Leaving a World on Fire: Colonial Tree Migration

2020 ongoing

When I came across the name Eucalyptus Globulus (Tasmanian Blue Gum) on the inside cover of a book edited by Ellwood Cooper from 1876 I misread the word. I took Globulus for Globus. The book is stamped by the Colonial Office Library, published in San Francisco and an essay by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller outlines in detail the speculative value material applications of Eucalyptus might have for building railways, ships and other colonial infrastructure. The text documents the spread of blue gum seeds to London, Calcutta, Buenos Ayres and San Francisco. Since this intervention the tree has spread through such experiments in colonial era horticultural trade to many parts of the globe. The tree is native to Tasmania, small islands in Bass Strait and pockets of southern Victoria.

Eucalyptus is found in across the world including in Sintra, Portugal, in Cornwall, England, in Galway, Ireland, in California USA, across Latin America and many parts of Africa. It was planted in many places to drain the swampland areas that were not considered useful to colonial era agriculture. It was planted because it grows fast and is sucks up water, but the tree has allopathic qualities, and it is not possible to grow food or grain in its understory.

In many places now it’s a plantation tree, planted in long straight rows and used to provide the world with paper and commercial eucalyptus oil, far removed from their place as medicine, ancestor, elder in their original home. The mistake made me wonder if the name might refer to the plant and its migrations across the globe, but of course when it was ascribed this name in 1792 by French explorer Jacques-Julien Houton de Labillardiere on the island of Tasmania the plant had not yet experienced the ruptures and displacements that were to follow its colonial era movements

The tree we colloquially call the Tasmanian Blue Gum now grows easily across coastal areas of California and many assume it is a native species. Studies are being conducted to discover whether their flammable materials, leaves and bark and high-water usage might contribute to the conditions that lead to the Californian wildfires. In this sketch I have overlayed fragments of text from Ellwood Cooper’s book with found images of the tree from Tasmania to San Francisco. The experiments in capitalist terraforming that Cooper and his friends advocated have left a world on fire.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands and waters on which I live and work: the people of the Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nations. I also respectfully acknowledge the Palawa or Pakana people of the island of lutruwita (Tasmania), whose ancestors and elders cared for and maintained the lands that nurtured the trees we call Tasmanian Blue Gums. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.