‘Sometimes people ask me,’ said the Blue Gum*, ‘Don’t you mind when the termites hollow out your innards, your limbs drop, the parrots chew your skin to make new holes, the moths and beetles tunnel into your wood, and the cicadas suck your sap?’
‘Yes, I sometimes wonder that,’ said the Squirrel Glider.
‘And I say “No”,’ said the tree. ‘I like giving back to the community. We are all part of each other – the Kinship of All. This is how I want to live, and how I want to die. How sad it would be to live a life alone, to never give, to never receive, to never be part of conversations, or jokes, or witness the life growing all around me. I create this way. I record history this way. Nothing is wasted. What is waste?’
The animals sat quietly, wondering what the Elder would say next.
‘So I will tell you the story of the Selfish Tree.’ said Blue Gum. And he began.
Once there was a tree, a Blue Gum tree, that wanted to live forever. It decided to hoard all of its energy and its water, and not share anything with anyone.
The tree was lucky at first – it had landed as a seed in a good place, and because it had received plenty of water and plenty of light, it had grown into a strong little seedling, and then grown even bigger into a tall, promising sapling. Everyone admired its upright trunk, its bright grey, satiny bark, and thick crown of dull grey-green leaves that tossed handsomely in the wind. After many years of good growth, the tree started to think it was a very fine and important tree, different from the rest. And that it should try to live forever.
Two of its large lower branches had now died, and fallen away, and hollows had formed in the stumps. In one hollow a Rainbow Lorikeet was sitting on eggs. In another hollow, a trio of microbats were snuggled together, sleeping. But the tree decided to have none of this. ‘Out! Out!’ rumbled the tree, and it sealed up the hollows. The bird and the bats flew away in fright, and the little white lorikeet eggs tumbled to the ground and were broken.
‘I will not tolerate creatures that weaken and disfigure my body!’ said the tree. The Rainbow Lorikeet had many friends, and they all flew about the tree, shrieking in surprise and disgust. Because they had never seen such a thing – a tree that sealed up its hollows!
Then winter came, and winter in this place was marked by fine sunny days, and cool crisp nights. The Blue Gum began to flower, and soon its crown was covered in large, creamy-pink blossoms. Each flower had a little pointed cap that would pop off and reveal a shock of soft, hair-like stamens around a cup of sweet nectar. The birds and the bees would come to feast through the day, and the bats and the gliders and the moths would sup in the night. For the nectar and the pollen of the Blue Gum was treasured by many of the animals around those parts.
‘Mmmmmmm… nectar of the Blue Gum,’ said the glider, looking dreamy, while Flying Fox smacked his lips in noisy approval.
But this Blue Gum tree didn’t want to share with anyone else. It wanted to keep all of the energy it made from the sun for growing wood and leaves and roots. So that winter it made all of its flowers shrivel up and die, and no gumnuts or seeds were formed. And it decided not to grow flowers ever again. When the birds and the bats and the gliders and the insects came to look for the flowers, they were shocked and sad, because all of the flowers were dry, brown and dead; even the fat, swollen buds that had not yet shed their pointed caps. The tree looked very odd. The animals went away, and dined on other flowering Blue Gums. They began to avoid the Selfish Tree, as that is what they began to call it.
Some animals still visited the tree. Koala and Possum and Greater Glider still liked to nibble the Selfish Tree’s leaves at night. Surely the tree would not complain about this, as it had so many leaves? There seemed to be plenty to share.
But one night, not long after all of the flowers had fallen off the tree, the Selfish Tree began to vibrate its limbs angrily.
‘Get off me! Leave me alone!’ it cried. Greater Glider gave a start. Possum thought it was most irregular.
Koala looked up from his dozy munchings, with half a gumleaf sticking out of his mouth and said, ‘Leaf me alone? That’s sort of funny.’ But the tree had no time for jokes.
‘I’ll call the Powerful Owl!’ threatened the tree. Possum and Greater Glider were outraged. This was a very low trick of the Selfish Tree, as Powerful Owls eat possums and gliders for dinner. In fact, the local Powerful Owl had eaten Greater Glider’s aunty only a few weeks before.
So Possum climbed down from the tree, and Glider ran up to the topmost branches and glided away. Koala, seeing he was the only one left, thought he’d better bumble off too.
Now hardly any of the bigger animals visited the tree. No birds would sing in its branches, and no possums would climb up its trunk. The insects that eat leaves and twigs and wood began to multiply because there were no bigger animals to eat them. And even though the tree would shake its twigs and tried to hiss angry words at the insects, they didn’t listen. They just held onto the tree, and kept chewing the leaves and making holes in the wood, and continued to suck up the sap through their drinking-straw mouths. The little birds that eat insects stayed away. The parrots that would have eaten the wood-borers stayed away. The squirrel gliders and microbats that would have also eaten the insects stayed away too, as there were no hollows in the tree. And everyone was a bit scared of the Selfish Tree. Soon, the tree’s fine crown of leaves began to look all ragged and sparse, and many of its upper branches had no leaves at all.
The tree was not going to give up though. It stubbornly stuck to its plan. ‘I am going to live forever!’ it said, although nobody was listening. It then decided to give out no more oxygen from its leaves. ‘Why should I give all of these animals oxygen to breathe?’ it said. It would hold its breath.
The day it decided to hold its breath was a hot, sunny summer day. So it wasn’t long before the tree began to heat up, to suffocate, and to die. The tree became dizzy. It felt very sick. But nobody noticed. Further away, it could see the other trees, full of the flashing rainbow colours of the lorikeets as they raised families in the hollows; the leaves were rustling with Blue-faced Honeyeaters, and Scarlet Honeyeaters, and pardalotes, and many other birds eating the insects. Kingfishers darted to and from other hollows. A Crested Hawk plucked stick insects from the upper branches, and a large black-cockatoo was tearing open a dead branch to get at some fat beetle grubs.
And the Selfish Tree was suddenly overcome with feelings of fear and sadness and loneliness. For if it was to die, no one would miss it. No birds or possums or bats. The insects wouldn’t care. It would just die, and then rot to the ground. Alone.
The tree remembered that when it was a little seedling, trying to make its way in the world, how the leaves and branches and dead fallen trunks and feathers and droppings of all the other living things had fed its roots, and how they still fed its roots now. It remembered all the good things about having the many different kinds of creatures around, even if it had to share nectar and pollen and leaves and wood, and sometimes got a bit damaged.
The Selfish Tree let out an enormous gasp of oxygen, and then took a huge breath of carbon dioxide. It began to breathe again. And it decided to mend its ways. It began growing flowers, which would have extra-sugary nectar – and lots of it. And super-rich pollen. It dropped a few of its largest limbs, on purpose, and the stumps of these limbs made the most beautiful cool and deep hollows.
After a while, the animals returned. The birds sang in the tree’s branches, and possums and bats curled up in the hollows. The insects were kept down to manageable levels, so the tree once again had a handsome crown of tossing, dull-green leaves. The tree grew even bigger and grander and wider, but also knobbly and haggard and full of hollows and creatures and dead branches and dusty termite galleries.
But the tree didn’t mind. It was loved by all, and many years later, it realised that it had created a community from its long life. And when the tree gently passed away one warm summer evening, it didn’t really notice at all; its gift lived on in the many creatures that still lived in its body, and had been born and raised in its branches. And its wood and leaves slowly disappeared back into the earth, to feed the next great tree that would grow in its place.
When Blue Gum had finished the story, the animals were silent. It was like they had been given a very special, very rare gift, and none of them knew what to say.
Originally published on www.paperbarkwriter.com, this is an excerpt from a children’s book by Paula Peeters, based on the wildlife of Second Lagoon, Sandgate, and surrounding areas, in the northern suburbs of Brisbane. Titled Stories from the Wildworld, the book includes a number of ‘ecological fairytales’ like this one. Paula is experimenting with how stories can be used to communicate ideas about nature, ecology and conservation.
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* Eucalyptus tereticornis, also known as the Forest Red Gum.
Banner image courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.