Storm brewing. Photo: JM John Armstrong. 2010
I’ve maintained a vigil today, nothing dramatic, just quiet observation of the removal of a majestic old bunya pine at the back of the Aspley Hotel. The 25 metre tree has been part of the local landscape for as long as I can remember, having initially moved to Aspley as a child nearly 40 years ago. At chest height, the trunk could have measured about 2m in circumference. John guessed that it might easily be 100 years old. The bunya is the first thing I see when I leave my house; offering greetings that reach into the sky. Friends on facebook share our sadness at the destruction of this giant as I post photographs and updates.
We had assumed that because it was such a prominent local landmark and situated on a heritage listed property, the tree itself was protected. During consultations about the proposed busway, we know many in the community advocated for the maintenance of the heritage values of the hotel, insisting on no impacts on that site. Sadly, though, the hotel has not reciprocated by honouring a broad community view about heritage values that includes vegetation. Reminding ourselves to be fair, we speculate about whether the tree was diseased or otherwise afflicted. As a possibility, it’s a minor consolation.
Other trees were removed from the site for the purposes of the renovation but the bunya pine was retained. Prior to the redevelopment, the previous owners would cordon off the tree during bunya season. While not a prolific producer of nuts, we did manage to scavenge some a couple of years ago and there were times when the heavy cones would crash through the roof of the hotel extension, shattering the terracotta tiles. Trees like this provide habitat with birds and possums regularly noticed taking refuge on its outstretched limbs, perched at a lofty vantage point. By the time I realised the machinic noise outside was heralding the removal of the tree, two-thirds of the branches were gone.
After several phone calls, a Council officer confirmed that there was no vegetation protection order on this site and the tree could not be saved. While the hotel was within its rights to remove the tree, did it actually do the right thing? For those of us, like John and me, who value old trees more than we value hotels, there is a sense of loss about its removal. As we witnessed, we felt disempowered. The tree symbolises something special about our locality and its natural history, its linkages to older landscapes of vast forests and tural practices such as traditional bunya feasts. It even featured on our Christmas greeting one year. So I watched as the branches were systematically removed and fed into a chipper, grinding and tearing this statuesque beauty to mulch. Sadly, not even the timber could be salvaged for some greater purpose than wood chip.
Streetscape prior to redevelopment of the hotel, note the Bunya and other trees as a welcoming statement on the side pedestrian entrance (c. 2005)
The significance of the tree – its worthiness – was overlooked during the development application process for renovation of the hotel a few years ago and it didn’t rate a mention as a major feature of the landscape of the site or the local area. The hotel itself does little to regulate its rowdy patrons or the litter, including broken bottles and glass, they discard in neighbourhood streets. The only times they’ve ever cleaned the street of litter that obviously originated from their premises was when we complained to the licensing commission. Mostly, however, John collects the rubbish in an effort to keep the street clean and safe, and keep rubbish out of the stormwater systems. The opportunity to introduce a condition to protect the tree, as a dominant feature of the surrounding landscape, was not taken during the planning and redevelopment process. It wasn’t anyone’s job to do that.
The bunya pine is an important tree that proliferated across Brisbane and into the northern coastal areas and, of course, the Bunya Mountains. Two bunya pines were also removed from the McDonalds carpark at some point in the last five years, prior to the redevelopment of the site, though I believe these were diseased or dying. Even the local area plan recognised the bunya as meaningful, noting that the “two bunya pine trees near the intersection of Albany Creek Road and Maundrell Terrace are retained as natural visual markers of the location of the Centre”. However, the landscape plan seems to have misplaced the trees to the Hypermarket carpark, rather than in the Aspley centre. Alternately those trees have been removed and not replaced. My view is that the local plan itself shows disrespect and distaste for the locality. In historic photographs, including those of the original Royal Exchange Hotel (1925) located further along Gympie Road, bunya pines line the main road.
Royal Exchange Hotel, Gympie Road, Aspley (1925)
Even as a resident, there aren’t many things I really care about in Aspley – admitting that makes me feel slightly guilty, but it’s not an environment that engenders caring or cultivation. However, the bunyas, like the gum trees, stand out (literally) as enduring living things that preside over this low rise, car dominated/drive-by, sparse and generally awful suburban environment. While those trees noted in the plan may have once visually marked the centre, the hotel tree marked the edge.
Bunya pine, in process of removal, is in the middle the photograph.
It was a landmark. It had presence in the locality, rising above my street. It gave the place character and it was etched into local identity. It should be cherished. While the workers were on lunch, I took a closer look at the pieces of the upper trunk on the footpath. I didn’t count the rings but there were many.
Events like this serve as a reminder that residents must take an active interest in local affairs and we must be attentive to detail. It is apparent that private property owners and the local authority are not concerned with issues of cultural identity, place and heritage unless there are regulations and orders for them to either implement or abide by. Regulations, however, don’t make communities or places. If we don’t tend to our locality, we will lose things that matter; things that we care about.
It’s night now, too dark to shoot photographs. Though I did amble over to inspect the damage that’s been done. The stump of the tree is now levelled to the ground. Tomorrow’s photograph will be bereft. It will just show the loss; an empty space where a mighty tree once stood.