Cartoonist Michael Leunig's life as a guerrilla gardener on the curly and narrow
- Friday 22 January 2016 1:53PM
- Tim Entwisle
IMAGE: MICHAEL LEUNIG AND TIM ENTWISLE AFTER LEUNIG PLANTED THE SAHARAN CYPRESS IN MELBOURNE GARDENS (TIM ENTWISLE)
Whimsical cartoonist Michael Leunig has always had a connection with nature, even sneaking out as a young man to illegally plant gum trees in Melbourne's western suburbs. He joins Tim Entwisle to talk nature and his favourite trees.
Lines represent root and branch systems, fundamental to our belief systems.MICHAEL LEUNIG, CARTOONIST
In October last year, cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig planted a tree in Melbourne Gardens, part of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (of which I'm director and chief executive). This was the second in a rebooted Commemorative Tree Program, following at a safe distance behind musician Nick Cave's planting of a Henry's lime the year before.
Like Cave, Leunig has a distinctive individual style and is a fitting representative of creative and liberal Melbourne. For 46 years he has been contributing his whimsy and wit to newspapers, and in July last year he celebrated his 70th birthday. As a bonus, he regularly references trees and nature in his pictures and writing.
I'll get back to that commemorative tree later, but when I chatted to Leunig for Talking Plants it was in a less orderly garden. We met near Rushall station, about five kilometres from the Melbourne CBD, to talk about a restoration project he has been involved with for the past five years.
Leunig was brought up in the largely treeless western suburbs of Melbourne, where he soon developed a 'yearning for plants'. He also acquired a passion for illegal planting, venturing out at night to plant eucalypts in nature strips. Some of his successes can still be seen today, where large spotted gums (Eucalyptus maculata) push up the pavement in Melbourne's west.
The restoration of native vegetation is a very grand gardening project. The Merri Creek scheme predates Leunig's time as a local resident, and converting this 'dumping ground' to a semblance of nature has depended on a huge community of volunteers. 'Anyone who has planted a tree has not acted in vain,' he says. 'Better that than the football, but that's just a personal preference.'
The creek forms a curved (or curly) line through a city otherwise defined by straight lines. In Leunig's view it is nature asserting itself: 'Lines represent root and branch systems, fundamental to our belief systems.'
Plants, according to Leunig, are taken in subconsciously. As a child you are enchanted by them and build fairy gardens. In the end, 'it's almost like you are married to plants'. He says an Aboriginal friend once told him she felt married to a tree, and that it drew its marks on her body, an act that strengthened that marriage bond.
When we sought a tree for Leunig to plant in the botanic gardens, we looked for a similar kind of connection. At first we sought to reference his love of curly people and plants with 'tortured' willows or hazels, but we settled in the end on a tree with just a hint of asymmetry, and one that should survive Melbourne's toughening climate—the Saharan cypress,Cupressus depreziana.
While not really curly, it does develop a curious habit. The Saharan cypress is, as you'd expect from the name, a rather drought-tolerant conifer. It's from the central Sahara Desert, growing above 1000 metres in eastern Algeria's Tassili n'Ajjer Mountains. It was brought to the attention of western scientists by Captain Duprez, the commander of a French army camp stationed nearby.
There are only 233 individual Saharan cypresses remaining in their native habitat. They are so long-lived—the oldest is dated at 2,300 years old—that each tree has its own name. In the local Tamashek language these names relate to location (The One Near The Flat Stones), use (To Hand Things On) or perhaps an important nearby feature (Pool Of Water At Its Roots).
Tamashek also provides an intriguing common name: tarout. Tarout is a butcher's term for the windpipe and attached lungs of an animal, which, due to its wonky top, our tree will eventually have a passing resemblance to: not curly, but a little off-centre perhaps. It's also a nod to Leunig, whose father was a slaughterman, and who himself worked in abattoirs in his early years.
Temperatures in the Algerian mountains are not unlike those in Melbourne, although it does get a little hotter here in summer. Annual rainfall is variable there but is often only 30 millimetres a year, compared to our current 650 in Melbourne. While we anticipate a more extreme climate over coming decades we don't expect rainfall to drop that much. On the other hand, we are always on the lookout for plants that need less water and are able to survive the occasional drought. We expect this species will do just fine in Melbourne Gardens.
Back at Merri Creek, admiring some of the trees that have lived through recent climatic changes, I ask Leunig to name his favourite tree. After saying he loves them all dearly, he does single out the red ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), with its black-furrowed bark, and the blackwood, a wattle with a more European form. But finally he settles on the ubiquitous river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).
'They have their ways ... and the bees love them. Maybe I've got a patriotic prejudice for these local trees. They are the land, the land expressing itself, and you just bond to them quite naturally. Gradually, over a lifetime, they become quite dear to you,' he says.
In many ways Leunig has retained his childhood enchantment with nature and trees. Age does bring wisdom though, and he concludes his paean to the river red gum with 'you don't sleep under them at night of course'.
A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.