White cypress pine
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White Cypress Pine

 (Callitris glaucophylla) Gunnedah, nsw Australia


This Old Grey is something like 500 years old. It was never milled because of the twisted grain and the lumpy lopsided branches, so it has just stood there. I love these old trees. They're masters of the sandy plains. It's got the whole history of the forests shut up in it. Just by seeing it, and looking around to see what it has seen, I can read its story. You can look nearby and count the big stumps that have been milled. You can see that it didn't have many companions. It was just growing here overlooking everything.

A marvel of these cypress pines is that they seem to exhibit passion at pollination time. The cones go off with a tiny crack and they shoot brown pollen up to two metres in the air. Occasionally around about September, a group of trees will go off together, and they just shiver with passion. In 1974, I think it was, the pollen was just rolling up from the Pilliga forests: huge black clouds, as though from a fire. By the afternoon there was so much pollen in the shearing sheds along the forest edge that they could not see to shear. I'd never expect to see that again. So many Australian marvels you're allowed to see just once in a lifetime. Australia mostly keeps its wonders hidden.

The white cypress pine has glorious timber. Especially for flooring. It glows... and then there are the brown whorls of the knots. They really seem to be moving among the yellow. Another thing I love about them is that all the new growth seems to be saying, "Look at me! I'm only growing because you upset this country!" Instead of the four to six trees to the hectare of pre-European times, we now have perhaps 200,000. Sometimes they come up so thickly that they don't do anything, they won't com­pete. They might be 100 years old and three centimetres in diameter. So many of the cypress pines growing now are com­pletely unnatural, because all the animals that used to keep them under control have gone. All these small trees are a fair age, so they could be seeds from this tree.

From a distance the lichen on white cypress looks pale green and woolly. It usually affects groups of trees, and eventually kills them. If after rain you go into areas of the forest where it's thick with lichen, in the gentle after-rain light, the lichen gets a silver glow and you can't see any form to the tree whatsoever - just this marvellous silver glow in the air. It only lasts seconds before the sun alters its angle.

It wasn't until late 1968 when I moved to Baradine, that I first noticed the white cypress pine. I was 45 years old. My understanding of the Pilliga came gradually, through stories from old men. The whole forest just looked primeval. You could wander into parts of it and think you might have been the first man ever there.

The old men started telling me, "You know, this was once all open country". They'd say, "Twenty-five years ago I shepherded 2000 sheep out there and I could watch every one of them, now if I walked 20 yards [18 metres] off the road and didn't watch where I was going I'd bloody get lost."

This tree has not had any particular influence on our national psyche - but I think it ought to. Only a handful of people would even know what it was, or even realise the significance of it when it was explained to them. Most Australians are urban dwellers and its almost impossible to explain something like this to them. Dramatic history just passes them by.

This Old Grey has certainly seen some changes. It came to life in open grassland and died in heavy forest.

Eric Rolls is a poet and historian.

iGreen comment

This article is reprinted from Australian Geographic Tree Stories, by Peter Solness. Australian Geographic Pty Ltd. PO Box 321, Terry Hills NSW. Australia.   To be reviewed by us in the near future.   

Rolls is describing reforestation, occurring in our lifetime in Australia.   Not a plantation monoculture but a real forest that as Rolls says "just looked primeval".    The cause is reduced demand for sheep products worldwide.  Bad news for Australian wool farmers undercut by improved synthetic fibres, but good news for fashion victims and environmentalists.

Jim Thornton


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Last modified: February 11, 2006