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HERITAGE

WEEDS
IN
LATTELAND
an essay
on
camphor laurels, coffee,
democracy, streetscape, tourism
&
Bellingen

ROSS MACLEAY
To Bellingen with love and trepidation

Heritage Weeds in Latteland


2011

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North Bank Institute of Independent Studies


PO Box 153
Bellingen, NSW 2454
lizardland@bigpond.com
Heritage Weeds in Latteland

To dwell means to leave traces


—Walter Benjamin, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century

B ellingen is the capital of the Bellinger Valley, complacent about its


fame and preoccupied with its identity.
I wrote this essay about Bellingen’s camphor laurel war, beginning when
the troubles broke out and suspecting that the events, which might not at first have
seemed worthy of attention, were headed straight into the dangerous shallows of
everyday life. My thinking was not entirely groundless. The camphor laurel trees
are in the heart of Bellingen, in Church Street.
Bellingen is centred on a terrace of red soil, an ancient floodplain, now ten
metres above the river flats, at the tidal limit of the Bellinger River. The section of
Church Street in question runs barely a hundred metres from the main street of
Bellingen, north to the edge of the terrace. When Clement Hodgkinson trekked up
through Gumbayngirr country along the river in 1842 the river terraces like the one
Church Street is on were mostly covered in lowland subtropical rainforest and tall
flooded gum forest. A flooded gum, maybe 100 years old, grows at the northern
end of the street on the steep weedy bluff that looks over the river. There are hard
quandongs too and some planted hoop pines. At the southern end, on the western
side, there is a paved platform, shin height above the road and fifty metres long
— ‘the café strip’ — shaded by ‘one hundred year old’ camphor laurel trees and


fifteen year old leopard trees.
Where identity had seemed manifest and secure, the restless fingers
of planning-and-implementation now released the genie of history from its
confinement in ‘heritage’. Many saw Bellingen’s heritage, and so its identity, in
the tradition of the ‘one hundred year old’ camphors, mighty living organisms
that protected and graced the rites of Bellingen’s café society. Others saw the
camphors as giant weeds, mighty but only in the tradition of occupying invaders,
the ugly icons of their triumphalism. The camphors were either living monuments
or monumental weeds. Those who wanted to weed them out were, by their own
lights, renewing an older more venerable tradition, and redeeming its beauty for
the future. They were seen by those who wanted to keep the shady camphors as
wanting to strip the earth bare in the name of generic suburban ‘beautification’.
Each side invoked Gaia.
No that’s not really it. That is just one more way of putting it. One more
declaration about just what was or is at stake in the camphor war. Nearly everyone
who wrote a letter to the Courier Sun — the local paper that now traces its ownership
to Fairfax Media — seemed to take it for granted that their own interpretation was
the long awaited key to general enlightenment. ‘I realise that introducing facts in
the face of uninformed hysteria is largely a waste of effort and printer’s ink,’ wrote
David Halliday from up on the mountain at Dorrigo on January 5, ‘but here goes.’
Nearly every letter was a killer argument or a cry from the high ground. Everyone
was passionate, even in their expressions of exasperation at the whole irrelevant
spectacle, even if they were only eye-rolling. More than a division between two
sides, or a revelation of the fault lines through green sentiment and Gaia worship,
it was sometimes like a war of all against all. No one agreed with anyone about
everything. Church Street was a clashing universe of entertained and entertaining
opinions, enough strongly held to rumble beneath or erupt into and spice or sour
the most friendly or idle conversation. Shallow waters run in dangerous currents.
Natural and cultural heritage, coffee and tourism, all those shades of green
— romantic and scientific, sentimental and technocratic, capital ‘G’ and small ‘g’,
deep and shallow — each with its peculiarly trivial and important, demeaning and
edifying aspects, all were caught up in the hostilities. The camphor war seemed to
refract all this into its antagonistic, irreconcilable elements. As Edmund Burke is
supposed to have said at the start of the French Revolution: What a stage, what
players! Every Wednesday I found myself trembling with excitement as I opened
my copy of the Courier Sun, and turned to the letters page.


This was not the beginning though; or back before lifestyle
O n Wednesday 20 October, 2010. I noticed a letter beginning ‘I just
wanted to make everyone aware that Bellingen Council is planning to cut down
many of our beautiful trees in Church and Hyde Street, which make our streetscape
so cool in summer and so picturesque. Apparently they are classified as “Weeds”
and council has received funding to “beautify” our streetscape by planting new
trees which according to them are deemed more suitable.’ It was signed Ziggy
Koenigseder, Bellingen. Right next to it, in the two-column box where Bellingen
Shire Council regularly advertises development proposals, there was a notice:

Proposal: Staged Removal of 5 Cinnamomum camphora (Camphor trees)


Property: Church St Road Reserve and the nearby former Telstra site.

The proposal was on exhibition for public comment up until 11 November 2010.
This was not the beginning though. Not really. This was in the middle of
things; politics and history is always like that. The back-story could start in 2002
when the Council prepared its CBD Management Plan, or 2006 when it adopted
its CBD plan, which included the proposal for the ‘progressive removal’ of the
camphors. The prospective development of Church Street, along with its removal
of the camphors, had been hanging around for a long time in the civic memory,
obscurely understood and seldom reflected upon. It was something that nearly
everyone wanted, but each according to their own image. Their own very particular
image. Beyond the odd ripple registered in the Courier Sun, or by citizens who had
taken the time to attend the ‘consultation process’, no one had bothered much, or
at least no more than is normal for Bellingen, where public meeting attendance is
probably well above the national average. The coffee drinker on Church Street’s
‘café strip’ just went on ordering coffees in the morning and deserting the street in
the afternoon, usually just around the time when, if I was in town, I was ready for
a cup and something sweet.
Or maybe things started back in the mid 90s when the southwestern section
of Church Street was paved and the cafés colonised the street, and a metropolitan
bourgeoisie began to pour into the Valley, attracted by lifestyle and real estate
opportunities. The paving was built in an iconic, raised-to-ankle-breaking-height
style with references to open stormwater drainage on the shopfront side. It had
heritage benches and lamps, with the. authentic 1990s heritage look. It had tree-
guards-cum-planter-boxes around the camphors and newly planted leopard trees.
The leopards had an accompaniment of murraya, cunjevoi or native elephants ears,


This was not the beginning though; or back before lifestyle
and assorted horticultural colour. Periclean Mayor Sue Dethridge was all ready to
cut the red ribbon when a bunch of clowns took over. History records that Petal
handed the mayor a pair of garden shears to do the honours, and with Sid on drum
and Taco on trombone, Floomey and Bluff serenaded an urban space that would
rival the Piazza San Marco. A year or so later there was a scare that the kiddies were
eating the cunjevois in the planter boxes while their parents drank coffee. The child
killers went and now the only plant remaining, besides the leopards, is a weedy little
murraya, joining the camphors, cocos palms and cadaghi as one of the suite of
environmental weeds gracing the piazza. The planter boxes are still good for sitting
on, penning toddlers and letting the dog have a piss.
No. It all started before that, back in the 80s when café society seeped
into a Bellingen where cannabis, not caffeine, was still the most famous drug. And
even that was in the wake of the 1970s when an earlier, younger, poorer but still
bourgeois wave of settlers had arrived with enough pooled cash to buy up old farms.
Pre sea-changers, they arrived back before life style had been properly invented,
hoping and expecting to invent something else. But when they got labelled hippies
and alternative lifestyle, they ended up helping to invent lifestyle despite their best
intentions. Those that survive remember the decline and fall of the old Elite Café,
unacknowledged heritage that slipped into oblivion. La Bohème and then Martha &
Mario’s, down the river end of Church Street were the warm up acts of 80s café
society. And The Boiling Billy was already doing its heritage mix of flat white and
Prince of Wales tea when Barry Smith parachuted into town and refurbished the
Hammond & Wheatley Emporium with its Carriageway Café running long and narrow
and metropolitan down the western side. With that, naturalists recorded possible
sitings of baristas and the espresso machines were all fired up and frothing.
On the other hand maybe this all started when environmentalism embraced
restoration ecology back in the 1970s, or when in the 80s and 90s bureaucracies
took to restoration ecology in their own way and camphors became environmental
weeds. Or it starts when the ‘100 year old’ camphors in Church Street were planted,
by who knows whose hands. Or in the late nineteenth century when camphors
became the tree of choice to replace the shade cleared too hastily from the north
coast valleys, or even when the first camphors came to Australia sometime back
in the 1820s.


The Bellingen Dreamtime v. the Tree Retention
Priority Matrix
We justify or explain something in terms of something else. That’s what
reasons are. When someone tries to say that something, like a tree, is valuable in
itself or for itself, few are impressed. It sounds desperate. The word ‘why’ urges
us elsewhere: away to the wider world, to the greater good, to the deeper principle.
No wonder then that justification can end up as a kind of exercise in distraction, a
cosmic trick played on us by the ruse of reason. No wonder that debate is always
leading us away from what matters, and our thoughts go ‘cluttering like a hey-go
mad’ as Laurence Sterne said ‘and by treading the same steps over and over again,
they presently make a road of it.’ So the camphor debate shot off to tourism, to
environmental weed strategies, to consultation and political process, to amenity, to
personalities, to childhood memories and to heritage. Anything to avoid the issue.
Even though the Council’s consultant had declared the Church Street camphors
heritage, thus making it official, in Bellingen the most well worn tracks lead to
heritage anyway, ‘and the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them
off it’.
Traces of the past, and even the rubble history, have their chance to be
made good by a peculiar kind of prestige, which only the tyranny of time and
incumbency can authorise. We recognise such prestige with the title ‘heritage’.
What survives could be a worthy building, it could be a trivial or ugly object, or it
could be the result of a terrible injustice. It could have started as a seedling planted
in a thoughtless, ignorant, unhappy or long forgotten moment, and ended up as a
tree displaying its heritage in signs of growth, maturity, and decline. At the same
time though, the stupidity, the ignorance, the triviality, the ugliness or the injustice
of the past can persist as traces too, even in the most esteemed heritage. Not
annihilated, they also wait in history to come back and haunt us.

‘When George Moore began drawing his architectural gems for Bellingen,
the Camphor Laurels had already been in Church Street about 20 years’ — so
said a letter in the January 5 Courier Sun. Like its author, known only as ‘Still
Distressed And Disgusted’, I had already found myself turning to history for some
high ground. The big distraction for me was: just how old were these camphors,
really? It was one little mound for me to try and get to. In shallow waters any

This Bellingen Dreamtine v. the Tree Retention Priority Matrix
mound is high ground.
It became routine for the tree’s advocates to call them ‘one hundred year
old camphors’. Heritage was at stake here and heritage is measured according to
age, and according to the prestige of the ancestors who have left it in their wake.
When I finally headed to the Bellingen Museum for the facts, a lead camphor
campaigner, Ziggy Koenigseder, had already been there. I didn’t know the guy on
the desk, but he suggested I could save time and find out from her. But I wasn’t
going to trust the advice of anyone else on this. This was high ground I wanted to
get to myself, my high ground. I didn’t trawl through the museum’s archives but I
did buy copies of two little publications, Bellingen The Beautiful, a tourist promotion
booklet first printed in March 1933, and George Moore, Architect and Builder, written
and edited for the Historical Society by Norman Braithewaite and Stan Day. And,
after years of living in Bellingen, I finally paid a sub to join the Historical Society. By
the time Ziggy sent a letter to the Courier Sun on February 9 pushing the camphors’
age out to 110 years, I had worked out my story.
About 1919, give or take a couple of years, two camphor laurel seedlings
were planted on the eastern side of Church Street next to the Bellingen Court
House. I have no idea who dug the holes, who raised the seedlings, who had the
honour of planting them or on what occasion. Two more were planted opposite
them on the western side at the same time, or maybe a few years later. I have no
first hand testimony to support this, only photos, and supplementary text here and
there.
Exhibit A is a photo of Church St taken some time after 1916. I came
across it on page 11 of Pioneering in The Bellinger Valley, another book compiled
by Norm Braithwaite, this time with Harold Beard, a book that had already been
on my bookshelf and plenty of others in Bellingen for 20 years. Along with the
George Moore book this is one of those small treasures that a generation of local
historians has left to the citizens of Bellingen. The photo on page 11 does not
show any trees — at least not on the western side of the street. In the foreground
there are horse-drawn wagons delivering goods to the Hammond and Wheatley
Emporium, the ‘Mammoth Trade Palace’, which looms large in the background.
The photo shows the extension to the Emporium, the great shed on its eastern side.
This shed is now the St Mark’s Basilica of Bellingen’s most beautiful square: The
Pub Carpark.. According to page 22 of George Moore, Architect and Builder the shed
was not completed until 1917.
The photo does not show the Bank of Australasia on the northwest
corner of the Church Street and Hyde Street crossroads. This corner was the site
of Bellingen’s first Catholic Church, built in 1881. The Methodist church was on
the southeast corner, diagonally opposite. Hence the name Church Street. The
bank wasn’t built until 1921. I suppose there could be small, planted camphor

This Bellingen Dreamtine v. the Tree Retention Priority Matrix
seedlings hidden behind the horses and wagons, but I doubt it. So 1917 looks like
the earliest date that the camphors on the western side of Church Street could
have been planted.
A photo from 1932-3 in Bellingen The Beautiful shows the biggest camphor,
the one on the southeast corner, at about 10m high and 8m wide. I reckon thirteen
years is enough time for a vigorous camphor growing in sun on river terrace soil
to reach this size. This camphor on the southeast corner always was and still is
the most vigorous of the four. In July 2010 Bellingen Shire Council’s consultant
arborist, Nigel Smith, gave its height at 18m with a crown diameter of 22m. Always
referred to as ‘the arborist’ and never by his name, The Arborist rated this tree’s age
as ‘mature’, its vigour ‘good’ and its condition ‘fair’, enough to give it a ‘Sustainable
Retention Index Value©’ of 9 out of 10. The copyrighter here is the Institute of
Australian Consulting Arboriculturists, the backbone and guarantor of consulting
arboriculturists. The Institute designed its index ‘as an objective system based on
set criteria’. The Arborist also rated the tree’s ‘significance’, according to another
of the Institute’s rating systems, as ‘medium’. This system called ‘STARS©’ is
designed to corral the subjectivity of value judgement. Consulting aborists are
cautious and predictable souls who seem to prefer relative anonymity. They navigate
the troubled waters of aesthetic judgement, plant pathology, and professional
liability, while the paying clients and hungry community groups thrash and circle.
They pour the gooey oil of potential insurance claims on the dangerous waters of
beauty. They prepare their defences with minced words and decision matrices to
give themselves the consistency — some might say ‘objectivity’ — demanded of
professional authority. The ‘Tree Retention Value - Priority Matrix’ (no ‘©’ on this
one) returned a ‘Medium’ rating: ‘Consider for Retention’.
Another photo from the 1920s — I would say mid-20s — shows the same
tree at 5m high and 4m across. The photo is in George Moore, Architect and Builder
and shows four of Moore’s buildings, the Post Office, the Police Station, The
Court House and Hammond & Wheatley’s Emporium. They were all built between
1909 and 1910, on either side of Church St, in a rare flourish that still defines the
streetscape in the middle of Bellingen. This photo shows the Bank of Australasia
too, built in 1921 by Moore’s former apprentice Wally Boulton. Making estimations
from growth rates is risky but these two photos are consistent with a planting of
the western trees around 1919 give or take a year or two.
The Courier Sun editor, Greg McLagan, wrote the paper’s lead article about
the meeting of the Council on 15 December 2010. The article quoted the Planner’s
report, prepared by Keiley Hunter. It said the trees were planted between 1940 and
1950. The same article reported a claim by Councillor and former mayor Gordon
Braithwaite that they were planted about 1870 by ‘Mr Hammond’. 1870 was back in


This Bellingen Dreamtine v. the Tree Retention Priority Matrix
the Bellingen dreamtime, less than a decade after a cluster of huts at the tidal limit
of the Bellinger River started to define a small town. I guess this is the same Bill
Hammond who was born in Melbourne in 1878 and who, with Arthur Wheatley,
the business partner he’d met on the Orara goldfields, got George Moore to build
the Emporium out of new fangled, solid concrete bricks in 1909. A Second World
War aerial survey photo taken at 12:37pm on 2 July 1943 shows four trees. The
crowns of the two on the eastern side are about 15m to 18m wide, those on the
western side are about 8m to 10m wide. I’d say the smaller ones had not grown
with the same vigour as the bigger ones, and that they were probably all nearly 25
years old. Now in 2011 Bellingen’s ‘one hundred year old camphors’ must be in
their early 90s.
But for what it’s worth, what’s all that worth? I don’t know if it’s exactly
right. It’s not my last word. It’s just one more take on history added to the pile.
As for ancestors, two of Bellingen’s were made for invocation in Church
Street legend. They frame the time when the ‘gateway’ camphors were planted, just
as the camphors themselves frame the entrance to the street. George Moore made
Bellingen look like Bellingen. In the decade before his death in 1917 he built most
of the impressive buildings on the south side of the main street a hundred metres
either side of the camphor laurels. By the 1950s and 60s, when the rest of country
NSW was doing over its streetscapes, Bellingen was too strapped to afford it. The
look of the town was preserved by the decline of the North Coast dairy industry,
and then along came the 70s and 80s and heritage made it official. The result of a
century of poverty followed by heritage is that hardly anything inspiring has been
built since 1920. There have been some timely refurbishings like the pub and the
Emporium, but most recent buildings date themselves as pop faux-heritage post-
modern. The only good building in Church Street in the last hundred years is Steve
Gorrell’s toilet, built in the Court House park. But the park itself was buggered
up when the Justice Department grabbed back the judge’s car park, and person or
persons unknown planted a cadaghi to kill what lawn remained and hide George
Hewitt’s Queensland Waratah tree.
George Hewitt arrived in 1926, just about when the camphors were
sending out the roots that would ‘wreak havoc’ with the paving. He came from
Sydney and took up his practice as a country doctor. Hewitt made Bellingen look
like Bellingen too. He planted trees, a strange and wonderful collection from all
over Australia and the world.
Even Bob Brown makes it into this history. John Bailey wrote to the January
5 Courier Sun about playing marbles with Bob’s brother under the camphors, back
in the 1950s when Bob’s father was stationed as a policeman, two-doors down
the main street in George Moore’s police station. This memory was used as an
opportunity to put the boot into Bob and the local Greens (more on them later).

Informed taste and romantic enthusiasm; or the North Coast Camphor Wars
The Brown’s had moved to Bellingen after the 8 year old future Senator had been
fondled by a teacher in Armidale. This is where someone says ‘that’s why Bob
is gay’. The spectacle of marbles joined tree climbing as part of the heritage of
bygone childhood pleasures that the camphors had graced.
That’s my story. During troubled times history becomes a refuge. It seems
to offer stable ground: what happened in the past has actually happened, and
that is taken as history’s guarantee. Ignoring the fact that the past happened as
something ambiguous to, and fought over by, those who lived through it, we tell
history as if the sheer fact of its having happened guaranteed our claims — and as
if the facts about the past are easier to know now than they were then. Or easier
to know than what is happening now. Because who knows what is happening
now? We are the parochial children of our own age, and we like to think time has
clarified history’s details for us, when in fact it obscures them and annihilates them,
erases the connections that define events, renders accounts less adequate or false,
and generates myth and legend. It becomes easy to make things look like facts,
precisely because the annoying and inconsistent details have been tidied away.
Heritage, conceived as the material traces of the past, stands with all the
authority of an historical document, but we experience it and pass it on as we do
history’s facts, fraught with interpretation. As long as heritage is something taken
to be made true or at least authentic by time, or something justified by time, it is
never far from being mythological.

Informed taste and romantic enthusiasm;


or the North Coast Camphor Wars
I n 1826, almost one hundred years before the camphors were planted in
Church Street, Alexander Macleay arrived in Sydney to take up a post as Colonial
Secretary in NSW. Governor Darling and Macleay were both Tories and Church
of England evangelicals, and Darling was accused of corruption when he granted
Macleay 54 acres on the harbour at Elizabeth Bay, land that had previously been
set aside by Governor Macquarie for Aboriginal and public use. Macleay, who had
come to NSW partly for financial reasons, depleted whatever funds he may still
have had for building a planned mansion on the harbour foreshore, by beginning
with the garden instead, a grand landscape garden. ‘The native bush was retained
and planted with exotics to enhance its botanical interest. The dramatic topography

Informed taste and romantic enthusiasm; or the North Coast Camphor Wars
was embellished with picturesque structures: turreted stables, cottages, a rustic
bridge, terrace walls and grottoes.’ Among the species planted were camphor laurel
and lantana. Camphor laurel had probably already been introduced into the colony
in 1822, probably from stock that came from Kew. At least there is a web meme to
that effect that crops up down nearly every google search path, but if there is any
substantiating evidence it’s not so easy to find.
The line about retaining the native bush and planting ‘with exotics
to enhance its botanical interest’ is in the Historic Houses Trust guidebook on
Elizabeth Bay House. It is a sentiment depressingly familiar to anyone who has
tried to deal with the effects that plants like camphor have had on the resilience
of native bush. The same guide says ‘Macleay’s development of his garden reveals
his informed taste and romantic enthusiasm.’ Macleay was not only a romantic
enthusiast. He was a Fellow of the Linnean and the Royal Societies and a leading
entomologist. The design of the garden at Elizabeth Bay embodied elements of
both the romantic and scientific love of nature — two sides of the Enlightenment
coin — represented by British horticulture and Australian nature. It was a dream
vision of their harmony and resolution in the art of landscape. Macleay’s family
motto was Spes ancora vitae, hope is the anchor of life. But it takes more than hope
to anchor history and nature. They aren’t anchorage. They shift in unexpected ways.
The same vision of reconciled bush and horticulture or at least its descendant, was
still unravelling in the camphor war. If there were sides in Bellingen, then for one
side it was still a daydream, for the other it had become a nightmare.
The camphor wars have been simmering throughout the NSW north
coast for years, especially in the lowland valleys of the coastal rivers. There were
seldom open hostilities, although I do remember an exchange of fire in a session
on camphors at a rainforest regeneration conference.
By the time the rainforests along the Bellinger were being cleared in the
late nineteenth century, camphor laurel was seen as a perfect tree to replace shade
lost in the haste of clearing: fast growing, a dense crown, and if not a commercial
proposition for camphor oil, at least a curiosity of oriental horticulture. It was also
very hardy. It grew on the alluvial flats, the river terraces and the ridge country of
the Bellinger. It fruited, it fed pigeons, doves, figbirds, bowerbirds and honeyeaters,
and it came up self sown and thrived. By 1900 people had noticed its ability to
self sow and spread. (Joe Friend, anti-camphor warrior, cites the Lismore Northern
Star on this. More on Joe later.) It was planted in several places around Bellingen
including in the school grounds and Church Street, but now most of the trees
you see are self-sown. It is the most common tree in the cleared lowlands of
the Bellinger and Never Never valleys. It lines roads, fences and creeks, shades
paddocks and edges the bush at the back of farms. An aggressive invader, it is a
common element of rainforest regrowth and of the rainforest understorey of tall
10
Informed taste and romantic enthusiasm; or the North Coast Camphor Wars
wet eucalypt forest, one of a suite of weeds that messes with the resilience and
the diversity of these native forests. Unlike all the other common weed invaders
in these forests, a camphor grows into a big spreading tree, and big is beautiful in
tree aesthetics. To a tree lover they can look magnificent, while to a lover of native
forest they look like weeds, weeds that dominate and replace the native tree canopy,
and transform the forest. Nowadays the Bellinger Valley looks like the Bellinger
Valley because of camphor laurels. The camphor look is one of ‘the exact qualities
that distinguish Bellingen and contribute to its identity’. — a line Craig Burton
used in has January 12 letter to the Courier Sun. Once restoration ecology or bush
regeneration became part of modern Australian nature culture, tree lovers and
native bush lovers began to clash. Pigeon lovers sometimes weighed in against the
native plant lovers, or cautioned that if they got rid of the camphors overnight,
the pigeons would have nothing to eat. It has been going on since the 80s. The tree
lovers seemed ignorant and naïve to the native bush lovers, the bush lovers seemed
like ‘botanical purists’ or fundamentalists to the tree lovers; the camphor lovers
were environmental vandals or woolly sentimentalists, the native bush lovers were
weed Nazis, or closet ethnic cleansers.
So the war came to the streets of Bellingen.
Where weeds are mentioned the concepts noxious and toxic are bandied
about. There is something similar and confusing about them. Noxious, apart from
innocently meaning harmful, is also officialese for species deemed by authorities
to require control or eradication. It makes noxiousness sound at least illegal and
therefore probably toxic. Solveig Larsen wrote to the Courier Sun on 12 January to
say she had found an expert from Armidale under the camphors in Church Street
and he had informed her that camphors were not noxious. This looked like a real
killer argument. But maybe the expert meant they were not Noxious in Armidale.
Who knows? There aren’t many, if any, camphors in Armidale. It’s too cold. They
are Noxious in Bellingen Shire though, officially ‘Class 4’, a local declaration that
means that the Council or a landholder has to ‘undertake a control program to
strategically manage them’ and ‘minimise their impact… by available resources’.
Experts and expertise were batted back and forth to add force to the claims and
counterclaims..
Joe Friend’s camphorlaurel.com is a goldmine and a minefield of camphor
lore, legend, science, surmise, gossip and history. Whether you want to enter
the vexed world of camphor strains and phytochemistry, find out how to use
camphors to conceal your dope crop, or just sniff your camphor wood chest,
you will get some pointers from camphorlaurel.com. The toxicity of compounds
extracted from camphor leaves and fruits gets a lot of emphasis. Back in the 90s
and early 2000s Joe waged a lone wolf campaign on camphor toxins and their
effects on water, fauna and humans. Joe was never in Bellingen of course. I don’t
11
Informed taste and romantic enthusiasm; or the North Coast Camphor Wars
even think he was even cited by anyone who wanted to get rid of the camphors.
But Cherie Pugh cited him and did a hatchet job on his toxicity argument in the
January 19 letters. All she had to do was cite the Scientific Committee that makes
determinations under the NSW Threatened Species Act. The Committee had
responded to an application to have toxic camphor exudates declared a threatening
ecological process. Toxicity is a common adaptation of plants. It protects them
from herbivores or makes life difficult for competitors. A forest is a salad of toxins.
The Committee decided that camphor laurel toxicity should not be called a Key
Threatening Process. Incidentally, lantana invasion of native forest is a KTP.
Lantana is probably the most famous weed on the North Coast, but no one drinks
their coffee in shady lantana bowers. It’s not a tree. It’s a weedy looking weed. The
Committee has never made a determination on whether camphor laurel invasion
should be a KTP..
The expert named on the ecological benefits of camphor turned out to be
Peter Andrews, another name, like Joe Friend, that hovers over weed debates. Cherie
Pugh cited him to support her views about the futility of ‘weeding the bush’. He
inspired Ziggy Koenigseder to advise citizens that scientists and bureaucrats were
misleading Landcare, and that, really, camphors were good for biodiversity — not
just the ones in Church Street, but the ones out in the bush as well. More famous
than Joe, Peter is not so much an ecological expert as a media phenomenon. He
has succeeded in blending some pretty conventional water retention hydrology and
wetland ecology, spicing it up with a dash of contrarian weed ecology and selling
himself as David vs. Goliath. He’s not so much a lone wolf anymore as Christ
among the Pharisees. He’s made it onto ABC TV’s Australian Story. He’s won an
Order of Australia. And as Ziggy Koenigseder alleged, he’s ‘respected by such men
as Gerry Harvey, John Singleton and former Governor General Michael Jeffrey’.
The Council had its experts too. The Aborist’s expertise was armoured
by those decision matrices, devices for securing consistency in judgement among
colleagues. Objectivity here is really a kind of consistency, and no doubt consistency
and coherence are criteria for truth; they serve as the backbone of empirical science.
In matters of weed classification and heritage value any objectivity has slipped
away from physical evidence towards sheer consistency, the consistency not only
of a body of facts, but of a body of facts and norms: received historical and
scientific claims combined with political judgements and bureaucratic regulations.
An expert here is a bureaucrat or a consultant. They are masters of and mastered
by the system. They judge whether the camphors in Church Street are heritage
and whether camphors are Class 4 Noxious Weeds. The judgement is mapped into
a local government plan, becomes part of the system and proves its objectivity
by its inertia. It can take more explaining than a coffee drinker has time for, to
demonstrate how a system that says camphors are heritage and Noxious is not
12
Nowhere, anywhere, everywhere, somewhere; or where camphor laurels matter most
inconsistent.
The experts the councillors used to support their decision didn’t much
impress The Church Street Coffee Drinker. The Aborists was just too ready to
condemn one hundred year old trees for not having enough ‘useful life expectancy’.
Obtuse in that assured, professional way, aborists have little interest in understanding
that what people like is big old trees, a bit of dead wood, roots rearranging the
officious lines of paving, precarious crowns meeting over a road. The Planner,
who answered submissions to the Councils DA, went through the motions of
recommending to the Council what it had already applied to do. The Planner’s
report picked up on a meme from The Aborist’s report, a bit of official wisdom
sourced from the now defunct Forestry Commission of NSW — ‘on no account
should it (Camphor Laurel) be allowed near kerb and guttering, footpaths, sewer
lines, where its vigorous root growth will wreak havoc’ — the original document
and its authority lost in the memesphere. It quoted the well-known but unwritten
handbook of prepared expressions — as handy in its own way as The Aborist’s
copyrighted decision matrices — ‘removal and replacement with more appropriate
species will impact positively on the functionality of the precinct’. And it repeated
The Aborist’s three recommended options about which trees to remove. Even
then, the Council rejected those three options and passed its own fourth option.
On 15 December it voted 5-2 to keep the two camphors on the corners of Church
Street — the ‘gateway’ trees — and to get rid of the next two immediately to their
north. The camphor tucked away in the former Telstra site was also to go. This was
to be the first stage of the ‘staged removal’, and perhaps the only stage. Any stage
two would be the problem of a future council.

Nowhere, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere;


or where camphor laurels matter most
C iting dubious experts, or having to proclaim your own expertise, was all
part of the spectacle of the letters pages, and maybe the clearest demonstration of the
tendency of justification to shoot off to distractions. ‘Expert’, like ‘beautification’,
is a word we mock with quotation marks. It advertises what experience doesn’t
need to advertise. There were letter writers though who didn’t have to cite experts.
In his February 9 letter Martin Smith described the camphor monocultures on the
lower Bellinger, and the populations of seedlings that top knots and other birds are
13
Nowhere, anywhere, everywhere, somewhere; or where camphor laurels matter most
tirelessly spreading along ‘the forested slopes of the Bellinger Valley’. Camphors
are a problem for native forests. They mess with the resilience of native forests,
take over and stop their regeneration, and reduce their diversity. Plenty of Church
Street’s camphor fans know that. But Martin summed up his big picture with a
blunt strategy aimed straight at Church Street: ‘the only good camphor on the
north coast of NSW is a dead one’. Right back in a letter on November 10, Trevor
Pike had addressed the same big picture but with a different strategy: ‘a planned
program to bring this weed problem under control should focus attention where
the most benefit can be achieved…in rural, riparian and forested areas.’ Leave the
camphors in Church Street until after you’ve got rid of all the others.
Both writers acknowledged the problem of camphors and both went for
the big-picture eradication strategy. Stepping back and looking at the big picture is
a kind of primal gesture of objectivity. On its own though a big-picture camphor
strategy lacks whatever it takes to drive the here and now of action. Talking big
picture is the perfect way to delay: planning about everywhere is no better than
doing it nowhere. A planner’s report for a Council meeting has to satisfy the most
demanding of constraints. It is a high wire act. Finding the right words would
be a task worthy of poet, if it weren’t for the unwritten handbook of prepared
expressions. Saying ‘The only good camphor is a dead one’ was not really an option
for The Planner. Saying ‘camphor laurel eradication is a regional problem and requires
a consistent approach aimed at gradual eradication’ was. It’s big on generalisation
and coy on the particulars. The art is in the ambiguity and in the difficulty of the
expression. Depending on the translation it probably says ‘consistency requires
that camphors be removed everywhere, maybe even anywhere and everywhere and
whenever.’ Martin was blunt: anywhere and everywhere including Church Street.
And Trevor was too: anywhere but Church Street, until, he added helpfully, ‘say
2050’.
You can’t get rid of them everywhere at once, not because, as pro-
camphor warriors occasionally point out, it would leave all those top knot pigeons,
and baldies and rose-crowns without their drupes, but because you have to get
rid of them one particular camphor at a time. Reality is relentless about that. It’s
concrete; it’s not an abstraction. Logic is relentless too, and ‘everywhere’ is a false
substantive, like ‘nowhere’. Sometimes weed management strategists become so
absorbed by the big picture, that when you do something humble like pull out a
weed by hand, they say it’s all very well but the problem is too big to be fiddling
about pulling out that weed. Actions are nothing if not part of a process, but a
process is nothing without actions. Every action expresses its own principles or
intentions, including things so trivial you might not state them because they seem
like tautologies: you take camphors out where you can, not where you can’t; or you
take out your camphors first from where they matter most, not from where they
14
Ambivalent and passionate; or black and white and green all over
don’t matter. Thus people take them out of their own back yards. Some people
take them out from an otherwise camphor-free valley like the upper Bellinger,
others take them from an important patch of bush like a little rainforest near a
swimming hole on the Never Never River, or along Cemetery Creek in Bellingen.
Or a Council takes them out in stages from Church Street.
Both sides shared the assumption that Church Street is at the heart of
Bellingen’s identity and the camphors are iconic. Icons, tokens, emblems, symbols
— these words all mean much the same thing, but they have different connotations.
If one side felt free to value the camphors as icons and could call them that,
thus invoking all the objectivity of incumbent heritage, then the other seemed
left with no choice but to see them as tokens for promoting camphor eradication,
or symbols of the destruction of native forests by exotic weeds — words they
couldn’t say with much confidence because they wanted to avoid the appearance
of mere tokenism or symbolism. They mostly fell back on the absentee objectivity
of the surrounding bush, and on the gesture to objectivity in big picture weed
strategy.

Ambivalent and passionate:


or black and white and green all over
B ellingen is a green town. At the Bellingen booth in the 2010 Federal
Election the Greens got 33.4% of the vote, the Nationals got 29.8%, and Labor
got 23.2%. When the camphor issue came up a few months after the election it
became a kind of green issue. Those who were pro-camphor quickly claimed the
green high ground. But greens were divided. The Green councillor Sean Tuohy
had changed his mind on the question. When the Council had adopted its CBD
study back in 2006, he had been photographed and vox popped by the Courier-Sun:
he’d wanted the camphors to stay. That was before he was on Council. By 2010 he
was for getting rid of them — all four of them. When the Council met and voted
on the camphors, he was criticised for not consulting with his Green constituents.
Heckles like ‘Call yourself a green?’ were thrown at him. When the Council made
its decision to cut down two of the four Church Street camphors, the Courier Sun
ran a facsimile of the 2006 story. Sean’s change of heart was there to be read as
evidence that he was a fraud or hypocrite or weak or had been corrupted by local
government: changing your mind is always risky. Perhaps some read it charitably: A
15
Ambivalent and passionate; or black and white and green all over
sincere change of heart is better than insincere resolve. The local Greens distanced
themselves. Small ‘g’ greens who didn’t want the camphors were pretty quiet. They
were exasperated by the fuss, or thought the issue a distraction, or they were of
two minds, or waverers.
In any political dispute partisans ridicule waverers or mind changers.
They are fencesitters or apathetic or passionless, people who, according to Solveig
Larsen., ‘do not want to be seen as having a view’. But wavering over whether
to get rid of the camphors was not a sign of lack of passion, engagement or
commitment. They — no one — could take or find a cool position. There was
nowhere to get above it all. And of course it was local politics, so nearly everyone
you asked did have some opinion, and, in the way of opinions, strongly felt. E.g.
strong exasperation with the whole damn kafuffle was pretty common.
Where there was ambivalence it was passionate. This meant that when
someone you liked said something persuasive you’d think twice. It implied you
were of two minds. Consistency can become a kind of totalitarianism rather than
just the warranty that grounds the definition of truth. If not in the sciences, then
at least in the realms of ethics or aesthetics, the virtues of friendship, honesty,
goodness and beauty take over from truth and its dogsbody, consistency.
Among those who wanted to get rid of the camphors a lot were green.
The push to get rid of them was mostly green. I could say, probably unfairly, that
the camphor removers are more botanically inclined and more technocratic. People
who manage national parks or restore native vegetation don’t like camphors. There
might be a kind of ironic detachment from café society there too — at least as
it exists in its high tourist form in Church Street. But I reckon it’s pretty much
impossible for me to neatly characterise the different sides by any kind of psycho-
social profile.
Neither of the two green sides could appeal to the ordinary spectrum of
green politics. Neither side could claim a deep green or radical green high ground.
Bellingen’s citizens are a bit smug about all their cafes and a bit embarrassed too.
They find it convenient to cite tourism as a reason to keep or kill the camphors, but
they find it demeaning too. These were dangerous waters because they were shallow.
No matter how much people tried to find it or just assumed it, there was no refuge
in green ideology, no doctrine, and no fundamental position. Assuming there
was, Adrian Wolfin worked the themes of undemocratic councillors, Wikileaks
and camphors together, and told the Greens to ‘wake up’. ‘According to reliable
sources of information the local greens are split on this issue and lack a policy
regarding the removal of the Camphor Laurels.’
This was in the January 5 Courier Sun. The Council’s decision to cut down
two camphors had been reported on 22 December. Cutting down only two of the
four camphors could have been read as cutting the baby in half. The news had
16
Ambivalent and passionate; or black and white and green all over
had time to effervesce over Christmas, fizzing up local chat, while the citizens
had time to take their places for the next act. Like the Queensland floods, the
January 5 camphor letters made gripping summer reading, but the camphor issue
was complicated because there was nothing so unambiguous about it as loss of life
and houses. January 5 was the day David Halliday came down from the mountain,
when ‘Still Distressed and Disgusted’ was still distressed and disgusted, when John
Bailey, dibs up, was gleeful that Sean Tuohy had ‘shot his Green credentials’. John
Vernon, The Secretary of the Mid North Coast Greens, weighed in and tried to
rescue the situation. He acknowledged the Greens’ division, said there were bigger
issues and advised people to ‘enjoy a coffee under the trees’. Whether the advice
was a matter of Green policy or a personal take I’m not sure. It’s always hard in a
town like Bellingen to tell whether people are speaking with their hats on or off.
Mostly they don’t know either. Hats, glasses and opinions are like that. Sometimes
you can’t find them because you’re already wearing them. Each of us is a curious,
conflicted mix of individual and party and even as individuals we can passionately
be of two minds. And should consistency elude us, we always have dudgeon to fall
back on or a hat to disguise ourselves.
Outside the capital itself, Bellingen’s big green vote didn’t count for
much. Luke Hartsuyker, the local National Party MP, had retained his seat in the
Federal Election, and now saw a chance to slip in the wedge. He sided against the
Council and with the camphor lovers. By the 2 March he was making a speech
about camphors in Federal Parliament. It made it down the wires to a Courier-Sun
headline two weeks later. Luke had only just got his anti-flying fox private members
bill through, so he was firing. Before Luke though, the conservative councillor
Gordon Braithewaite had already done his own wedging without the benefit of
minders to advise him. The ex-logger who’d cut down more than his share of
town trees voted to save the camphors from the chainsaws. In the January 5 Courier
Sun Gabriel Tindall, a former Green candidate and an occasional cartoonist, had
a cartoon of Gordon saving a camphor from Sean Tuohy’s chainsaw. Inset there
was an old cartoon of Gordon wielding his own chainsaw in the famous Bellingen
Chain Saw massacre of 1986. The ironies of history. When Luke took his photo op
in Church Street I thought some of the camphor supporters there with him maybe
would have preferred to slip away. The shot showed Luke under the camphors,
coat and tie off, but with that extraterrestrial look federal and state politicians seem
to be stuck with. He was going among the people as though they were colonised
earthlings, one of whom was Gabriel herself, holding a placard saying ‘Works of
Art. Do Not Destroy.’
The pressure to take sides might have a point if it weren’t all so middle of
the road, like drinking coffee. But maybe the point here is that political engagement
can be ambivalent. Initially I wrote a letter to the paper which pointed out the
17
Ambivalent and passionate; or black and white and green all over
problem of camphors for native forests but concluded: ‘I wouldn’t mind leaving
them and testing The Aborist’s prediction that their life expectancy is short’. Was
I calling for the camphors to stay because of a thing I have against aborists? I
didn’t send the letter, on the principle that even if you write a letter there’s usually
little point sending it. You never regret it. When, from time to time, I was asked
to declare myself, I should have told people I was writing an essay to find out,
but in honesty I would have had to add that it was not to find out what side I was
on. At any given moment I knew that. It was to find out what I really thought
mattered, just what the question was that we were or should have been taking sides
on, or just what it was about Bellingen, and not whether the camphors should
be weeded out or not. The hard part was avoiding getting irritated by people.
Passionate ambivalence is readily tempted to take easy refuge in the sureties and
pleasures of whingeing, irritation, exasperation and righteous indignation. Or in
wisecracking, sarcasm, and devastating put downs. It’s easy to be a smarty-pants
and there is always an easy popinjay or crackpot to target. And it’s bracing to climb
to the high moral ground.
I hold two views, have two passions: it is foolish to cut down ninety year
old trees that are shading your café; and it’s wise to replace big weeds in the heart of
your town. Maybe to be ambivalent means you’re twice as passionate and twice as
unsettled: miserable putting up with the monumental weeds, miserable seeing them
gone; happy to use the monumental weeds when it suits, happy to see them gone.
Or maybe all that is another complacent observation from another mound of high
ground. Anyone in a campaign like this — The Councillor, The Coffee Drinker,
The Campaigner, The Technocrat, The Know-all, The Intelligent Underachiever,
The Essayist, The Crackpot, even The Popinjay and The Whinger, and maybe even
The Aborist — can find themselves battling self doubt, depression, exhaustion,
ridicule, or despair. The impression that it’s a storm in coffee cup only makes it
worse. It can drive people to distraction. What about this letter in the February 23
paper:

‘Paving is being uprooted and distorted by big roots, paint is peeling off
rotted timber street furniture and retaining boards, deep gutters smell of rotted
leaves and pose a real danger to café employees, diners and pedestrians alike, dogs
poo and pee everywhere and the pavement is stained by years of food droppings
and spillages. There’s bird droppings on furniture and pavers. Ambience? The
area has the ambience of a wet and dreary car wrecker’s yard….Like it? Proud of
it? Want to keep it that way?
Does this space encourage cashed up visitors, local diners, community
events or night time use? Does this space ‘do Bellingen proud’? Or is this space
just a waste of space?

18
Latte Town of The Year; or from the burnt seeds of a weedy shrub
It was signed L. Saunders, Bellingen. Maybe by being so outrageously, gloriously
negative this letter just wanted to break through the complacency of Bellingen’s
over indulged identity. Apart from that, when I read this tirade, what struck me
was something that seemed like affection, even tenderness.

Latte Town of The Year;


or from the burnt seeds of a weedy shrub
Tourism is secular culture’s pilgrimage. Where the tourist goes reveals the
deepest secular values. Tourist attractions are the shrines of modernity: Galleries,
architecture, museums, national parks, local colour, streetscapes, all places where
the treasures of modernity’s great spiritual concerns — art, nature, science and
heritage — are on display. Tourist attractions embody that highest of values —
authenticity. Yet by attracting tourists they mortally endanger that authenticity.
The authenticity that comes with historical experience and suffering, risks being
preserved in the syrup of heritage as a kind of quaint outdated kitsch. Tourism
is one of the edifying labours of lifestyle, along with things like creative pastimes
(once just hobbies) sport, volunteer activities and civic participation. Any time
remaining after such activity is the sacred residue of life, unencumbered time in
terms of we imagine the ecstatic possibility of pure freedom.
The café is the public sanctum of leisure, where the Dionysian pleasures
of sheer idleness come out of the middle class home to be performed, regulated
and sanctioned by public rites. Church Street is a sanctum, alfresco, acapella. An
infusion made from the burnt seeds of a weedy shrub that, like camphor, invades
the lowland rainforests of the Bellinger Valley, coffee is the eucharist of lifestyle.
Coffee’s rites allow for performances of piety, expertise, connoisseurship and
creative expression. There are the subtleties of roasts and blends, the ethics of
sourcing, the precision of preparation, the matching of brew to time of day, the
sophistication of names and nuances of concoction like short black, macchiato,
latte, cappuccino & flat white. There is the holy grail of ‘good coffee’. There is
even the grace of distraction: for the whole rite is primarily performed as mood
and ambience of the conversation or the solitude or the reverie of the coffee
drinker. By the curious self-generating workings of secular modernity, the drug at
the centre of the rites conducted in this sanctum of leisure is a stimulant to work,
thus leisure is sanctioned as the complement of work, which remains as the highest
19
Latte Town of The Year; or from the burnt seeds of a weedy shrub
even if the most tedious form of action..
Coffee is also a refuge from infantilism. The dark bitter drug advertises
itself as grown up, but without the stupor of alcohol. Latte and cappuccino, like
comfort foods, are not so much concessions to infantilism as they are the permitted
indulgences of what the middle class likes to call guilty pleasure. They can also
excuse themselves as utilitarian if drunk at a working breakfast, or at least before
lunch. The café is a bolthole for authenticity too, a little refuge from the mall
and supermarket. It has baristas rather than food technologists, food rather than
take-aways. It even provides a refuge where the tourist, exhausted by a stint at the
attraction, can rest after the work of tourism has been done or even whinge about
tourism and the decline of authenticity. The café itself though is imperilled by the
same decline: the life of the café is legendary. It begins with a brief and glorious
golden age when the coffee is the best in town and only those in the know know
it. Then comes the humdrum of its middle age with over-crowding by hoi polloi,
blow-ins and tourists. The coffee suffers. And the end is a dismal tale of decline
into desertion, neglect and selling off the business.
Coffee is a zeitgeist thing. The vocab blends the smart Australian of short
black and flat white with the cosmopolitan of espresso, cappuccino and macchiato. Each
term can be precisely dated in the archaeology of café society. The modern age of
coffee signifies the decline of the Anglo pot of tea. In Australia it’s partly a result
of post war immigration, especially Italian, but it’s more to do with the middle
class cosmopolitanism of international tourist culture. Apart from coffee, what old
cafés used to list as ‘hot beverages’ now run to green and herbal teas for detox, chai
for Hinduphiles, and English Breakfast or Earl Grey if black tea is still your brew.
The teabag of English Breakfast is what Anglo culture has come to. Although
coffee was the caffeine of choice in eighteenth century England, Australia was a
nation built on the drugs of the Empire’s plantations and the nineteenth century
industrial working class. Earl Grey is like English Breakfast but with the lemon
detergent not rinsed from the cup, and chai is what Indian resourcefulness made
with the dust the English tea merchants didn’t want and the unpasteurised milk
produced by a nation full of cows. In Bellingen, if you want oolong or keemun,
you will have to wait till you can go to yum cha or go home.
If there were an award for ‘Latte Town of The Year’ Bellingen would
have won it by now. Maybe the Chamber of Commerce could put signs up on the
approaches to town: ‘Bellingen, Latteland’. In addition, as the travel articles will
tell you, destination Bellingen is world famous for National Parks, rainforest, The
Global, The Jazz Festival, the Monthly Market, David Helfgott, George Negus,
Peter Carey, No.2 Oak Street, and Eucalyptus, the unmade movie of Murray Bail’s
novel starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. The hardwood industry, M.O.s
and marihuana have dropped off the list. ‘Sleepy North Coast timber town’ has
20
Karaoke; or democracy
given way to ‘natural surrounds and bohemian vibe’.
Tourism is serious business and, as the letters reminded the readers of
the Courier Sun. tourism was at stake in Church Street. Whether it was the coffee
that attracted them or what Dawn Lewis, in her March 23 letter, called the ‘shady
unsophisticated centre’, tourists wrote to the paper from Europe and North
America. Dr William Maxwell from the UK Institute of Travel and Tourism,
feared that the ‘tourist attraction’ would ‘lose a little more of its country charm’
and become a ‘soul less area a bit like Bankstown Mall’. On the one hand there
is nothing so demeaning to a town as tourism. To be a tourist attraction is to sell
one’s soul. People who live in a tourist attraction become local colour. The Church
Street coffee drinker is probably authentic, but maybe only in that now dated ironic
postmodern way. Yet not to be a tourist town is to not care any more, to stagnate,
to give up. New York after 9/11, London after 7/7 and Queensland after the
floods saw the return of tourism as the rediscovery of identity, the affirmation of
heart and soul. So deeply is tourism insinuated into contemporary spirituality.

Karaoke; or democracy
I n one of the January 5 letters, Adrian Wolfin reported that The
Council meeting on 15 December was ‘a mockery of democracy’. A ‘well know
businesswoman’ had pointed out to him that ‘members of the gallery were silenced
and not allowed to ask questions.’ On 12 January Anne Thompson wrote that ‘she
was appalled at the way the discussion was controlled’. On January 19 Solveig
Larsen was ‘truly amazed that our Council was intent upon the removal of the
one hundred year old trees…without proper community consultation’. And, with
the letters in the Courier Sun running four to one in favour of the camphors, Ziggy
Koenigseder wrote ‘It is obvious that they are all deaf to our wishes’. Back at the
meeting itself — as the Courier Sun told it — the ‘horticulturalist’ Richard Peters
told off the ‘fraud’ Sean Tuohy: ‘You got in on a Green ticket. I voted for you.’
Sean Tuohy’s response — ‘That doesn’t make me your slave’ — was a kind of heat-
of-the-battle version of Edmund Burke’s line: ‘Your representative owes you, not
his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he
sacrifices it to your opinion’. Incidentally, the gentlemen of Bristol tossed Burke
out of parliament for his troubles; although, he did end up getting back in on a
kind of eighteenth century gerrymander — a ‘pocket borough’. Right back in her
first letter Ziggy Koenigseder had been clear about all this: the ratepayers are the
21
Karaoke; or democracy
Council’s ‘employers’.
While principles of democratic process were being clarified, the Councillors
themselves made very few public comments, other than at Council meetings. Local
councillors seldom write letters to the paper. Apart from there being too many
issues to write on, they are wary of mixing it in a forum where debate can fly off
in any direction at any time and where a response to such a turn has the potential
to bog down in week after week tit for tat. A bog can muddy the debate and the
debaters. For peace of mind councillors probably prefer to stay out and stay clean
and dry. All they have to do is resist the urge to grab the mike and get up and sing
on the letters page. At the same time, there is no being guided by any opinion
polls like the ones that complicate and steer the furious feedback phenomena of
national politics. Bellingen had to make do with Cherie Pugh polling a sample of a
hundred and publishing the pro-camphor statistic of 82% in a letter to the March
16 Courier Sun. It would have been easy to cry methodology, but easier to stay quiet.
Lacking party polling, minders, publicity officers, talk back radio, and sound bites,
local Councillors came across in all the camphor clamour as deafeningly silent.
When Luke Hartsuyker did his photo op under the camphors — I assume
with a press release attached — the Mayor Mark Troy responded with what I
also assume was his own press release. The Courier Sun gave the local Mayor
second billing to the local member in its article: ‘Member for Cowper weighs into
Camphor debate’. In the paper’s words (there were no quotation marks) Mark
Troy was ‘surprised and disappointed that Mr Hartsuyker hadn’t consulted with
Council before making representations to Anthony Albanese, the federal Minister
for Infrastructure. The Church Street funding was part of the post-GFC ‘Stimulus
Package’, so I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to read a headline like ‘Stimulus
Spending Scandal Causes Local Heartache’. State and federal politicians feed out
press releases with lines like that every day, for most local councillors though, press
releases remain a last resort. There is a whiff of spin and media management about
them, putting them at odds with the public meetings, the volunteer groups and the
word-of-mouth networks of community politics.
It was through such a network that I got in touch with Kerry Child, one
of the Council majority that voted in favour of cutting down two of the camphors
in Church Street. I emailed her and confessed: ‘I am a closet essay writer and I
am writing one on the camphor story.’ I was wondering if she could spare some
time to talk about it. I knew I could rely on her for information. I wanted to know
her thoughts. We met for a coffee of course. Kerry brought a stack of Council
papers and we talked for close on two hours. Every second person seemed to
say hello to her. OK. So local politics works through networks of community
groups, contacts, shared interests and friends. Work, sport, art, nature, politics,
friends, neighbours, first names, all that. This is civil society, but is it openness? Is
22
Karaoke; or democracy
it community consultation? Where is the democratic forum? Is it the media? The
Council Chambers? Church Street itself ?
Community consultation? Being someone in a consultation process is not
much different from being no one. Hence the bright idea of pairing the palliative
concept of ‘ownership’ with ‘consultation’. A ‘consultative process’ has its own
momentum. Once it’s going you wonder if it isn’t a kind of self-steering machine
started up by as yet undescribed cosmic forces. The Church Street process had
been going on since 2002. Community meetings are lifestyle in Bellingen. People
think it’s sort of fun. For some people the machine is like a ride. Of course we
have engineers who specialise in managing the ‘consultative process’. A competent
engineer has to make sure the momentum is already driving relentlessly towards the
desired conclusion. It’s a bit like a nuclear reactor. Not a lot can go wrong unless a
tsunami of outrage breaches the reactor core. The engineers show powerpoints®,
engage in dialogue, and fill white boards. They instruct people in the laws that, like
those of physics, are beyond the power even of the gods to change. They bring
the issues, the aims and objectives, the options, the criteria, and their decision
matrices. Or rather they anticipate them and elicit them from the meeting and
they insert them like fuel rods and control rods into the reactor. But it’s a Faustian
art: the engineer only becomes a master of it by letting the machine master her
or him. When the people finally look upon the result, The Thing is an utterly
banal and cosmically alien monster. Who could have made this? Whoever ‘they’
is, only they could have. Drinking coffee might be less unsettling — the caffeine
notwithstanding — and more productive. But some people like the adrenalin that’s
unleashed when the consultation gets going. Maybe they have a double espresso
before the meeting.
These analogies are glib, but the world conceives itself this way —
sometimes unconsciously —and makes itself glib. As part of modern life we
don’t so much make comparisons in order to describe how democracy works,
we conceive and practice democracy in ways that match our glib analogies. Thus
capitalism has always flattered itself and degraded democracy by comparing it to
a market place. Polls are like ratings and we change governments with no greater
consequence than changing TV channels. Or cafés. Forms of life from one sphere,
say pop culture, are reflected and repeated and make an eerie re-appearance to
haunt us in other spheres such as politics.
Consider the candidates for Bellingen’s democratic forum:
The media — i.e. the Courier Sun — is an organ of entertaining stimulus
and response. It’s got the Fairfax franchise, it’s got incumbency, advertising and
a distribution network. Its popular enough, and it sells enough advertising. The
reporting is mostly off the shelf like a supermarket, but with local specials and
a deli for the discerning taste. More than anything else, what sells it is the letters
23
A more Euclidean universe; or quaint hyper-realities
page. It works like an open mike, or a karaoke machine. You get the impression
that the lyrics are supplied and the performances amateur, uneven, vulnerable, but
sort of admirable for all that. Passion and enthusiasm are often semi-disguised as
hamming or overstatement or air guitar. People who write on behalf of community
groups are like nervous singers who don’t want to be on stage, so busy trying to
stay in tune you hardly hear them in all the excitement, or they are too boring or
excruciating to listen to. I wrote a letter from Landcare, but it didn’t make the cut.
People who cite their credentials come across like self-styled crooners who go
excruciatingly out of tune on the big notes. Occasionally there is a true prose stylist
like the now quiet Trevor Joyce, or a commentator-at-large like Darcey Browning,
the oracle of Darkwood. When someone writes a clear, sincere letter there is the
pleasure of relief, even if you don’t agree. In the camphor debate, especially if I
liked the person who wrote them, I’d want to switch sides.
Then there is the Council’s intimate little Chamber. It mostly puts on
obscure dramas scripted by its Agenda and the attached papers. It’s like boring,
subsidised, high culture. But occasionally it packs in a full house to watch, and
sometimes the audience tries to stage its own script or at least heckle. Everyone is
‘appalled’.
As for Church Street itself ? I suppose it is a kind of promise that café
society is its own shady agora, and it brings to the polis what the other places lack:
coffee and cake with ambience.
Anyway, a sense of the Council’s silence must have driven David Breaden,
in his long, questioning letter of January 26, to ask the Council to ‘share…matters
openly and accurately for community information and response. Community
frustration over these matters is boiling over.’ With the media so loud, the Council’s
eight years of discussions and tabled documents sounded no different from silence.
And the failure of all that ‘boiling over’ to change the Council’s decision was no
different from good old lack-of-consultation. Ah democracy! if that’s what you
call it.

A more Euclidean universe; or quaint hyper-realities


O culus, a firm of landscape architects from Newtown in Sydney, had
already prepared ‘concept drawings’ but they didn’t exactly inspire The Coffee
Drinker. It was hard to know which was more bland, the drawings or the prose
style. These things always look like impressions of a 70s shopping mall, the space
24
A more Euclidean universe; or quaint hyper-realities
and perspective imported from some more Euclidean universe. The ‘concept
drawings’ filled the wall space of the Oculus report with pictures. Some were plans,
some were computer generated ‘artists impressions’. Some of the more schematic
drawings made it look like Brutalism was back and coming to the Church Street
heritagescape, that lunchtime joggers would be running up from the river through
Church Street and back to work in one of the CBD office towers, that suits would
be standing around looking like they’d just flown up from Melbourne. Maybe it was
supposed to be on a day the court was sitting when small colonies of suits migrate
into Church Street. Or maybe Bellingen was just going to become more vibrant
and metropolitan.
At their worst these ‘artists impressions’ are a genre like ‘glossy brochures’.
At their best they are icons to the difference between concept and reality. I suppose
charitably we use their quaint hyper-realities as primitive effigies of place. It’s part
of the everyday nous of the competent adult to tolerate them and look with them
or through them rather than at them. Out of habit we usually make allowances
for their limitations, adjust the drawings with a bit of mutatis mutandis here, ceteris
paribus there, and see what we think the planners want us to see, the same as we
do when looking at any diagram. Or at least I assumed everyone did this. In the
camphor case, those with the new vision for Church Street made their allowances
and saw their vision, the possibility of ‘revitalisation’. They could well have seen
hyper-modern buildings clad in photovoltaic shim and bio-cooled by rainforest
epiphytes. But those who wanted the old trees to stay needed no imagination to see
all the generic development and the bland, abstract space that this kind of drawing
shows so well. If architecture is frozen music this was frozen muzak. The prose
didn’t help: ‘���������������������������������������������������������������
The landscape approach to Church Street North … looks to unify
the North and South of the street, providing a vibrant environment for residents
and visitors to occupy and gather at all times of the year.’ There were ‘sinuous
forms’, ‘visual continuations’ and the ‘termination’ of Church Street was going to
be ‘embraced’.
Craig Burton, a landscape and heritage architect from Church Point
in Sydney, had a letter in the Courier Sun on 12 January during the wet summer
holidays. Bellingen had its own flood during the big floods in Brisbane. There
was the regulation shot-of-the-bridge-under-water on page one. A small group
of teenage girls lined up in tights and bare feet at the waters edge doing that
traditional Bellingen distracted gaze north. The usual pile of debris had latched
onto the submerged bridge halfway across. This genre is local heritage. Craig
Burton’s letter was about the whole Church Street plan. It was hard to tell
whether Craig had got stuck in town during his rained out holidays or whether
he was writing a submission to the Council. He was ‘concerned about the design
character’, specifically ‘the generic urban design approaches’ that don’t ‘address
25
What does that even mean? or aesthetics
the exact qualities that distinguish Bellingen and contribute to its identity’. David
Breaden wrote a similar letter on January 26, an open letter to Council. He wrote
as a retired architect, wrote about the whole Church Street plan, and wrote with
a concern about community consultation. His professional style was evident in
the vocabulary and content of his critique, like Craig Burton’s. They also shared
the professional approach of solving problems by multiplying them. That is, the
Council needed to do more planning. It needed to: acknowledge the undue rush,
give Church Street ‘the creative attention it deserves’, produce a new plan ‘that
incorporates more of the community’s (rather than the consultant’s) wishes’,
and get an extension on the funding. Failing that, it should decline the funding.
These were quite different letters from the regular save the camphors line. This
was cultural critique, consultant vs. consultant, each armed with the professional’s
prose style. It seemed to licence them to write about aesthetics, if you call a line
like ‘the exact qualities that distinguish Bellingen and contribute to its identity’
aesthetics.

What does that even mean? or aesthetics.


W hen the Council called for submissions on its plans to build the viewing
platform at the river end of Church Street, someone had a go at architectural
critique: ‘it has a weak and uninviting shape and needs to be stronger and more
dynamic’. At once The Planner had a response scripted for her by all the wisdom of
modernity. The spirit of the age was summed up in ‘the aesthetics of the platform
are subjective and it would be highly unlikely that one design would appeal to
everyone’s personal taste.’ She was being polite. She could have said ‘what does that
even mean?’ Maybe what mattered in this whole Church Street thing though was
the unspeakable: the aesthetics of it all. But if it was unspeakable, how come those
architects could get away with it?
They could talk about aesthetics because it was their job and they knew
how to. They treated aesthetics as something objective. If the ‘weak and uninviting’
submission had been about the materials, or about the platform not ‘fitting into
the landscape’, or ‘linking the town to the river’, or ‘embracing Bellingen’s sense of
place’, or even ‘embracing the termination of Church Street’, then it would have
had all the objectivity it needed to slip past The Planner. The idea that aesthetics is
only subjective is just wrong. We demonstrate this all the time. The professionals
have a profusion of words, and a tangle of concepts that come with all the inertial
26
What does that even mean? or aesthetics
mass of aesthetics bureaucratised, and, to that extent, aesthetics objectified.
Ordinary talk is full of aesthetics. About the same time Bob Brown’s
brother was playing marbles under the thirty-five year old camphors, the philosopher
of ordinary language, J. L. Austin, was hoping that field work would ‘soon be
undertaken in…aesthetics. If only we could forget for a while about the beautiful
and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.’
On the fields of the camphor war there were lots of aesthetic words to
collect and classify. Some, like icon and generic came up again and again. Some had
a viral look like gateway. Some were from what Austin called ‘the common stock’,
‘rich and subtle’ words that ‘embody all the distinctions men have found worth
making’. But a lot weren’t. Craig Burton used words like gateway, landmark, link,
unique, qualities, distinctiveness, ordinariness, sameness, and generic, each with a twang of
jargon, none unambiguously of ‘the common stock’. He also used concepts that
Austin would have said were ‘infected by the jargon of extinct theories’: strong sense
of identity, sense of presence, design character, integrative, visual affinity, sub-theme, creative
energy, clearly evident. He knew how to make a knowing allusion to Spanish architects so
notable there was no need to name them.
David Breaden did draw from the common stock with barren, boring, sterile,
unimaginative, add-on, and uninviting, but with words like iconic, intimate, meaningful,
appropriate and incorporated his professional experience started to show. With
concepts like expanded spaces, prime focus, and skilful design, it was on display. He also
critiqued plans for a streetscape dominated by straight lines, but when he did, it
put me in mind, probably unfairly, of the quaint little street that winds through the
malled centre of Armidale, yearning for the Cotswolds or Disneyland.
As an artist Solveig Larsen exulted in works of art, of the highest kind, spirit
of Bellingen, grace, character, immense shade, beautiful, natural, sculptural masterpieces, rarely
found, irony, and life-blood. She used neat, and sterile, and beautify, but made clear their
mention was pejorative by quarantining them in quotation marks. She also strayed
into tourist-blurb with soak up the atmosphere.
Oculus outdid everyone —like they were paid to — with revitalisation,
sinuous, alfresco, respect location, placemaking, activation of spaces (by cars of all things)
and embraces the termination of Church Street. Clutter was the clearest word they used.
It was up to the unprofessional to unmuddy the waters. The all too
unprofessional, L Saunders slummed it with blunt negatives like distorted, rotted,
stained, waste of space (in an architectural sense), tired, and tacky. In the whole debate
the plainest words, and the words that made most sense, were negative. It’s as
if being positive has become a tyranny that demands doublespeak, and we have
forgotten how to be articulate in our admiration.
Brett Iggulden, OAM, came dangerously close to mentioning Tuscany and invoked
trees in France and Spain, singing their praises with the words wild and old. He had
27
What does that even mean? or aesthetics
no taste for pruned and tidy. And way back in her first letter to the paper Ziggy
Koenigseder was using picturesque and beautiful. Admittedly they are terms from
Austin’s ‘extinct aesthetic theories’ — eighteenth century heritage — preserved
now in tourist brochures, but that was sort of what she was writing, and she did
have a point. Ziggy’s cool in summer, and shady were spot on. Damp and muggy would
have been too. And so would scrawny and ragged — words about big trees that
I mean in a good way. The point is that words on their own are nothing. They
need sentences and arguments to give our talk its meaning. I have used quotations
thoughout this essay not to rob the words of their users’ intentions, but to display
those intentions, for better or for worse. It’s one way to report from an aesthetic
front, where what words mean is anybody’s guess; and right from the start this
war has been aesthetic rather than anything else. That’s why it’s important and
dangerous but seems shallow.
If a lot of the talk didn’t sound aesthetic that’s only because it didn’t
sound subjective enough. It’s a disguise; we don’t want our judgments to sound like
matters merely of taste. But in disguising our subjectivity we paint ourselves into
the corner of aesthetic illiteracy, and fall back on terms supplied by an aesthetic
bureaucracy that includes everyone from professional consultants and remaindered
academics, to the writers of tourist blurbs, to all of us. We’re all bureaucrats now.
Aesthetic qualities may be objective but aesthetic experience is subjective too.
We need the subjectivity to keep aesthetics honest. The line about the ‘weak and
uninviting shape’ looked subjective, because it was feeble. You can only get away
with a line like that — or with ‘mere taste’ — if you have the authority to bluff
and carry it off. Not only did the voice lack authority, it tried to hide that by just
drawing on the lexicon of bureaucratised aesthetics. It wasn’t really honest.
Personally, I would like to say big and spreading. In his lectures on aesthetics
Hegel thought that fascination with big objects was typical of a kind of primitive
stage of aesthetic sensibility. He cited things like the Sphinx at Giza. In Bellingen’s
provinces we’ve got the Big Banana and the Big Prawn, although Bellingen itself
wouldn’t stand for a Big Bat or the Big Cup. Maybe liking big trees also shows this
primitive aesthetic sensibility that Hegel was on about. I like big trees, especially
in streets, and especially when their branches meet in an arch over the road. If the
roots ‘wreak havoc’, design for it.
Bellingen’s great street tree is, of course, at the Pub Carpark: the big
strangler fig chewing up the square from its northern perimeter. Loaded with
fruit, it distributes its bounty to all who sway in its branches, who crawl round
its buttresses, who park on its tarmacked roots greedy for its immense shade. Its
gifts to the world extend far beyond its branches. It makes a leopard tree look like
a feral cat and the camphors like daleks: they’re biodiversity maybe, but only in an
intergalactic sort of way.
28
Apart from that big fig what interests me most in all this is that line about
‘the exact qualities that distinguish Bellingen and contribute to its identity’. It’s
so assured. It begs the question. It makes it sound as if we all know those ‘exact
qualities’. But what does it even mean?

Streetscape as art; or democracy as artist


I t’s common knowledge: a work of art is like an organism. Its parts
form an integrated whole. When Craig Burton talked ‘sense of unity’ that’s what
he was on about. David Breaden mentioned it too. There is no necessity about this
principle of course — landscape architecture is probably the art least beholden to
it — but it has been a persistent notion in western art. If anything it has been more
emphatic in modern times, where it has been supplemented by the idea of the
creative individual. We joke about anything designed by a committee and imagine
an artist as an individual whose unified vision guarantees the unity of the work. In
recent legend the artist is a hero whose will clashes with the meddling mediocrity
of philistines and funding. Along with the notion that ‘aesthetics is subjective’,
the idea that ‘democracy is not a great artist’ sounds like modern common sense.
Consultation is the antithesis of this.
Before work starts on our streetscape we furiously plan; we burn ourselves
out idling and revving. For years in the case of Church Street, for so long you
wonder whether history has not just pulled the foundations of the planning out
from the under the plans. The latest plan ends up being based on something
scarcely important, someone’s hobby horse, that got into the plan because they
were there on the night of the now forgotten meeting and they were noisy enough
or made enough sense at the time. It becomes something so deeply sedimented
into the plan that, even if no one any longer wanted it, it would be inextricable. At
the end of all the planning someone who probably wasn’t there at any earlier stage
comes along and says it’s all wrong. For example David Breaden in his January 26
letter. And everyone knows he’s right: the plan is wrong somewhere and sort of
wrong everywhere. No wonder sociologists coined the term alienation: the plan
is alien, even to those who attended every meeting. That’s what defines the result
of planning by consultation and committees. It’s probably what defines plans as
such. It defines modern life. Back to the drawing board sounds like the only way
forward. In all this we forget that a plan is just a shadow.
Between the plan and the reality falls the action. Or as we say in the case
of Church Street, the implementation, a word already polysyllabic with prevarication.
The word is designed to spirit away the material sense of work, by attributing
29
Streetscape as art; or democracy as artist
the implementation to the Project Co-ordinator, that is, to another manager and
planner. It is as if under the ever-growing shadow of planning, our division of
labour strives to relieve the work of its material character. The virtue inherent
in doing the work — with all its uncertainty and in its capacity to go wrong, but
also with its potential for re-appraisal, re-invention, redirection, and for making
good its efforts — is stolen from almost everyone. Or hidden somewhere. The
work itself ends up as no more than a residue, the last, lowliest job. The landscape
architect, the planners, the Councillors, the citizens, all leave the stage, and leave
the honours of implementation to the Project Co-ordinator, to the Shire bridge-
building team, and down on the river flat and edge of the terrace to a Green Team
of young Gumbayngirr guys. And probably to police and protestors. At every
stage the process removes almost all sense of an artist or a maker. Any idea of
creative individual is ridiculous. Once work starts, the intractability of materials
confronts workers at every stage. That’s why you get someone who is used to the
materials, like the bridge-builders. And in Church Street it looks like there will be
the intractability of a demo. That’s when someone calls the cops, and the police
and the protestors combine in a kind of collaborative opposition. They are workers
too. It looks like democracy will be the artist right down to the line.
And what about this thing called ‘landscape architecture’? The awkward
expression reflects our failure to properly conceive it. In search of our concept
we scrape around for words, multiplying problems by combining urban design,
architecture, horticulture and landscaping. We try to make a virtue of it by citing
multidisciplinarity but its just another coinage working hard to hide our malaise.
And we already have the problem that, if it is an art, then the design is done by
committees and technocrats and consultation; the implementation is just another
stage of management; and the work is a residue left to workers or volunteers. They
have to work on everything that the landscape architect’s multidisciplinarity only
had to address in theory.
The landscape architect is a consultant — that is a bureaucrat with an
ABN — in an office in Sydney with a list of plants, books of colour swatches,
catalogues of outdoor design, and software for drawing up ‘concept plans.’ It all
makes it so hard to conceive of what landscape architecture actually is and does,
that it’s no surprise we usually don’t do it very well. And it gets worse.
Architecture may be frozen music but not landscape architecture. As soon
as it’s up, it’s up and running. It’s got a life of its own. Landscape architects often
do no more than plan, that is, freeze stuff on the page. But when they have gone
on to their next contract, implementation and time thaw it for everyone else’s
inconvenience. Because it’s so difficult for landscape architects to conceive of what
time will do with the stuff they design, there is a big temptation to hedge bets and
lay off responsibility to clients.
30
Streetscape as art; or democracy as artist
Bellingen will have new paving, new street furniture, and some new trees
somewhere. Advanced seedlings in fact, of neat species with a reputation for
compliant behaviour. The single most important criterion for species selection is
availability of stock big enough to claw two or three years growth advantage for an
avenue planting meant to last who knows how long. A hundred years? It is as if we
are trying to circumvent a defining necessity of landscape architecture by buying
time, when really we should be making a virtue of it. Any work worth making
has a life of its own. In it’s own biological way that might be the best landscape
architecture has got going for it. Maybe time, committees, protest, bad pruning
and spilt coffee can make a work of Church Street and by 2050 someone will be
saying its heritage.
At least we won’t have the bother of translating this work of landscape
architecture into some kind of creative hero standing behind it, just so we have the
comfort of praising someone. And we don’t need anyone to blame; we’ve got the
Council for that. Forget Baron Haussman eyeing out cool subtropical boulevards.
Bellingen will be denied and/or spared a star designer blazing above Church Street
or a local star shooting up from its own creative firmament. There will be no Burle
Marx wandering through the Bellinger rainforests asking nature what to plant,
and no slab of meta-swank publishing with a title like oculus: place/street/
visual continuations gracing 21C designer tables and permanently opened
at the photo deck of ‘Church Street Precinct’. We, Bellingen, will just have us,
‘Bellingen’.

This morning I dropped off a gas bottle at Carl Foster’s garage. I said hello
to Kerry Child who was over at the NRMA counter. I went round to Oak Street
and signed a couple of cheques at the Landcare office, and I walked back past the
Gelato Bar and saw the window being washed. A wounded James Dean was looking
back out at the War Memorial. I dropped a DVD of Caro Diario into the tardus at
the video store — the old billiard room — and walked on down the main street. I
met one of Bellingen’s green veterans, one of the generation who had helped stop
a woodchip mill at Coffs Harbour — a seaside suburb of Bellingen — back in the
1970s. He was pushing a walking frame back up the street and had a go at me for
walking too fast. None of that flâneur stuff for me. I went down the lane beside
the pub and bought a loaf of bread at the Hearthfire, the hole in the wall bakery and
café at the back of the former Carriageway. A credit to bread.
When I came out I walked round into the Pub Carpark. The fig was big and
dark on the north of the square. It was the first sunny day after a wet subtropical
month: It made me think of two lines of poetry:
The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become
31
Streetscape as art; or democracy as artist
Two backpackers, arm in arm, were dawdling in front of me, talking in
a sing-song language. I left them for dead and walked between the Great Shed
and the Environment Centre — the recycled Funeral Parlour — and turned into
Church Street, through ‘the precinct’ itself. I did a bit of research, checked a few
details, and then retreated round past the Court and the Police Station to pick up
mail at the Post Office. When I walked back up to Church Street the Square-tailed
Kite was hovering above The Map of the known world, looking north. I looked at
the streetscape and tried to imagine what ‘magnificent’ would look like. I thought
about slipping into the Tuckshop, getting a coffee and staring back out through the
glazing while running through mental ‘concept plans’ of Church Street missing
four, three, two, or one camphor. But I gave it a miss. I had things to do.

So here we are, still only at the beginning: the northern end of Church
Street screened off with hoardings, the malling and paving in process; coffee still
being drunk in the café strip under the heritage weeds. The Courier Sun’s news
on March 30 was that only one camphor would be cut down. The headline was
‘Camphor compromise’. It was a budget thing: cutting down two would cost
$122k; cutting down just the eastern one would only cost $70k. In the letters
John Tickle talked about ‘a solid gold chainsaw and a diamond studded cherry
picker’. The whole-of-streetscape cost was around $800k. The front page photo
showed a group of residents gathered with placards under the earmarked eastern
camphor: “Don’t Cut The Heart Out Of Bellingen.’ Kay Phillips in her April 6
letter was ‘disgusted’ that the town was ‘still full of apathy’. At the Council meeting
Councillor David Scott realised he had a problem with the Master Plan: ‘We need
to take another look at it’. The art is streescape; Democracy is the artist.
In its first camphor article back on October 27, the Courier-Sun reported
that the camphors would be replaced with leopard trees. Church Street with an
avenue planting of leopard trees! That bit of misinformation was enough to get
me started. I even ended up at a consultative committee on tree selection. So
right from the start I declare myself: I will be satisfied with nothing less than big
figs, white booyongs, ringwoods, weeping lilly pillies and cudgeries. Even these are
compromises. Like everyone I will be disappointed and exasperated. Everyone will
be appalled...

Bellingen
October, 2010 — April, 2011

Accordingly he went first to Bellingen and offered sacrifice to Gaia....


32
Bellingen is the capital of the Bellinger Valley, complacent
about its fame and preoccupied with its identity.

Heritage Weeds In Latteland


is a portrait of Bellingen during its camphor laurel war.
an event that refracted the image of the capital into
antagonistic, irreconcilable elements

The camphors were either living monuments or monumental


weeds. Those who wanted to weed them out were, by their
own lights, renewing an older more venerable tradition, and
redeeming its beauty for modernity and the future. They were
seen by those who wanted to keep the shady camphors as
wanting to strip the earth bare in the name of generic suburban
‘beautification’.

Each side invoked Gaia.

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