June 2017

Ghost gum wisdom

A “wounded” ghost gum outside Judith Scully’s window is teaching her that ageing has its own beauty and strength.

BY Judith Scully

It was March 2013, and sitting at my writing table wondering what to write for The Good Oil, I looked up, and as if for the first time, saw the ghost gum outside the window. Inspiration! I began typing.

“In the spot where a front fence would be if we had one, stands a towering ghost gum. At least 20 metres tall, it stands out among the masses of slender eucalypts that crowd the outer suburban valley where we live.”

In the weeks leading up to Easter that year I started to appreciate the tree’s scarred trunk and the gradual way that its bark gently peeled away in fading strips. Tentatively, I recognised that in God’s sign language, it was speaking to me about death and resurrection. And that’s what I wrote about.

As the months went by, this tree was finding a place in my inner storehouse, the place where memories, images and experiences hid away until unwrapped and their depths explored. Some were ‘wow’ moments, like my first glimpse of Uluru or the joyful unexpectedness of a wet season waterfall near Wadye.

I only have to close my eyes to recall the timeless, sandy road that gently curves its way past what remains of Tarella, my grandparent’s farm in the Victorian Mallee. That image lodged itself deeply within me, surfacing years later when l was looking for a name for my website. And to this day peace settles in me as I recall the baby waves that rippled softly along the beach where my family lived the year I turned 11.

Now this ghost gum was saying, “Look at me”, inviting me to admire the way the sun caught the broad brush sweeps of orange, gold and brown that splashed its soaring creamy trunk. Backdropped by the night-dark eucalypts, it kept a ghostly vigil while I slept. Day or night, I not only couldn’t escape it; I didn’t want to.

Early autumn, a year later, I heard a loud crack and looked up to see one of the ghost gum’s very large limbs falling, ever-so-slowly, onto the front drive. There it lay in the evening silence, the noise of that crack still ringing in my ears, lesser branches scattered all around it like carelessly thrown prunings.

Right through the spring it had shed its winter bark ready to absorb the summer rains, but that year they never really came. In the long, hot summer its roots struggled to find water pockets deep in the rocky ground. Gum trees self-prune, which frees up sap to flow through the spreading canopy to the furthest tips of the longest branches. My tree knew it was time to let go of its largest branch.

That was three years ago and my ghost gum is still there: its creamy white trunk stained with rusty patches, like left-out-in-the-rain corrugated iron; its height punctuated with a scattering of dead branches. Where once birds played hide and seek among the leaves, there’s seven jagged wounds. In God’s sign language, these deep scars speak to me about ageing, about the unwanted letting go that happens as the years mount up, about the woundedness that sometimes drags my spirit down when sleep eludes me.

Wounds are what’s left behind after something I’ve valued and thought was mine to have and to hold is taken away. They speak of change and loss, of life lived and people loved, of perceptions and relationships let go, of mistakes made and opportunities lost. I’m finding that’s a big part of getting older, a wisdom familiar to my ghost gum.

I leave my desk and walk down the driveway, craning my neck to see what the view from my window hides. High up a gently moving canopy of leaves leans to the left, like a woman with her hair falling over one side of her face. My ghost gum might be lopsided but it’s still vibrantly alive. Deep inside the trunk the sap runs strong and new life flows through the spreading canopy to the tips of the furtherest branches.

There’s an inner energy that I know as grace, and when I let it in I feel alive, not at all ‘old’, even if that’s what the bystander sees. This wounded tree is teaching me that ageing has its own beauty and strength, that the tragedies underlying my wounds and the pain of letting the past go, have left behind the gift of spiritual long-sightedness, the ability to see life connexions with a vividness not possible when I was younger.

In time, a pair of lorikeets, delicately boned and beautifully feathered, built a nest in the hole left by the fallen branch. They come and go, flashing life and energy in exchange for shelter, bringing value to what might appear valueless. They, and the tree that is their home, tell me that we who are older still have something to share with the world. They are telling me a story God has written in Australian sign language.

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge judithscully.com.au. Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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