You must imagine this Singing Garden of ours, a remote and rather unexpected patch of livelier green, set among the dark green of gum- and wattle-trees in a land without horizons. It occupies a little forest clearing, not more than three acres in extent, approached by a mountain road winding and twisting as it climbs about the timbered hills to the summit of the Great Dividing Range. So that, in the abruptness with which the garden bursts upon the traveller’s view lies much of what charm it has. This sudden vista is, perhaps, a little unexpected and something of a relief to eyes that have discovered no break for many a mile along the green-walled highway save brief glimpses of the winding road ahead and other infrequent clearings such as this, hewn laboriously by the settler out of the stubborn bush.
On every side of us tower great green battlements of giant eucalypt, of acacia and many lesser scrubs, making a barrier almost impenetrable save where the road pierces its dense shadow and leads down to the open country and the far-flung skyline — a relief to behold sometimes, after too long confinement in this pleasant prison. Here there is no remote horizon as plain-dwellers know it; for our skyline, indefinite yet intimate, is lifted high along ragged tops of the nearer trees, so that we dwell in a narrow world of our own that permits but rarely, and only from its higher eminences, restricted glimpses of a wider world below.
For far the greater part of the year it is a prison, pleasant enough and holding much content excepting, perhaps, on sodden, winter days of incessant rain when clouds drop down to wreathe the tree-tops, till the sense of close confinement renders the mind as sodden as the day and one longs acutely for the sun.
Then upon some dry summer, when the threat of forest fires is all about us, our sheltering walls themselves take their part in a menace not easy to ignore.
During the first few years of our sojourn we had witnessed many local bush-fires, disquieting enough while they raged and while the threat of their extension held. But they died young and were forgotten, leaving little sign of their passing and causing no breach in our great, living walls.
It was not until the year of the great fires, when men, women and children died horrible deaths in forest places such as this — when whole settlements were trapped to perish in the flame — that we had our one and terrifying experience of a truly great forest fire in all its ruthless might, and its magnificence.
It came upon us one sultry forenoon, heralded by a ghastly purple cloud that swiftly overspread the sky, plunging all into a horrible and uncanny twilight that seemed to foreshadow evils unimagined — a foretaste of who knows what agonizing hell.
It came to us, roaring and leaping — a solid front of flame, two miles across and as high almost as the tallest trees.
We fought it along a narrow track not fifty yards from the homes of most of us; and, as the lazy little flames of our counter-fire crept upwind to meet that raging, awe-inspiring enemy, our case seemed desperate enough. The fierce excitement and the urgent need to save, if possible, our properties — indeed, for a few terrible moments, it seemed our very lives — excluded any thought of the inevitable doom even then encompassing many a pleasant and familiar prospect we had long known and loved.
It was only after the third day, when we had dealt with the last of the destroyer’s smouldering after-rage, that we had opportunity to gauge our loss in forest beauty.
On two sides of us, where once the gay green walls had greeted us with a hundred verdant variations, now loomed black desolation. The destruction seemed utter and irremediable. The insatiable flame had licked up every last vestige of green, every twig and branch; and now the great trees stood charred and naked, lifting blackened, mutilated arms to heaven as if in bitter remonstrance; while spar and sapling were mere burnt sticks standing starkly between.
“In five years,” we thought — “may be ten years, a merciful green mantle will spring up to clothe in part this ghastly evidence of insensate destruction and the criminal carelessness of man. But now and for ever has the full beauty of this forest setting gone.”
But here we reckoned without knowledge of wise Nature’s inexplicable foresight and the truly amazing miracle of the latent leaf.
Every tall mountain-ash had gone indeed, beyond redemption; but messmate and blue-gum have secret reserves long held in readiness, astonishingly, for just such a desperate need. Hidden beneath the armour of the tough, protecting bark, these latent, embryonic leaves have been lurking, maybe for years, never to burgeon and develop and mature in outer air, except in answer to the urgent summons of dire necessity such as this.
And now, almost before the last of the smouldering logs and tree-trunks had been quenched and cooled by laggard rain, Nature — so prodigally spendthrift in many of her habits, so miraculously provident in others — hastened to call up her long dormant reserves.
Within a very few weeks little flecks and patches of vivid young green appeared upon the blackened — seemingly lifeless — trunks and limbs. For a time they seemed altogether incongruous, these joyous signs of laughing young life in a scene so darkly tragic. It made a strange picture, variously described by certain city friends of ours who gazed upon it. “A symphony in ebon and emerald!” gushed the soulfully aesthetic. “Like an army of niggers with green hair,” suggested the strictly prosaic.
These life-preserving growths, so mysteriously quickened, multiplied and developed amazingly and soon, as the eager young leaves spread joyfully to the sun, the stricken giants began to breathe again.
Young wattles too, and many of the lesser scrubs — from seeds hastened to germination by the heat of the very same fire that destroyed the parent tree — broke through black earth, made yet more fertile by the cooling ashes of the slain; and in the next year, except for here and there a glimpse of charred trunk, little evidence remained of the destroyer’s passing.
To-day we have our green walls back once more. And when we speak of the Great Fire to but half-credulous visitors, gazing upon these once again unbroken barriers of variegated green, it is hard to discover enough evidence to convince doubters that the threat was ever really serious or the havoc seemingly so hopeless and complete.
And now we are told that our rejuvenated monarchs are no longer of much use to the marauding saw-miller. Their value in the greedy eye of the ruthless, commercial profit-taker has departed. For this, too, we shamelessly offer thankfulness unqualified.
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 64-68
ebon = dark brown or black; ebony
gay = happy, joyous, carefree (may also mean well-decorated, bright, attractive) (in modern times it may especially refer to a homosexual, especially a male homosexual; may also refer to something which is no good, pathetic, useless)
verdant = countryside covered with lush green grass or other plant life; may also refer to the colour green, or to someone who is “green” (i.e. lacking experience, judgment, or sophistication)