Essay

The casuarina forest

The she-oak (casuarina) is a melancholy kind of tree, with feathery leaves that hang in fringes from short stems... [it] whispers and murmurs in the wind, making noises that early settlers compared 
to a harp.

 

AT THE VERY northern tip of the 36-kilometre strip of beach and headland and high-rise buildings that constitute the Gold Coast, where the sand ends abruptly at the boulders of the sea wall, is a casuarina forest.

I found it by chance. I had returned to live on the Gold Coast after 25 years. I settled at Main Beach. I no longer recognised it.

When I was young, it was nothing more than an afterthought of a suburb in the shadows of Surfers Paradise. Hardly a suburb. Just the final outpost before the wilds of The Spit. It was the coast's last patrolled beach, full of low-level fibro and brick houses, populated by surfies and nurses. There were drugs there, so they said. And an abandoned hospital, with nothing between it and the dunes, where they say the deranged once stayed to get better.

A friend of mine lived in the hospital. He and his mother were the caretakers. I remember walking through its cold and empty corridors and being transfixed by the operating room, which still had its central table and empty shelves on the walls. From the dark room we could hear the surf.

Now, it is a place strafed with shadows from towering apartment buildings. The shadows move in unison throughout the day, like the shadows of giant sundials.

One morning in the late spring of my return I noticed a strange archway of casuarina trees at the northern end of the Main Beach surfside car park. Beyond the music of the poker machines drifting out of the wide windows of the surf club, and the lifesaver's tower, and the old bathing pavilion, the gnarled trunks of the casuarinas on either side of the archway were tall and interlocked.

I stood beneath the archway and when the wind came in off the ocean the trunks grated against each other and creaked and groaned like a ship's rigging, and the thin pine needle-like leaves gave up their sad music. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I had heard this music before.

For almost two months, trying to settle into a place where I now felt a stranger, I thought about the entrance to the forest. Day after day the sundial shadows continued to shift around me. A few hundred metres away, beyond the trendy strip of bars and restaurants in Tedder Avenue, and the million-dollar villas that looked like they belonged in Malaga or Malibu or Miami, great tides were also shifting and moving the sandbanks of the Broadwater.

And it was how I felt. That my past had shifted. That everything I had known about this place had at some point moved from beneath me, like the sandbanks.

I understood very little of this landscape I had once called home. Until I entered the casuarina forest.

 

Though urban growth has destroyed huge numbers of she-oak, they are still relatively common around the ... southern Queensland coast.

 

IN THE 1960s you knew you had arrived at the Gold Coast when the small clutch of palm trees came into view.

We lived in Brisbane and as children must have seen palm trees before, scattered around our subtropical city. They may have been eclipsed by the great crowns of Moreton Bay figs and jacarandas, and the poincianas with their canoe-like pods. But there were small and lonely stands of them across the city, the seeds of which had somehow arrived on the winds that coursed across town and were dropped in unexpected places – suburban backyards, the edges of creeks, beside the greening statues of lions and Queen Victoria right in the middle of the CBD.

The palms at the coast, however, exactly where the highway struck a T-junction at the Broadwater, bent like brackets, were ragged of head, and meant the start of summer holidays.  When you saw the palm trees you wound down the windows of the old Holden station wagon and gave a small cheer. The cabin of the car would become infused with the smell of salt and mud from the mangrove islands. It was a world away from Brisbane.

We camped. Straight after Christmas through to the end of January. At Tallebudgera. North, over the Burleigh Bluff, my grandparents camped too, in their caravan in Rudd Park. They had the same small concrete apron every year for decades, just as they had the same house in Brisbane all their lives. It was the way it was. And we, beyond the heavily wooded whale-like bulk of Burleigh reserve, camped in a tent alongside other tents in microcosmic but identical cartographic positioning from them as we did in Brisbane. Families shifted together even on holiday, like clusters of stars, fixed forever in the universe.

In the cool of the evenings we would all walk through the dunes at Burleigh Heads beach, on the way back from the cinema or the lucky wheel on the driveway of the ambulance station, and my grandfather would talk about how the light-horsemen trained here for the war. For years, on those walks, I always thought I could see the horses in the distant darkness, a part of the dark, their manes finer than the dune grass.

On those vacations the days were long and just like at home they developed their own routine. They might begin with the trip to the Miami Ice Factory, where you would wait excitedly at the bottom of a wooden ramp for the large blocks of ice to come splintering down to you. The blocks would sit on the back seat of the station wagon, wrapped in old hessian.

Later, in the heat, you'd find a spot under the feathery casuarinas where you would drift in and out of sleep, and the shade of the needle-like leaves of the trees was always pale grey and the perimeters of the shade was so fine it was itself like the edge of sleep. Under the towel you'd feel the tiny casuarina cones pressing gently into your skin.

When a breeze pushed up the mouth of Tallebudgera Creek and flumed over the bridge and strafed the back of the caravan park where you swam and slept all day, the trees would talk to you.

This was the '60s. In between the glamour spots of Surfers Paradise and Coolangatta, thousands of ordinary families lived for a single month with nothing but sheets of canvas between them and the world. While the young and well-to-do had supper in exotic dance clubs or drank cocktails around the pool at the Pink Poodle Motel or the Sands, we huddled in the dull yellow lights of lanterns, and great plumes of kerosene smoke lifted into the air.

In 1788, Port Jackson Aborigines were seen taking whole cylinders of bark from trees to make into canoes, and it is believed that the trees were probably ... she-oaks. Early settlers used these trees to make shingles and may have named them after the English she-oak because of its grain and woodworking characteristics.

 

ALONG THE FIRST kilometre of the trail into the casuarina forest you leave the coast of the 21st century, and you don't. The trees are sporadic and the leaves of each tree reach out and touch the next, but you can still see the present, as if through a thin nylon curtain.

Through the curtain is the small fenced yard beside the yacht club, where fishing boats and yachts are hoisted out and relieved of barnacles, and further down the strange Marina Mirage complex looking, through the shivering casuarina leaves, like a cluster of stiff, folded dining napkins.

There is a gap in the forest here, past the open-sided gymnasium at the back of the Sheraton-Mirage, then the hotel itself, facing the Pacific. This elaborate monument of pools and swans, of polished brass and sheets of marble, was the dream, and tombstone, of one of the country's many lost tycoons.

If you look west from the narrow boardwalk between the ocean and the hotel you can see into the wide windows of the hotel rooms, the maids making beds, women leaning into mirrors applying make-up before dining, men in dressing gowns staring out to the horizon, and already it seems part of a golden age, when hotels like this were hatched in the minds of ambitious millionaires, the plans drawn crudely on tablecloths over long lunches.

Without the protection of the forest, where you can disappear into the past, you can still smell wealth and power drifting out from the hotel and riffling through the grass in the dunes. You could be in the Bahamas, or Hawaii, or Florida. Or anywhere where the notions of businessmen meet the ocean.

Has it ever been any different, this collision? This unimaginative gathering of the symbols of human relaxation and opulence? Lobby. Pillars. Brass. Marble. Pool. Bar. Window. And out that window, a strip of green and yellow, then yellow, then blue. The tricolours of every developer all over the world.

Just past the hotel, the forest resumes. The smell of the trees and undergrowth is profound, and you are back to how the coast must have been a long time ago, still within sight of the ghostly hulk of the Sheraton. In the distance you can hear the screams of people on the roller-coasters and other rides at Sea World above the pulse of the casuarinas.

 

She-oak stands have both males and female trees, about 50-50 in number, which produce male and female flowers. The female flowers are bilobed, like the forked tongue of a snake, allowing them to readily receive windblown pollen needed for fertilisation.

 

YOU JUST HAVE to look at the photographs to see how the Gold Coast was such an important landscape in our family's history.

There's one of my mother in a swimsuit, sitting atop a lifesaver's reel, with a beauty queen's sash draped over her shoulder. The picture is pale with summer sunlight, the sand almost white, the sky a milky blue, with the familiar sentinels of the Burleigh Heads pine trees in the background.

My father was there somewhere on that day, behind the line of the camera, probably dressed in those baggy khaki shorts of his, and the tightly fitting checked shirt, looking in at his future wife.

There's one of my grandfather when he was a young man, sitting and shying away from the camera, as he always did, on the beach at Burleigh. Here, where the light-horsemen trained for war, you can almost hear him thinking about the work year ahead, painting houses, and the races that afternoon, at Eagle Farm, his pennies and pounds on the nose of some distant horse. A horse standing idly in its stall before the race, unaware my grandfather's future was there with it among the damp hay and the water trough, week after week.

There's a photograph of my other grandmother with her first husband, George, who died too young of cancer. And decades later, with her second husband, who succumbed to the same disease shortly after the photograph was taken.

And my sister and me, as babies, and toddlers, and children, and teenagers. She with friends and boyfriends on the beach. Me with my first girlfriend, enjoying the moment, when life was less complicated, and we thought of nothing beyond the click of the camera.

This is where the family photographs seemed to end. The point where lives diverged and my grandparents were too old to journey to Rudd Park, and my parents moved to a high-rise overlooking the beach but kept their shutters closed to the view, and my sister married, and I said goodbye to the coast.

Then there are shots of my sister's children. And now her children are having their photographs taken on the beach with their own girlfriends, and maybe they're looking in at their future wives.

In every photograph there is sand. Dune grass. Casuarinas. Always casuarinas. And the casuarinas and the dune grass and the sand are the only things in the pictures that never change.

The tree has an aggressive rooting system that enables it to obtain the necessary moisture and nutrients from the usually dry and nutrient-deficient sandy soils.

 

WHEN I RETURNED to the Gold Coast I moved into a small flat in a block of eight units at Main Beach.

Within hours of connecting the phone I received phone calls from two carpet-cleaning companies asking if I'd like to have my unit cleaned, and a charity seeking donations.

On the third day a woman buzzed my unit asking if I'd like to join the local video store and if I did so immediately I'd receive a VIP card and the innumerable benefits this would entail.

At the end of the first week three men in ties appeared in the back garden and peered through the rear windows of the flat. They tapped politely on my screen door, presented me with a police mug-shot of a man and asked if I had seen him in the vicinity.

I said I had not. They said the man was wanted for armed robbery, was believed to have lived in the back flat, and could I call them if I saw him at any time in the near future.

In the fourth week the two carpet companies called again to see if my carpet was dirty enough to be cleaned, and two further charities, and an insurance salesman.

In the sixth week a party upstairs erupted into violence, the glass front door of the block of units was smashed, and a man was rushed to hospital with a severed artery in his arm. As it transpired, he was 10 minutes away from death by the time he reached the emergency ward.

His blood had drenched the foyer carpet and the stairs, and splashed onto the walls of the foyer and lower portions of my front door. The blood dried and darkened. A carpet cleaner, perhaps one of my regular callers, spent eight hours trying to remove the blood. But the ghost of it is still there.

In the ninth week my car was broken into, downstairs in the security car park. The policewoman who brushed the vehicle for fingerprints said it was regrettable and happening all along the coast, but at least she had a fine set of prints that may one day strike a match on the police computer.

One night, picking up milk from the nearby 24-hour convenience store, I was stopped in my tracks by the dramatic arrival of two police cars. The officers emerged from the cars and handcuffed a youth sitting outside the convenience store, and then they were gone.

On another night at dinner in a restaurant in Tedder Avenue, I made small talk with the waiters. They pointed out two regular prostitutes who were surveying the diners for wealthy men. They pointed out a drug dealer cruising Tedder Avenue in his foreign sports car.

On another night in a bar, a friend remarked on one of the drinkers, a former builder who was now a yoga and meditation guru. I met a former stock-market executive who was about to go to America to be ordained as a priest in some obscure religion. I met two Americans living nearby who either worked for Amway or the CIA, my friend was yet to decide. I was introduced to a divorcee who walked away with $10 million and bought her own bar and restaurant, but chose not to eat or drink in it. I was introduced to a property developer who said he was on the brink of making a fortune out of building service stations just as they did in the 1950s. I was introduced to a petty gangster who was now advising the state government on bullying in the workplace. I was introduced to a man who left his wife and children and job to make pornography.

Night after night I go home and there are messages on my phone from carpet cleaners, charities, marketeers, internet specialists, mobile-phone companies and real estate agents.

I am contacted by and introduced to more people than I've ever known in my life. And all of them are strangers.

 

The young she-oak cones were chewed to promote saliva in dry mouths.

 

 

THE FOREST OPENS out again for the last time at the car park opposite Sea World. Here, in the shade of the casuarinas, you can hear the screams of the roller-coaster patrons and see the plume of fire from the theme park's volcano.

You can witness, too, the strange dance of men in the car park. There are the teenage surfers and the fishermen making their way down to the beach. Then there are the men who wait in their cars for other men. Men in business shirts and ties. Pensioners in T-shirts. Shirtless men. Here they wait and watch and move slowly in their cars from one area of the car park to the other, trying to connect. The edges of the car-park bitumen are dappled with shade from the casuarinas.

Amid the screams and the bursts of oily fire, you can feel the desperation of the men, alone in the cabins of their cars, waiting.

At the northern area of the car park, the forest again takes hold. The trails through it have been officially called The Federation Walk. It may have been named to celebrate a centenary but it is unwittingly appropriate, a happenstance, where the forest itself seems to have sung its name into being as a place where you can go back in time, or be lost in it.

As you enter deeper into the casuarina forest, the detritus of car burglaries and abandoned and useless stolen goods and the odd pieces of discarded clothing give way to a more pure place, where you can glimpse the ocean through the needle leaves and observe the blue-breasted finches studded like brooches through the tree canopies, and it would not be startling to see a tall ship on the horizon, tacking its way up the coast.

... [the casuarina] is reported to tolerate calcareous soils, drought, granitic soils, poor soil, salt and sea spray, sand, waterlogging and wind.

 

MY PARENTS MOVED into a high-rise apartment 14 years ago. On a clear day you can see, from their balcony, the whale-shaped bluff that is Burleigh Heads, where they spent their summers courting.

They relocated to the apartment from a small acreage in the hinterland. They had a small creek at the bottom of the property, which nestled into the crook of a hill. Sometimes, in early mornings in winter, mist would gather among the trees in the crook and linger in wet tendrils until the sun breached the hill.

In their years in the hinterland they shared an outdoor life. Often, my father would sit astride his ride-on mower and work the hilly plot and levelled lawns for hours, even when they didn't really need mowing.

Now, in the apartment, away from the valleys and the fairy-floss mists and the smell of cut grass, they live with wooden shutters closed to the ocean and the beach and even the casuarina forest, of which they have a full and uninterrupted view all the way to the sea wall.

During the day they live in the darkened unit with the lights turned on. When I visit, I open the blinds in the kitchen with its resplendent view of the hinterland. When I leave, the blinds are closed.

On one of the balconies, my father has created a small herb and vegetable crop in terracotta pots. The space is so filled with pots it is almost impossible for him to step onto the balcony. I see him tilling the soil of his tomato plants and basil and parsley, and I know, for a while, he is back in the hinterland.

Their talk is now of the activities of their neighbours, above and below, who they rarely, if ever, see.

They debate the sounds that come down to them and rise up to them. The bark of a chair on tiles. Dull thuds. The clacking of heeled shoes.

They believe their cleaner is stealing liquor from the drinks cabinet. Change off the benches. They believe strangers are coming into the high-rise compound and helping themselves to the facilities.

They know virtually nobody in the building, yet they have names and stories about the people who live in the adjoining high-rises. People they sometimes glimpse, at eye level, 19 floors above the earth.

There's the Old Greek Lady who fanatically mops her balcony every day. There's the Lonely Woman who sometimes does her vacuuming naked. There's the Body Builder who flexes his muscles for hours in front of the mirrored wall in his lounge room. There's Peeping Tom, who trains his binoculars on my parents' building every morning and afternoon. They often wave to Peeping Tom.

If they meet somebody by chance, in the lift, or in the downstairs car park, they debate the incident for hours. What did they really mean by that comment? Was that a sarcastic smile they offered? Were they being rude? Where are they going at this hour, all dressed up and reeking of cheap perfume? What of that drug addict son of theirs? How long ago did the husband run off?

Their life is filled with chance encounters with the world and the ache of their own redundancy, and a premature ageing that if imagined long enough becomes reality.

My father has taken to turning straight to the obituaries page in the local newspaper each morning. My mother reminds me that the lift well is deep enough to accommodate a dead body.

They moved into the apartment to retire and enjoy the beach and the views.

But I have seen my father in the surf once in the past decade. My mother never. And I can't help but feel that the closed shutters are not only blocking off views to their past – at Burleigh, in the hinterland – but to the world and their own deaths.

I wonder, too, how many other people like my parents inhabit the sundials all along the coast. Shuttered away from the world, as the shadows of their buildings wheel around in tandem, day after day after day.

At night, though, all year round, my father, who sleeps closer to the wide glass sliding doors of their bedroom, opens the curtains and keeps the door ajar a few centimetres so he can hear the sea as he goes to sleep.

I like to think of him doing just that, when he was a boy, in the canvas annexe on the family caravan plot down at Rudd Park at Burleigh. The flap of the annexe roped up a little, so he could let the sea enter his dreams.

The mysticism of the she-oaks relates to the Tahitians, who believe that they arose from the warriors who died in battle, killed by clubs or spears made from its very hard wood. The warriors' hair became the foliage and their blood oozed forth once more as the red sap.

 

THE DEEPER YOU enter the forest the warmer it gets. The trees are so effective as a windbreak you can look down towards the beach from the narrow path and see gusts levelling the surf and children flying kites, and yet inside the forest it is still.

When I run through the forest I ask myself why I am here, back on the Gold Coast. Have I been trying to reclaim a landscape of my imagination? An infrastructure that has long since dissolved?

Or is it an attempt to puncture the past and inhabit a childhood that was sweet and simple and riven with the swift jade-coloured currents of Tallebudgera Creek, and brilliant stars at night, and family sitting in a circle like a strong and unbreakable human wheel on summer nights, the air as thick with sandflies and moths as stories and laughter.

It is the strongest reality I have of the Gold Coast. The lantern slides inside a child's mind. The sound of those blocks of ice hurtling down wooden runners. The hothouse of shower blocks at the caravan park. My grandparents alive. My parents young and happy. My sister's hair bleached by the surf and sun. Napping under the casuarina trees, their tiny cones indenting my skin even through a towel.

Was it magical, too, because it was a place you just visited, yet felt you knew like your own home? Just like you know the smell of someone? I never knew the Gold Coast because there was nothing to know. It is a place you visit.  What it becomes is the memory of that visit. And millions of people have visited and have their own memories, and that is what the Gold Coast is. A huge, unending, ever-expanding mosaic of memories. The biggest photograph album in the country.

It is, too, a corridor of flux. Out beyond the breakers, along the 36 kilometres of beach, there is the current that sweeps by like a highway, full of fish and seaweed and sometimes the bodies of drowned swimmers. And on the mainland there are the highways too, parallel to the beach, sweeping people in and out in constant currents.

It is why you meet yoga gurus who used to be property developers, and property developers who used to be waiters, and waiters who used to be yoga gurus. It is why you can have living next door to you four Swedish men who are here to surf for a year. And computer experts from California living around the corner. And English-born Tibetan scholars setting up a teakfurniture business in Southport.

Running through the forest, you think of all these things. Halfway in, you strike the highest point of The Federation Walk. Here, at the top of a hillock, you can see both the Broadwater, thick with shifting sandbanks, and the ocean. It is beautifully quiet here, the heart of the forest, and you belong to no specific time, and all times. You can stand on the hillock and know the bleached sundials and currents of traffic are behind you, yet if you look north you can see the channels of the Broadwater and the beginnings of a string of mangrove islands that runs all the way up to Moreton Bay.

I have been in a boat among those islands and heard, at night, the sounds of crabs moving in the ancient mud, and could have been back at the dawn of time. I have never forgotten it. That primeval landscape, and in the distance, the halo glow of the lights of the Gold Coast. I have felt that too, in the rainforests of the hinterland. And now in the casuarina forest.

A kilometre past the hillock, at a dogleg turn of the path in the forest, you again begin to hear human voices, tangled in the feathers of the casaurinas, and you enter the final tunnel of trees that brings you out at the sea wall.

It is a beautiful run, the last few hundred metres, where you suddenly see at the end of the tunnel the waters of the Southport Bar and the tip of South Stradbroke Island.

You break out of the forest and it's as far as you can go. You stop, and you're back in the 21st century. There is the small lighthouse at the end of the sea wall to your right. And the car park and snack shop to your left. The Broadwater is busy with boats. Trawlers and smaller fishing boats and cruisers traverse the bar, where the ocean meets the Broadwater. To the north-west you can see fingers of high-rise at Runaway Bay and Paradise Point.

I wonder, standing here at the wall, why I have started running again since I've been back on the Gold Coast. Running, just as I did when I was a child. Why I have to disappear into the forest for an hour each day, no matter what the state of the weather, and that if I miss a run, I feel unsettled.

Perhaps the Gold Coast is a place where you run. Towards something or away from something. To me, it seems the perfect place to run.

After five minutes at the wall I turn back. I don't say I run home, because I'm no longer sure what that is. The casuarina forest, for the moment, is more home than anything.

And invariably, by the time I re-enter the trail at the same time each afternoon, the wind has picked up and the tops of the trees are quivering and sending out their music.

It is melancholy at times. Or happy. Or eerie. Sometimes it sounds like how you feel inside. Sometimes it's the sound of memories. And other times I have no idea what the tunes mean.

Whether they're coming from an unsettled present. Or whether they're songs from an unknown future.  

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review