If you take a walk in a wood you see different plants and animals to when you are by the sea. Its common sense really. Unsurprisingly, sharks don’t do well in leaf- litter; it blocks up the gills slits. Nasty really, especially for the shark. Different habits have different features, so you get different wildlife. No surprise in this either.
But the differences between the suburbs that surround my house do surprise. They seem to form different habitats, and often seen to hold different things to see. Not all that you see could be classed as wildlife mind you, but the point is still valid.
Over the last week I have happened to have walked through three Melbourne suburbs at more or less the same time of day. Mont Albert, where I live, East Melbourne and Richmond. (That’s Richmond, Victoria, not Richmond, Virginia nor Richmond, North Yorkshire, just so we are clear about things!) I may as well have been walking through three different biomes, even though they are all within about 20 minutes drive of each other.
One of the features that make one habitat different from another is their differing histories. Meadows that have not known the plough are places were once common flowers, reduced to rarity by cultivation, can still be found. Damp Victorian gullies, long untouched by fire, may contain Myrtle Beech trees rather than the gum trees of the neighboring, fire prone slopes. Woodlands whose soils have always known the roots of trees have a suite of flowers so typical of Ancient Woodlands that they are known as indicator species. See them and you may be stood in a place that has a direct link back to the Wildwood prehistory. These places are not untouched by man, but they have never lost their trees. Needless to say, although disappointingly, there are no such places in Mont Albert, East Melbourne or Richmond. Old Growth forest can be found in Victoria, but it is distant and remote. Not the least suburban. But even in the suburbs the trees fight back - elm suckers burst through the grass, trying to claim the land. But mowing keeps then controlled, coppiced down to just a few leaves.
The three suburbs came into being in the 1800’s. They were planned, laid out and sold a block at a time. These are not the unplanned, episodic villages of my childhood. The roads are straight, junctions tend to be right angles, streets run parallel to each other. Again, this is different to the plastic, organic feel of childhood lanes and footpaths. Both have a history written in their roads, but growing alongside these roads are trees which can tell a tale. You can fathom the history of each suburb written through what you can see. The trees speak the language of the past if you can be bothered to stop and read it.
East Melbourne is the oldest of the suburbs, laid out in 1837. Hard to believe the house I was born in was well over a hundred years old at that time! It has grassed squares with oak trees, fountains surrounded by regular footpaths. Formal spaces. These form grassy parks, echoes of Bath or Cheltenham. Crested pigeons, galahs, magpies feed on the grass, possums feed in the trees but there are defenses in place. A marsupial Mangiot line, bypassed most nights. The oaks are mature, solid if a little distressed. Many bear the scars of lost limbs, healed scabs of bark. All bear the scars of drought; bunched leaves growing densely from stems, almost like fire re-growth, dead branches stag horning through the canopy. These are trees which were planted with a confidence that time and chance has shown to be misplaced. These are English tress and this is not England.
It really was spring just a few weeks ago, but already the grass has been burnt back to brown by a week of sun shine. Hottest start to November since records began. There are strange green stripes on the grass. There must be water down there. The new street trees look limp and hot – Maples! Why do we do this? There must be no water down there.
East Melbourne also has my favourite paint chip. (OK, so I admit it, I don’t know for any other paint chips, but I am sure this would be my favourite even if I did!) It looks like a dog. It has real a form. It looks designed. Form, function and design are all parts of the claims made by creationists for the existence of God. But this dog has been made by blind chance, by salt crystals pushing out through the mortar between the bricks. If ever there was evidence that we are programmed to seek order in the universe, here it is. It would have been interesting to see how this shape had begun, a small flake and then another. Here we have apparent order without purpose, without external guidance, without target. It makes me laugh each time I see it. And I think of the order that has been created around me without purpose, without external guidance and without target other than survival. Surround by a selection of natural (but alien!) order, I keep on walking.
Richmond is a horse of another colour. Planned just two years after East Melbourne, it is about industry. This is not Bath, this is Sunderland or Cardiff. Going down to the Yarra warehouses and workers cottages were neighbours, not always good ones. The river took away the wastes, but did not remove them. It just left them elsewhere, where they lay to this day. The language the trees speak is one of absence. They are not there. Most street trees are a modern attempt at softening. Many of the warehouses have been converted to flats. I saw one in a different suburb with “Hell is other people” written in the wall – well if that’s the case don’t live in Richmond! One warehouse has been changed into a micro-brewery, a rather good one I have to say. This is a wonderful change, as brewing has become industrial it has moved away from the very heart of the city. But a cottage industry has moved in. Old fashioned beer, in an old fashioned space, supped by people who have forsaken the characterless swill of the new fashioned breweries. And it comes it pints!
Mont Albert first came about 40 years later ,as Melbourne spread and grew. Initially just a stop on the rail line to Lilydale, it was a station without a place. The place came later, but the railway was there first. The plan for the suburb included the railway. The two were one, as if they knew it was pointless to have one wothout the other. Why can’t we do this anymore? Why cant we link transport to the palce people live? We are probably past peak oil already and yet we still build more estates with no public transport. Should these people walk to work? Or go by bike or sea going gondala as levels rise? Or do all architects and planners think everybody will work from home? That may be difficult if your job involves building washing machines rather than web sites!
This is clearly not a natural environment, but the trees are less planned. Street trees are studded with gums, gardens hold trees of considerable vintage. The original vegetation has gone, but is not forgotten. There are fragments, individual trees, little patches. This is possum central! What did they eat before that could find roses or my tomatoes?
And above all this is the sky. The Australian sky. This has not be changed, not subject to planning, the natural ceiling over the suburbs. And what light it brings. Sometimes it can be so bring, so clear that it stops you from seeing. In the summer it can drain the colour from ever the most vibrant scene. Takes the landscape down to a lower tone of colour. Not black and white, but not the Kodachrome of sunset either. In the sky you can still find nature. Flocks of gulls. Bouncing groups of Black Cockatoos, their yellow tails flashing occasionally in the light. The cockatoos are winter birds, once rare over the city, but now regular, no longer reported but always worth seeing. The strange mewing and caterwauling calls float through the air. If these do not drag you from your desk to the window, from breakfast to garden, then you have lost a sense of wonder you need to re-find.
I find in the suburban sky a glimpse of the past and a vision of the way things may once have been.