Poetry

Casuarinas

(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.

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