Post 93, Third in the Series: “Called at the Blackbutt Tree”

This piece, also written as an assignment for Mike Jones’ class in 1972, reflects on an experience in the Bellangry State Forest during 1949. I advise the previous two posts should be read before this one. 

The giant tree crackled, teetering in the light wind. Then, with a sound like a rifle shot it broke and gathered speed, ripping a great hole in the Australian bush. Even as he ran for safety Art knew everything would be different. There should have been a logical and orderly blending of events leading to this decision. But sometimes God changes things quickly. Very quickly. Let’s begin, though, with the events of the afternoon before.

The face of the November day was paling from pink to gray twilight as Joe plodded along West Road toward the tent. A pebble in the bottom corner of his gunny sack held one end of the rope that arched over his shoulder and grabbed the top of the bag. From inside the sack came the jingle of knife and spoon against enamel plate and tin cup. Art trailed to the left of Joe. Their hobnail boots left neat patterns in the dust of the dirt road.

Rusty, a ring-tail possum, crawled to the end of her hollow limb and blinked as the brightness blurred her sight. She yawned. Still too light. Two babies snuffling around their nest of bracken leaves in the lilly-pilly tree must wait for supper, Rusty decided. Far up the ridge in the more open forest a party of laughing jackass birds chuckled raucously, then flew to their roosting tree.

“I’ll get the water.” Joe’s voice was tired yet cheery. He emptied the canvas water bag into a blackened can and hung it over the ashes of the fire. The ferns scraped softly on the empty kerosene tin and water bag as Joe headed for the stream. The containers full, he splashed cold water on his face and neck and arms. How good it was to wash away the grime and sweat of the long day.

“This comb needs a trip to the dentist,” Joe said to himself. He dipped it into the little pool between the mossy rocks. The water, the few teeth left on his comb, and some dabs with his hands got Joe’s long black hair into some semblance of order.

As Joe hung the water bag on the end of the tent pole, Art put a second billy of water over the blazing campfire. “Joe, tomorrow let’s have a treat. Remember that jello we’ve got in our food boxes?”

The older brother nodded. Trust a fifteen-year-old to think of making jello in summer. “But we can always drink it if it doesn’t set or if its melts,” he thought.

The inky-black Australian night closed in around the small clearing before the supper dishes were rinsed and lodged among the bushes to dry. Art poured two packets of jello crystals into containers, gooey from a month of moist air. It had been a little better in Parker Brothers General Store thirty miles away.

Pulling up the flap of the tent, Joe fished in the flickering firelight for an oblong case kept on a platform of two sticks under his bunk. The light glinted on silver as he sat on a log and aimed the bell of his cornet at a low angle toward the stars. A frogmouth owl had grunted “Oom” only nineteen times, but he stopped to listen, shocked. Art thought the words as Joe played:

Anywhere with Jesus over land and sea,

Telling souls in darkness of salvation free;

Ready as He summons me to go or stay,

Anywhere with Jesus when He points the way.

Not quite out of range of the mellow notes, Rusty curled her tail around a low limb of the lilly-pilly tree and slid off the branch. Swinging back and forth for a moment, she dropped to the ground, landing easily on all four feet. Her babies, stomachs firm with fresh milk, pressed close to each other in the nest. The hungry mother tested the night air, her long whiskers twitching. Yes, they would be safe, she decided. There was the still unusual scent of man, but it was far enough away.

The undergrowth muffled the chirrup of a dozen crickets as Rusty nosed her way to a clump of saplings. She climbed easily, to swing by her tail at will and clutch bunches of tender leaves flavored with eucalyptus. Flat sides bulged slowly. At last, comfortable with fresh food, the possum knew it was time to lie near her wriggling children again.

Rusty gripped a branch here and there with her long, tapered tail. But the smooth gum trunk was nearly as easy to come down as it had been to go up. Her most direct path to the lilly-pilly tree was near the strange shape which came to the forest late last summer.

By now she knew it well, but still treated it with some caution. After her babies were born, she often carried them close to it as she hunted for scraps of fruit. Nestled in her pouch, she felt sure they were safe. But once a huge, two-legged creature had stepped from the great canvas tent. Rusty remembered having to flee in terror.

Now the woolly possum eyed the silent tent, testing the cool night air where two scents mingled. One was like the native bees nest in the knot of the blackbutt tree.  But the hole had proved too small and she couldn’t claw her way to the strong sweetness inside. Yes, this too was a sweet odor. But that was the uncertain scent of man.

Testing the air a dozen times, Rusty crept toward the tent. The sweetness invited her. It pushed her fear away. Faster now, she climbed one of the short poles that help up a wooden box. The delicious smell streamed from the cracks between the boards. Rusty clawed at several cracks before half the top of the tucker box moved. She pressed her nose into the crack. The lid slipped over her ears and rested on the middle of her back. It rattled each time she moved. But what was that compared to the taste of cool runny jello?

“Hey Joe, what’s that noise?” Art’s senses slowly came to him. Sitting up in his rough bunk made from large gunny sacks stretched between two poles, he fumbled underneath the patchwork blankets. Matches, at last. The match he struck glowed, showing a rusty-red female possum halfway in the tucker box. Art lunged forward and pressed the lid against the well-padded body, but with a great heave the animal was free.

“Joe, my jello!” With the help of another match Art peered into the food box. Half the strawberry jello was gone, and he had no appetite for the rest.

Hours later as the east tuned gray, Rusty crawled down the spout of her home in the gum tree and curled into a tight ball. It was half daylight by the time Joe gathered a handful of bluegum bark and started the campfire. Red sunlight was painting the treetops when Joe and Art knelt with thankful hearts and asked for guidance and protection during the long day.

“This fellow sounds good,” Joe said an hour later as he sunk his axe a second time into a huge blackbutt. The ring of the blow told Joe the tree wasn’t rotten or eaten out by termites.  He checked the direction it should fall, while Art put the lunch bags in the shade and returned with the saw, six-feet-six-inches long. The eucalypt was six feet through. Two keen axes cut a pie-shaped gash in the front of the tree, and then the saw tore strips of straw-colored sawdust from the back. The tree broke a great open space in the forest. It was barely cut to the right lengths for the sawmill before two pairs of sap-stained hands were groping in the tucker bags for lunch.

Across the newly-bulldozed road and along a hundred yards was a taller blackbutt. The first sixty feet of its barrel was painted black by forest fires. Beyond the fibrous bark was another forty-eight feet of smooth, blue-gray trunk before the umbrella of limbs.

“Three good logs in this one,” Art suggested.

Joe nodded. He was already deciding the tree would be least likely to break and easiest to saw into lengths if it was felled beside the small gully which made a deep furrow in the hillside. He marked a place six feet from the ground where the cut should be.

Practiced hands chopped two tight notches for the falling boards three feet above the ground. With a dull plunk the boards were thrust into place. A horse-shoe like piece of steel bit into the top of each notch and held each board steady. Six inches wide, a falling board is a safe, level, springy platform for an axeman to stand on.

Early afternoon sun filtered through the leaves and blotched brown bodies, bare from the waist up. Trickles of perspiration streaked the soot and dust on Joe’s chest and dripped from Art’s eyebrows.

With their axes in the half-done face-cut, Joe and Art sat on their falling boards to rest.

“Great life, this,” Art thought. “This forest has a thousand mountains. Every one can have its adventure. Its animals and birds, its trees and plants are friends. This is real life.  I’m staying at it.”

“Enough wood in this one for at least a couple of houses,” Joe’s voice cut Art’s train of thought. He swung his axe. The sound rang through the forest. His mind still full of the delicious green of the mountains, Art climbed to his feet.

As the patches of sawdust on the east and west of the tree got close to the face-cut, the giant tree started to crack. As it leaned, Joe grabbed the saw and leapt to the ground. The two scurried up the hill beside a crooked bluegum.

Dust drifted outwards from where the giant ploughed with a shuddering crash into the earth. Wisps of torn leaves floated down in a gentle, warm breeze. “Joe, I’m going to college,” Art said simply. “God’s changed my mind. Just while we worked on this tree.”

The older brother ran his index finger across his forehead and flung the perspiration at a tussock of flax. He looked knowingly at the lean teenager.

“I wanted to stay here. I love this life, these mountains. But I’ve got to go to Avondale. Not sometime. In six weeks.”

And looking back from this side of college, Art is sure God called him that November day at the blackbutt tree.

Arthur Patrick, posted 24 January 2013