City of trees

City of Trees

For a city is an organic entity despite what artificial constraints are laid into it. It has nerves and arteries, bones and muscle, it sends its own messages through unintelligible neural pathways, it exists above and beyond and beneath its denizens. It has its own law of being, a logic peculiar to its own existence. It evolves and decays, nursing wounds and baring scar tissue; more importantly it desires to exist beyond its makers. (1)


When I first came to the city of many trees, with all the arrogance and impatience of youth, I could neither see nor acknowledge it. It lived behind a veil of ambiguous mythology, and in any case I wasn’t staying. Like every one else, I was just passing through, a brief stopover in another of life’s little transit lounges. The myth was distasteful, the city was soulless, city of suits, briefcases, politicians; it was obligatory to cultivate an urbane and vaguely apologetic attitude to the minor sin of actually inhabiting the same public space as these irritating occupants. Besides it was not the kind of city that steals a heart, it was too brittle; it was the incarnation of Nationhood with its unrelenting Canon of state architecture, its manicured streets, its little lives and its contrived perfection. Therefore I was careless in defending myself. It was some time before I realised that late autumn sunsets had begun to impale themselves in my dreams, that winter mornings could capture the fragility of a web of veins on a frosty morning and that the stars reflected in still waters were unravelling in the night sky. But this was not the city, I told myself, this was the place that the city had been imposed on and therefore I absolved myself of heresy. And I began to forget how easily the trees and the hiss of autumn and green nubs of spring had glided into my blood and the geography of place had become engraved beneath the surface of the life that the city and I shared. Because I wasn’t staying, I’m still not staying, I just don’t seem to leave.

If we are to pontificate on cities and love, and write them, then let it be the white coke rush of New York, or Athens in summer and lust behind wooden shutters, waking to fling open a window on the Acropolis; or Galway weeping music into the floodtides of spring. Not Canberra, as dry as alchemy, it can burn into your bones; it is subtle and clever and replete with contradiction. Too many young people die here and too many artists live out long and productive lives, shaping work on the frame of the city’s loom. There is no easy mystique, no coat hanger to shape the fabric of its apparent couture. Sometimes I think the city of trees is all female, that it is shamelessly chameleon, artful in seduction, a mistress to all and a wife to none. So I told myself that I really didn’t live here, but somehow co-existed in a space with many others. Therefore I could remain secure in my huge house where the green of trees seeps through windows and is refracted on the ceiling, and ground parrots and mountain lorikeets flash like rainbows in the air; and occasionally a wedge tail eagle will seer through the white afternoon of summer, and leave me breathless with its beauty. But there are some things about both women and cities that remain consistent. I should have remembered that.
Neither cities nor women, of quality, take easily to superficiality nor do they tolerate rather cheap intellectual conceits. So, in the end, the city of trees had its way with me and I was inducted into its depths and ascended its heights. I found patches of sunlight in alleys, white-faced children, the garrulous chatter of sparrows and old men playing chess and always an air of cynicism. The masks that we wear to distort our vision of ourselves and the city that we live in. Despite this the city and I became easier with each other, we knew the rhythm and flow of moons and seasons; we saw people reflected in the wild, difficult waters of the lake in winter and we saw the blaze of summer reflected in their eyes. City of strange ghosts. To know a city you must know its dead, its memories, its fragile weaving of common dreams. As Italo Calvino writes
each man bears in his mind a city made of his differences, a city without form which only the individual can fill up. Why then does the city exist? What line separates the inside from the outside, the rumble of wheels from the howl of wolves?
Calvino rightly intuits that the nature of city is polytheistic and that it functions on an archetypal level. For a city is always partly a citadel, a fortress to wall out the barbarians roaming beyond the boundaries of human and familial security. Equally the city must somehow contain the barbarian within, the volatility of the untamed and the wild. Each city constellates a set of contradictory ideas, a layered and richly textured set of collective experiences and people who are coerced into co-existence in the streets, on roads, in the suburbs and beyond. For even a city such as Canberra, which must bear the weight of National signifiers across every spectrum of endeavour, is still only a little more that the sum of its collective human constituents, whether they be Prime Ministers or street cleaners. It is the conflict between how the city of trees is perceived and how it actually functions which makes it such an uneasy and ambiguous construct. And far beneath this conflict is an older and deeper set of wounds that resonate from a brutal past, the white invaders’ punishing and lethal conquest of the Monaro and its ancient tribal nations. A city is never one thing, it is many, coloured and shaped by a myriad of possibilities and experiences, it is an organic entity. Each facet of its existence, people, architecture, natural environment and all their accompanying histories somehow exchange an incremental energy and become something else entirely different.
In the case of the city of trees, it is past time that I admitted that I have long been entangled in its roots and that sometimes my hair will unfurl as the wind plays through the branches. In summer we abide in greenness, in spring we are as volatile and tempestuous as any new being born into the cruel month of wind; in winter we seek earth and old mystery and in autumn we immerse ourselves in music, for only music understands the labyrinthine ways of trees and the heart.

Kate McNamara
September, 2001.
1. Kate McNamara, Malkeith, a short story in The City Project AGP and Ern Malley Press, Canberra, 1999
2. Italo Calvino Invisible Cities, Picador, London, 1974
Kate McNamara Copyright 2001

1 Comment

  1. December 19, 2008 at 1:39 am

    Yes I think the alpine environs are a striking aspect of Canberra. I wonder if they were part of Marion and Walter’s original plan?

    As I read it, the point of Calvino’s Invisible Cities was the city was a free-floating series of signifiers, rapidly regurgitated in a travelogue or an Arabesque. This kind of post-structuralism is problematic: the sensuous practical nature of the city vanishes into symbolic structures, a baby thrown out with the wash of the ‘signified.’

    More relevantly here, Calvino does not intuit the ‘archetypal’ — in fact the opposite. Urban variety is not merely superficial but fundamental; maybe ‘polytheism’ is better, but still…

    Calvino would reject the need for archetypes as an essentialist attempt to impose order where there is ‘really’ only movement. His problem then becomes how to define an urban sense at all (for me the opening quote above is a wrestling match, not a declaration).

    This sense of flux is surely the mainstay of Invisible Cities, even for someone like me who is no deep reader of Calvino. In fact I hated the book; I read it as an attempt to hijack into pure symbolism an actual sensuous practical attempt to change the city, i.e. a ‘real’ one in a fuller sense of ‘real’. Namely, of course, Paris May 1968.

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