Our vision splendid is learned from admass culture as well as from the metaphors of William Wordsworth or Judith Wright. Hence, nature and culture cannot be split from each other, nor their linkages kept apart from the rough stuff of politics.

For instance, the propagation of native plants is a side aspect of the republican debate about how we should evaluate Australia’s place in the world. During the construction of the new Parliament House in Canberra, several Liberal and National Party senators resisted replacing the emerald and deep red carpets inherited from Westminster with ones toned to the silver green of eucalyptus and the ochre of our outback oil. Such legislators reclaim their patriotism when floggings off those trees for woodchips or that earth to open-cut miners.

Canberra’s artificiality in political and social terms is repeated in the botany of its older suburbs, which provided a fake Englishness in which prime minister Menzies could live out his exile from his mother country. Would Canberra look as appealing as it can if all its exotics were clear-felled so that the streets and parks could be planted with local flora?

An alternative vision of how the national capital might appear can be gained from the city’s botanic gardens, with their multitudes of banksias, callistemon and grevillea. In addition, the wattles that burst through in winter could be painted more widely so that their different species would provide sun splashes for as long as Canberra’s skies were slate and snow-laden.

The wildflower season in Australia’s south-west is special because of that zone’s long isolation from the rest of this continent. Nonetheless, those varieties could be propagated in the eastern States to offer a bright native springtime. Across Brisbane, while buckinghamia already rivals the azaleas, which are themselves being naturalized. They now thrust towards the rooftops and might well turn carnivorous to feed on cane toads. Around Adelaide, the Gawler hybrid bottlebrush Duluxes dry roadsides.

Exotics neither can nor need be eradicated. If gang-gangs are sulphur-crested cockies, have adapted to feeding off their seeds and berries, all Australians can include them in our gardens of delight. As with the economic aspects of settler life, the question we need to answer is, what indigenous opportunities have we denied ourselves by chasing after the imported as if it must be the best?

Do those deciduous splendours blind Australians to comparable delights in native plants? For example, when Canberra planners sought the wonders of autumnal colour, might not the Tasmanian beech have provided them as handsomely as have elms and willows?

Moreover, as we debate our place in the world, we should remember that exotics need not be European, since many Asian deciduous trees, such as Japanese maple, plums and cherries, already enrich the shift in our seasons.

The Japanese rejoice in the four major seasons but their lives are directed more by finer gradations in the weather and the availability of foods. By contrast, we Australians pay little attention to fruit and fish in their due seasons. One attraction of autumn is the variety of pears in the shops, convincing me once more that they army favourite fruit.

Yet I have no idea when oysters are at their plumpest, or if there are a few days when certain fungi come fresh from the field. Those aspects to eating still prevail in other industrial societies, such as France. That blessing for the many will remain only as long as free-market forces in agriculture are kept at bay.

In One Continuous Picnic, a history of the food habits of settler Australians. Michael Symons attributes our failure to develop a distinctive diet to the absence last century of a peasantry who had to prepare their foods in accord with the seasons. However true that explanation, by the 20th century, our chance for a national cuisine had been spoilt by such inventions as cold storage and the supermarket, were coarse and tasteless strawberries are on sale 365 days a year.

The way forward was shown late last century by the Melbourne painter Fred McCubbin when he entitled one of his bush scenes The Fall, that old English synonym for autumn. McCubbin’s picture could not show gum leaves changing colour before dropping to the forest floor. Instead, it depicted the eucalypts shedding their bark. Like McCubbin, Australianists must seek ways to re-imagine all of our available inheritances.