“Myrtle trees seem to live in fables,” writes the poet Andrew Sant (born in 1950), and off he goes, growing a shadowy rainforest in damp green words. The trees “grope through mists that swirl” and the poet stands in “owlish and spidery dank encampments of gloom.” This poem, ‘Myrtle Forests’, is very good.
The tree the poet praises is Nothofagus cunninghamii, which Tasmanians know as myrtle and Victorians more commonly call myrtle beech. It is distinctly unrelated to the Myrtus myrtles of the Earth’s north, which is named for a female athlete who gamely challenged the men, and won – and was punished for it by the goddess Athena by being turned into a shrub.
Andrew Sant was born in London, but spent some years in Tasmania working as a teacher and as co-editor of The Tasmanian Review (which is now Island magazine). His poems roam the globe, and they describe a strange garden of arboreal species: apple trees, birch and spruce, pines and casuarinas all fill the landscape and filter the light. There is “dried wood” and “gathered timber”. An array of birds flit between the tousled canopies of vegetation.
Sant sees Tasmania as a “skewed island, all that mountainous weather-burdened weight in west!” And it is true: don’t let the historic bickering between the towns in the north and south fool you: the division of this island is vertical. There is the difficult transylvanian west, with its “straining forests”, facing towards the worst weather and absorbing it, reprieving the “sheltered east, with its vineyards and holidays”.
But some life likes wild weather. Our humans and holidaymakers may like dry, flat, open expanses, but our myrtles will only grow in high-rainfall areas. They find gullies and valleys commodious. And if we look closely, we find whole townships of lichen, moss, fungi and fern that have adapted to grow in myrtle forests, countless species that life has chosen for this environment.
Andrew Sant claims not find himself rooted to any place. “Language, I find, is home,” says Sant, so wherever he can use English to interpret scenes, he will be at rest. He burrows into the world in search of meaning. “So that is history here,” he suddenly says in the myrtle forest, boldly thrusting his language into shadow and wood like a drill bit aiming for a core sample – centuries-old shadow and centuries-old wood, with a lineage of millennia.
One must be careful with language: after all, whoever first called this a myrtle got the words wrong.
“Consider the huon pine bowls and vases,” Sant writes elsewhere, “– one man has entered a two-thousand-year-old tunnel of cellulose with sharp tools and imagined them, he jokes, to be as perfectly preserved as sacred artefacts in an Egyptian tomb.”
The woodworker has their own poetry. I read some on a webpage advertising timber products:
“Myrtle is a striking wood with rich red, brown, and almost orange tones...It is believed the richness of colour comes from the quality of the soil it grows in. The deepest red myrtle comes from highly fertile soils on basalt.”
On the same page, links are provided to brochures, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese connoisseurs can approach these fables in their own languages.
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