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The tyranny of a city taken over by trees and their slaves

Date

Ian Warden

Are we in thrawl to our arboretum masters?

Are we in thrawl to our arboretum masters? Photo: Graham Tidy

Boomer Angles

Arriving home, suddenly, after three weeks in startlingly people-teeming Shanghai and then in fairly people-teeming Denver (in mountain-bedecked Colorado), Canberra feels shockingly underpopulated.

If this is a city, where are the citizens? Suddenly, my eyes opened wide by eye-opening Shanghai, Canberra feels like a place invaded and occupied by tyrant trees that, as part of their arbortyranny, have driven out almost all of the people, retaining just enough of us to serve them and their scheme of Limestone Plains domination. Perhaps, artfully, Canberra's trees (outnumbering human Canberrans by 1000 to one), have taken over the city, employing just a few of us as their tree-planting, tree-tending slaves.

Trees in Canberra outnumber humans by 1000 to one.

Trees in Canberra outnumber humans by 1000 to one. Photo: Craig McDonald

This would explain the otherwise inexplicable way in which we, the enslaved, have conceived and gone ahead with the Arboretum, an extravaganza of 100 forests, a temple to trees and to treedom! We thought that it was our idea, but no! It was cunningly planted (and I use that word advisedly) in our minds by our woody masters.

O n wednesday evening I took this fresh, chilling revelation with me, in my head, to the Watson Arts Centre where I had been invited, as an official ACT Living Treasure and one with strong opinions about Canberra's artists, to open a new exhibition of works by the Tin Shed Art Group.

It has long been one of my hobby horses that Canberra artists don't paint Canberra realistically and prefer painting gum trees (usually with parrots in them and with bark huts nestling among them) to painting smelly, unpicturesque, inconvenient, vista-sullying people.

I had prepared, for my speech, the withering criticism of the artists' ''Our ACT'' exhibition of depictions of ''the unexpected in Canberra'' that, typically, of its 48 leafy works 37 of them didn't contain a single human Canberran. But, enlightened by my new, Shanghai-nurtured understanding of what's happening in Canberra (this tyranny of trees) I muted my criticisms. Instead I told the painters I forgave them and realised there was a sincere realism about paintings of Canberra that ignored the city's sparse people, and showed instead a place dominated by trees. I see, now, that paintings of Canberra that emphasise people are perverse. We are unobtrusive here, in this arborocracy, this tree-lined tyranny. That it should have taken me almost to the age of 67 before making this realisation is an echo of the tragedy that befell Shakespeare's King Lear (66), becoming old before becoming wise.

I n the usa for the closing days of the presidential election campaign it struck me that Barack Obama is probably not the Great Satan prophesied in some of the more excitable passages of the Bible.

Some conservative, Bible-entranced Americans are sure that he is, but some of us find him far too decent to be a credible Great Satan.

Then there's the fact that it's unlikely that any of the Biblical prophesies, however forensic they are, can possibly apply exactly to our own times and places. It's part of the conceit of Bible-entranced patriotic Americans that they imagine, in their narcissism, that Biblical prophecy must be all about the United States and then about their (the narcissists) very own times. But there have been so many times and there are so many places on earth that it's not clear why the Great Satan would be divinely scheduled to show up in the USA, now.

What if he had his prophesied gig instead, in Neanderthal times, or in the Anatolia of 6000 BC, in 11th-century Denmark, or in an around Wagga-Wagga in the 1950s or more probably (given the awfulness of Australian Country Music) the Tamworth of the 1980s?

What if his prophesied coming will come to pass thousands, even millions of years from now? No, President Obama doesn't seem to fit the satanic profile.

Late in his campaigning, in the very last days of it, Obama did a typically droll thing when he told a rally that you could tell how hard he'd worked for his country in his first term because, look, all that effort and worry had begun to turn his hair grey! How his doting admirers laughed!

Now here's a grown-up example set to all the vain, hair-tinting mature men of the world who maintain (it must take some painstaking work in front of the mirror every morning) the pretence that they've still got the gorgeous locks they had when they were teenagers. How daft they look (Britain's Prime Minister is a famous example and we have an increasing number of these painted chaps in the Federal Parliament) as the mismatch between their eternally youthful hair and the inevitable gnarling of the accompanying faces grows more obvious every day.

My greatest disappointment about being so bald now with so little hair to do anything with is that I had so looked forward to going openly, sincerely, bravely grey. I had planned to attribute it to the stresses of my sacred calling, journalism, and to the grief felt over what has become of the once altruistic but now malignant Australian Labor Party.

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