(The name casuarina, from the Malay Kasuari, alludes to the similarity of the drooping foliage of the genus to the feathers of the cassowary bird.)
Sometimes people call them she-oaks, or river oaks,
remembering large stately trees on the banks
of freshwater streams, soft smudges against the sky,
their feathery foliage a shadowy greenish grey.
They stand on mattresses of fallen needles
scattered with their tiny bead-like cones.
Our soundless tread’s so different from the crack
and snap of walking through dry bush and scrub
we almost feel we should lower our voices.
They’re accommodating trees, will grow
in sandy loam, in alkaline and brackish soils,
serve as windbreaks, avenues and tactful screens
for suburban bus depots and power stations.
The branchlets of some species will feed stock
in times of drought, while the wood is dense and hard.
Is there no end to the virtues of the genus casuarina?
How easy to ascribe a feminine persona
to this paragon of trees, graceful yet adaptable,
nurturing and practical, provider in the past
of timber for shingles, bullock yokes, axe handles.
Even as fuel it is sublime for when it’s burnt
is almost smokeless; in the days when every town
made its own bread, bakers loved it for their ovens.
If I had never heard of the flightless bird
that gave us casuarina I surely would invent
my own associated saint, one Santa Casuarina,
patron of equanimity, comfort and domestic order,
(soft bedding, good fires and well-baked bread).
I see her like Saint Barbara—of pious legend,
dropped from the Vatican Calendar but still
revered in certain parts, regardless of the Holy See.