The Marion Chronicles, Chapter 1
Sometimes late at night if I can’t sleep, I walk out onto the deck and look up into the branches of the big gum tree in our yard and watch the tips of her long, fingerlike branches bend to catch the passing breaths of air. Her latin name, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, is much more dignified than the common one, river red gum. She’s leaning at a seemingly precarious angle, but it’s understandable when you look towards the street and see the massive dead trunk of another eucalypt that must have been lording it over this spot when she was just a baby. She had to grow sideways to catch the light. Once the big boy next door had died, she was free to stretch back upright, reclaiming the sky for herself.
Her kind are known for dropping limbs at random when under stress, hence another common name: widowmaker. The January day we began the restoration was hot, and the workers showed up to find she had shed a big branch during the night. It had missed the house, but I worried. Would the next one punch a hole in the roof? Andrew, the foreman, told me if it were him, he’d cut the tree down. In the end I had an arborist do a check-up; he pronounced her healthy and strong. What a relief. Not a day goes by now but I look up into her branches and send a silent greeting. I have a feeling she is glad we have removed the paving that had cut into her base and kept the rain from reaching her roots and that we have freed her from the ivy that had been choking her lower limbs and trunk.
This is another thing that Marion and I have in common: our love of trees. Love is not quite the right word — perhaps it’s more accurately described as reverence and kinship. I have read so much about trees and forests, have even written upon occasion about these fellow beings. The deeper I go, the more I am fascinated. Anyone who shares my obsession is by definition a soul mate.
In fact, the first thing that really struck me when I started reading Marion’s memoir was something she wrote in a letter to Walter, who had just left for a long sojourn in India:
14 October, 1935, Castlecrag : Dear Walt, This morning I climbed the gum tree and sawed off the parts that were contacting the four telephone wires. They were growing so beautifully it seemed a shame but the tree doesn’t look bad now and the widespreading branches will soon put things entirely to rights I am sure. It seemed like old times to be climbing trees. I was famous for that in my childhood, climbing trees the boys couldn’t climb. […]MoA, P. 15
Now I myself am not, nor have I ever been, a tree climber. I do, however, have an imagination and the thought of shimmying up a gum tree at my advanced age of 55 is a bit daunting. Marion, at the writing of this letter, was nearly a decade older than me! Here’s another passage, in another letter written a week later:
21 October, 1935. Castlecrag — the little Chinese rug is a constant joy and I love to tell everybody that it was your parting shot. A having a great thrill feasting off our own loquats. Every morning I gather a dozen big ones. So far my eating expenses are nil. The girls bring out so much Sundays when they come to rehearsals that I live on it the rest of the week. Went to the dentist yesterday. Though I haven’t been for over a year he didn’t find anything to do except clean them. With an air of resignation he said they were strong teeth and would last me my lifetime. I fancy he may not have counted on that decision of ours to live for a hundred and fifty years – only way to get through what we have undertaken. […]MoA, p. 18
The combination of these two passages was the turning point for me, the moment that I said to myself, I have to write about Marion. Here she was, living alone, Walter off in India, and she just gets up one morning, sees the branches and the telephone lines, and climbs up in to the tree and deals with it. She’s taking obvious joy in her independence, her thriftiness and good health.
I’ll tell you more about her childhood tree climbing prowess later, I promise. But I wanted to lure you in with that scene so you could begin to see what kind of person she was.
I may have mentioned that Marion was famous for her architectural renderings. She pioneered a presentation style that included a drawing of the house in its landscape setting, with the floorplan and/or various elevations set out beneath it. Here’s the drawing for our house, which I can’t be certain was from her pen but you get the general idea:
Now look at this drawing of a house in Castlecrag:
Look at that tree, compared to the house and the plan! It dwarfs everything. In the text, she writes […] This tree too, an Angophora Lanceolata, loving the spectacular, chose the edge of a precipice thus dominating the gully. “Loving the spectacular,” indeed!
You’ll note the No. 6 at the top of the picture. In fact, this is the 6th of 24 “Forest Portraits” that Marion drew, all of which are included in the Magic of America. To see all of them you can go to the digital version – it’s a bit dated, so this link will take you to the front page, and then you will have to navigate in the menu on the left down to section III, the Municipal Battle. Each chapter (Numbers 1-24) in that section is headed by a forest portrait. (Navigating through the pages within chapters is done with the arrows at the top of the menu, in case you want to read more of what she has written.)
I will write about more of her Forest Portraits later, given my tree obsession and the fact that they were very important to her, a major part of what she wanted to create. And they’re just magnificent. But let’s take a moment now to just let that title sink in: Forest Portraits. These are not pictures of trees. They are portraits of forests. You don’t paint a portrait of a thing, but of a being. I think that says it all.
To me, this drawing perfectly captures Marion and Walter’s basic philosophy of nature: magnificent, powerful, beautiful. They were diametrically opposed to the idea that to build housing, one must subdue, tame, and control everything and then install cookie-cutter human habitations and plant non-native vegetation in a way that evoked “home” (read: England). Instead, their way was to work with Nature, adapt to her contours, leave the trees alone, and blur the edges with native plantings so that the house would not be a simply a house, but a part of the landscape. Like it is supposed to be there.
To me, it’s the difference between a building and a place. A house that is nestled into the contours of the land, built with natural, preferably local materials and surrounded by native vegetation becomes an organic part of the landscape. The humans living in it are thus connected to the land and feel at home. It is restful in a soul sense. The house and its inhabitants are rooted, like a tree, to this place, which is so much more than just four walls and a roof. It’s the birds in the bushes, the wind in the trees at night, the rocks and moss and bugs and creatures invisible to the eye working their magic in the soil.
Contrast this with the typical manner of things — flattening contours, chopping down trees, removing rocks, and erecting a series of chock-a-block clones in an attempt to remind its inhabitants of another place entirely. How can that be good for the soul? How can people be properly connected to a place if they’re pretending it’s somewhere different? Or just any generic place?
The third thing that convinced me that I was fated to write about Marion was the coincidence that an image of the interior of our house, Salter House, is positioned in the Magic of America in the midst of a text describing the Angophora.
[…] In these trees we seem to be seeing muscles extending and contracting, the trunk pours itself out over the rocks seeming to attach itself to them by viscid masses — and here’s the picture of the interior of our house — and even in the leaves we find the type of water in manifestation, the waves, the half or crescent moon, a type of leaf which we find nowhere else.
An odd kind of juxtaposition, if you didn’t know that I was obsessed with the shapes of Australia’s gum trees, or that I was friends with the one in our yard. As I am learning by studying Indigenous knowledge, time is not linear, but circular. Thanks, Marion! I’m on it!
Our house. I will never forget walking into it (her? him?) for the first time that fateful September day in 2017. Even with the faux-Toorak landscaping, even with the blinds drawn over the windows, I had the feeling that this was a place. Not just a house. Often when people come in they remark that it feels like a cabin, or a lodge. They might physically be in Melbourne’s poshest postcode, but they feel as if they’re out in the bush on retreat. It’s restful.
I have come to the conclusion that we are living in a kind of “tree” house. You see, the Griffin’s Magic of building houses that from the outside appear rooted within the natural landscape is only half of the story. The connection also goes the other way, from the inside to the outside. In most of their houses, the windows feature a geometrical pane pattern, the joinery stained (or painted) brown. I think each house’s pattern is unique – so far, at least, I haven’t seen the same pattern repeated in any of their other houses. I read somewhere that this is designed to make you feel like you’re looking out through branches of a tree into the green of the garden beyond. You’re not in a house at all! You’re in a tree!
Welcome to my magical tree house. I can’t think of a better place for me, tree-obsessed writer that I am, to be living during what feels like the end times of the world. The house, and Marion, are feeding my soul.
The electronic Version of the Magic Of America is Copyright © 2007 The Art Institute of Chicago.