Dear to my heart

At about this time of the year, or a little earlier, here in Canberra, letters appear in the press and gardening correspondents importune their readers to extol the virtues of the compost heap.

Australian native trees are almost all evergreen (if one can use such an expression about trees shaded from red to yellow to blue to gray), and they quietly shed their leaves all the year enough. But in the Australian capital a tree-minded government has been profligate with deciduous imports from the Northern Hemisphere -- British oaks and elms, beeches and birches and poplars and willows; American pin oaks and maples, mountain ashes and liquidambars. They make the place glorious in the autumn, and shed their leaves with superabundant generosity as winter sets in.

And that's when the horticultural reporters, the conservationists, the "nature's way" enthusiasts, the antipollutionists, the purveyors of rakes and wheelbarrows, all get to work on the humble citizenry, bullying and badgering and cajoling us into not wasting a single leaf but tumbrilling the lot into the compost bin or mound, there to be turned into next year's manure. Recipes for richer, smellier, more potent compost fill the gardening columns. And parallel to the inducements, the confident promise of golden blooms and succulent vegetables, is the withering scorn, the high-minded condemnation of that ultimate sinner -- the man who BURNS HIS LEAVES.

Now I am a conservative, law-abiding fellow, usually ready to be browbeaten by the latest conventional wisdom. Further, we have in our modest garden a rowanberry, a vast claret ash, an equally vast Chinese elm, two silver birches, a box elder, a dogwood, an apple, a crab apple and two ornamental grapes with flaming leaves and remarkable perambulatory powers.Among them all, they provide us with a very respectable -- indeed an almost insurmountable -- pile of compost. But we also have (praise be!) five or six trees of the native genus Eucalptus,m which my encyclopaedia declares comes in 400 species, popularly, though erroneously . . . known as gumtrees."

Whatever the botanists may say, they are gum trees to most Australiams and gum trees they will remain.

I have no temptation to burn the leaves of oak, ash or maple, although it's a pleasant enough occupation on a lazy day, leaning on a rake and chatting to a neighbor. But there is nothing so definably, so sweetly pungent, as the smell of burning gum leaves. Many a fire have I made of them, and many more will I make.

Not that you need to burn them to enjoy them.Rub a fresh gum leaf between the fingers and you catch its clear scent. As boys, we used to peel back the fleshy part of the leaf, leaving the membrane which, when placed against the lips behind a comb, gave the voice a nasal, instrumental quality.

When overseas visitors come to Canberra, we usually take them to the Tidbinbilla nature reserve in the Brindabella ranges, where kangaroos bound and abound, inquisitive emus strut the roads, and shy koalas cling high to their favourite species of gum trees in the rain forest. There, late on a still afternoon, the smell of eucalypt hangs in the air, striking the senses as strongly as the music of native birds, waterfalls and crickets.

I travel the world widely, and have lived in Asia, America and England. The eucalypt has done some travelling of its own, especially to California and North Africa. We all have our pet nostalgias, and smells are part of them. Native-born to this "wide, brown land," I feel a special call, a heart's tug, at those things that seem to me especially, essentially Australian: at the sight of these blue, blue hills; at the irreverent, other- wordly laughter of the kookaburra; and perhaps above all at the tangy smell of gum leaves from smoke curling upward in the crisp autumn air.

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