[Editor: This article, about wattle trees, was published in The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 31 August 1889.]
By F. M.
The time of the blossoming of the wattle has come to us again. And yesterday I saw wattle bloom, a dozen golden bells and a spray of feathery leaf tossed down amongst the garden flowers on one of our city stalls. We know what infinite variety of gold is there now — the pale cold primrose, the warmth of the crocus cup, the many tints and tones of the narcissus tribe, daffodil, jonquil, and what not, with creamy hyacinths and satin pleats of the cloth of gold roses; but was there any found fairer, warmer, brighter, more lustrous than our own native, we might almost say national, wattle? I think not. This common bush flower, this scrap of our spring-tide garment which is flung now over millions of our broad acres, was placed mid most of all the garden treasures, and fairly outshone them all. Of our spring-tide garment did I say? Should it not rather be said of our sole Australian banner, which should be nought else than the blue of our everlasting sky powdered thick with our spring-tide gold?
It is marvellous how generous nature has been to us with the wattle, how it builds our rivers, lights our forests, shines amongst the monotonous box scrub of a dreary plains, like some fair white woman, of whom old stories tell, cherished or worshipped amongst the dusky aborigines. And yet we have no song, no literature for our wattle. No song, no literature, alas! for anything of Australian birth or growth. Violet, Daphne, narcissus, rose, lily, shine embodied in mythology, enshrined in story and song, emblematical as sweet. Was our fair flower born too late? May we say as one of the sweetest of all England’s singers to his Psyche —
“O, latest born, and lovelies vision fair,
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phœbe’s sapphire reigned star
Or vesper amorous glow worm of the sky;
Fairer than these though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale mouthed prophet dreaming.
It’s a wonderfully, beautiful invocation; it seems to ring true this want, this plaint, of our neglected divinity. And as there may be some singing voices forming now amongst us, I will carry the invocation a little further in the hope possibly that it may bring to pass a similar dedication of gifts.
“O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retired
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans
Fluttering amongst the faint Olympians,
I see and sing by mine own eyes inspired.
So let this be thy choir and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours,
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swirled censer teeming,
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.
Holy air, earth, water, leaf, and tree come but by this blessed consecration and dedication of human genius. The man blesses them, and they are blessed; enshrines them of his own act, and they remain so for ever. Ovid raised temples wherein the creatures of his love live for ever.
And there is really something which savours of divinity about the universality and the beauty of the wattle flower of ours. Is it the cast-off mantle of a something departed, or the abiding symbol of a presence once familiar to the land as the stars to the sky of the south
“Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,”
and therefore passing away, but not wholly?
In the musings of the great solitudes of Australia strange thoughts come to men, and I chanced there once on something like a legend wrought out of reflection, which seemed somewhat poetic, and not altogether crazed. It was written “Of the wattle tree and the myall, and their life and their origin,” and it spoke with a belief absolute and implicit as that of the fond-believing lyre of the other world and the elder days.
“When yet even the Australian world was young,” ran my legend, “there were visitants here of whom other lands have also known somewhat, but not surely. Far away in golden ages, when the larger hopes of the higher powers in the future of the human race were yet warm, the sons of God came frequently down to this poor world, with intent to minister to its wants, its ignorance, its misery. Whence out of the vast of the universe they came who knows? But this may be told, that two beings not of this earth did in mankind’s early days quit some larger sphere of nobler life, in pity of the selfishness and wickedness which caused this poor planet to make perpetual moan in its orbit, and discord with the universal harmonies. They were nameless and strange wherever they journeyed and sojourned, and it was impossible that any should do them harm, for they were not as mortal creatures, but passed at will over any earth space in what form soever they chose to assume. They had been lying in the world thousands of years, maybe. They had watched nations and empires rise and fall, and creed after creed pass into contempt. Their mission was very simple, the same which lies professedly at the root of all great religions, but is dead in their life, and lacking in their influences, as a reasonable hope of immortality in the general mind of man. It was when the Christian hope had been last in endless controversy, fanaticism, and conscious pride of power, that the two sad wanderers passed away from the northern world, corrupt beyond redemption with its barbarism and cruelty, and came at length, and with little hope, to the island continent of the south, to whatever of mankind they might find there. There hope was, as ever, to establish the truth. They knew that true greatness can only grow and higher communion will only be possible when human nature founds itself on a mission of love and not of selfishness. The crime of selfishness is the band of isolation between this world and all others. Tree spoils tree, heart fights heart, man cheats man. All is corrupt, all is abominable, all exposed to high order; and therefore till all is changed we are for ever shut out. Ten thousand, and ten million worlds beyond, enjoy communion; and intelligences and powers pass and repass, and none works the other any harm, because none is possessed of such a desire. But the meanest soul which ever confessed to what is called greatness of humanity might carry infection there. Hence none will ever pass till the general nature is utterly changed.
All thus knew the two beings who had willingly endured such martyrdom as mankind conceives not of. For entering on their great labour they knew that without full accomplishment they could never return. The sorrows of thousands of years of labour, of innumerable quenched hopes, of ever receding glory, amid ever deepening woe, oppressed them heavily. They had cast of the life of the world which had seemed progressive and had been great behind them. They had entered on the last land, which had never raised temple, or palace, or city, or town, or bowed itself to the human yoke. But when they saw how harsh, how cruel was all the nature of this world, even when man’s domination was unknown, their sorrows increased yet more, and the little hope remaining to them was utterly relinquished. Vast and sad and gloomy were all the forests; huge, uncouth, and cruel their denizens, lacking fierceness, perhaps, but knowing no love or tenderness. Monsters of other sorts on the plains, harmless, but the very idiots of animated nature. Unwieldly, inane, or savage monsters rolled about in the waters of the coast, and man seemed even lower than the beasts by reason of superior cruelty and desire of prey. This terrible realisation, overflowing the whole field of dreary, bitter memory, came so heavily upon them that they sought to change the life, which seemed indeed one endless Titanic doom. And they prayed as it was permitted them for such change as should afford the solace of oblivion; and yet — such was the unchanging greatness of their natures — might in some way bless the world they could not save. And the change came as they desired. For in the evening of a blessed day when the contrast betwixt the great and glorious heaven, and the mean and wretched earth is ever clear, they lay down by the bank of a river, whose current was brimming with the fullness of spring. And then there was a sense as of a twilight of the gods over all the land, and lamentation in the air, and much coming and going. Many stars burned brighter than is usual at the midnight hour. And when the sun rose, he looked wonderingly through the swart leaves of the great gums, for there stood a wattle in all the beauty of bloom, and near by was a myall exhaling its delicious fragrance and bowing all its silver foliage to a canopy, inviting all living creatures to rest. From the tree of gold, and the tree of silver spread the wattle and the myall to all the rivers and the plains, the forests and the mountains of Australia, the one the type of the bounty, the other of the grace and tenderness of a divine nature.”
Is it a strange, an impossible story? Of course it is, the working of a madman’s brain, to whom every Festus of the world would cry aloud, “Thou art beside thyself, much musing hath made thee mad.” Nevertheless let all those who deem that it is in them to sing the song of Australia, listen thoughtfully to the madness of such musings, for therein they may find guests worthy of their entertainment. And if such a guest be found, let him be tenderly regarded even as Psyche, to return to the beginning of our phantasy once more —
“And there shall be for thee all soft delight,
That shadowy thought can win;
A bright torch and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm love in.”
There are wattle words of other sorts, and with more, maybe, of sweet and reasonable humanity about them. An Australian poem, well worth the singing, is the big Australian, you may see at times where a clump is still left on a fair green slope of our city’s suburbs. A rosy child held aloft in his arms, where the
Twixt shadow and Billie.”
Green turf beneath, stalwart manly form, erect and proud young cherub face peering up through the green and the gold to the blue beyond.
To me, however, ’tis not always with joyous, though generally with pleasant associations that the wattle blossoms come. For the pleasant things are perhaps the things we prize, even the bitter-sweet which attaches more to lose than to gain. I have always regarded the wattle and the myall as sisters and brothers, or brother and sister, and I have found them so frequently as mourners, that, like Amaranth and Asphodel, they seem for ever intermingled with life and death, and death in life. The wattle I know best and the myall I love best, are all planted near graves, memorial trees, which serve their purpose so much better than memorial stones. There is a little grave garden by a river in New South Wales, and a tall myall and wattle of and to each other from either side. The one in the month which begins to-morrow will be of silver, the other of gold. There is a long enclosure beneath the one, but the mound is very short beneath the other. Flowers and shells and sanded paths are between, and what is the story?
Well, it was a while ago, 10, 15 years, may be, and Little Poll was but just past a baby, three years old, with tongue and hair growing together, and both making sunshine whenever the one wagged and the other waved. There was a little bit of an orange grove about the house, where the golden globes gleamed like gigantic golden knobs amongst the dark and lustrous foliage, and little Poll used to run there and prattle and play. Dick (Old Dick) used to pass the oranges going down to the river to put people across in the station boat. Dick loved Poll, though he was full four-score years and Poll not yet four; and Dick was sometimes called Terrible Dick, for he had seen strange times, and, as report said, done terrible deeds. Dick was a convict once, and would tell in the hut of the cruel days when a doctor would come round to a sick man, and, feeling his pulse with the end of his stick, recommend “five-and-twenty” as a remedy. Dicks was
“Long and lank and brown,
As is the ribbed sea sand.”
Poll was a doll, a ball, a little bundle of liveliness. And — ah well! it was all the folly of a stupid blackfellow, he had a log canoe on the river, which he could paddle over safely enough, but one day he asked little missy to go out, and missy said “Iss,” and went down to the bank and crept over the stern of the canoe. Then Sam paddled out into the stream, his eyes gleaming, his teeth shining. And missy laughed and crowed, and flung her little arms abroad. Terrible Dick sculled his own boat a hundred yards down.
When Black Sam got half way over he noted a floating tree bearing down on him (the river was in flood). And he pulled hard to get ahead of it. But the floating mass came on, and Sam began to hesitate — should he race, or back; Little Missy’s father was on the other side or the river, sitting on horseback, waiting for Dick. He saw the snag, the canoe, the child “Pull, you black devil,” his voice rang out, “Pull! pull!” And the next instant the mother at the window saw him spur his horse right at the river. And the horse swerving was brought round so sharply, and spurred so hardly that he reared and fell sideways into the stream. Dick, Terrible Dick, was sculling mightily on to the snag at the same time. “Pull,” he yelled, you black ——.” It was quite impossible to report him after that, for Dick swore very bad. Nobody, however, saw him a moment later rise suddenly in his boat and dive into the water within 20ft. of the floating tree.
The blackfellow got ashore all right, the squatter was got in nearly drowned, but it was next day when Dick — Terrible Dick — was fished out from a sandspit; and his arms, which enfolded the little girl, were all hacked and scratched with the timber; but there was never a mark on her tender skin, and both were dead, quite dead. So they buried one on the one side of the little grave garden, and the other opposite; and planted a wattle above little Missy, and a myall above Terrible Dick. The morning sun strikes the gold of the wattle now and throws a long shadow right across to the long mound, and the last ray of evening touches the topmost silver tendrils of the myall, and their long shadows, like great arms, enfold the tiny grave and hold it till the deeper gloom of twilight enfold, and overwhelm all.
There is another grave garden down in Victoria here. It lies by a river-bank, and right above it lowers a great blue mountain. There is but a little township a mile away, and nobody “to mind the graves.” So the wattle grows, and now the place is a wilderness of wattle — wilderness, a scrub waste; but beautiful as unkempt and uncared for, and uncultivated Nature usually is. You are powdered with the dust, as a working bee with pollen, in seeking for any grave you may want — and how long did we seek before we found one and another both made and killed on the same day?
Years ago we had found one out on the side of the scrubby ranges. His clothes were but a bag to hold his bones. Nobody knew him. We wasted a day over his burying, and met at the graveyard gate the other one, with only a couple of mates at his heels. He was a sailor man, a decent young fellow, who had run away, and gone to work down a shaft, and got under a fall. Under the wattles! Under the wattles! No more record now. Under the wattles! I remember once a fair Australian bride. They were good Australian folks, and they loved the Australian flowers, and they had decked the kirk with wattle from altar cloth to door. Our cloth of gold was everywhere, and how it gleamed and shone. Soft ivory white, and sheeny silver, and pink as of the wild heath blooms, moved down between the green and the gold, and out from the sacred arch to the great blue dome.
Under the wattles! Aye, how many a mile and through what varied scenes. By the rivers, where now their gold mingles with the amber of the tender leaves of the willows, or burns amid the eternal sombreness of the gums. Along wild tracks cut over gigantic mountains, where tall black stalks rise a hazel wands and hang vagrant tassels over the road, mingled with purple and white berries of the lilypily, or the vivid blues of the last year’s flags, which still tremble amongst the spear-like stalks. Out in the great plains, and close to the city’s smoke, the universal blazon, the bounteous surgeon of the springtime, which should for ever feed the fires of Australian patriotism, and light the Australian muse to its work of interpretation, idealisation, and achievement.
Yes. I think the universal wattle bloom should be one tie to fetter the Australian heart to its own proper hearthstone. One of many we know, and bright rather than strong; but whose strain once felt will never be forgotten, or broken, or released. It will extend to the world’s ends, and with the countless strands of kindred sentiment draw the wanderer home again.
Shall we ever see a Wattle Bloom day in Australia? Who knows? We have yet to establish all our national festivals. In worship or rejoicing we are hitherto imitative or inane.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 31 August 1889, p. 13
[Editor: Changed “briming with” to “brimming with”.]