One of the scariest things I did as a kid was to tell a tree my secret. I was eight years old and spent a lot of time in the bush with my cousins. We camped there, sometimes under a makeshift shelter made of ferns and branches. Other times in half pitched saggy tents and not much food. We didn’t care, if it was warm enough we slept under the stars. Being there was all the comfort we needed. We played war, our game spanning from Apple Tree Valley, through ‘the jungle’, a thick pocket of old trees to the Blue Gums, a clearing with four Eucalyptus which was bordered by Eel Creek. This separated the bush with our Uncles land of tussock, grasses, and sheep. That was out of bounds. The objective was to make it to the blue gum trees without getting shot. Our guns were branches of various sizes. From handguns (sticks) to heavy branches (machine guns). I cheated many times hiding in the tussock on our Uncles land. But my cousins were older than me and I hardly ever won. They were always the heroes we loved from American movies. I was always the enemy. But I didn’t mind. I’d rather be Tonto because I thought the Lone Ranger was weird. We tied ropes so we could swing from tree to tree like Tarzan. Dug holes in the ground and covered them with leafy branches so the enemy could trip and fall into the trap. Like the Vietnam movies. There were many rolled ankles and other injuries. We needed to do this as kids. It toughens you up for the real world.
Reaching the Blue Gums wasn’t easy. The clearing was at least 50 metres of grass. And there was almost always someone hiding on the edge of the bush, or down the ditch, standing in the stream, waiting. I remember worming my way along the ground with a knife (stick) clenched between my teeth. Like Tarzan. I was close, just about there when Rob, the meanest of cousins dropped out the blue gum and slammed his body onto my unsuspecting back. I was sore for days after that but I never told my parents. No one ever told. What happened in the bush stayed in the bush.
We would camp for whole weekends without having to be home until Sunday roast which was always six o’clock on the dot. I also spent a lot of time wandering the hills and bush alone. This was my ‘happy place’ before I even knew I had one let alone needed one. At these times everything was left to my imagination.
On this one particular day while wandering through ‘the jungle’ I found a hole in a tree. It was that perfect cliched scene. Sun streaking through the canopy, shrubs, and seedlings swaying gently in of breath of breeze. But the enemy surrounded me as I darted from tree to tree, hiding behind the thickest trunks. All of this running had made me thirsty. I needed to make it to eel creek without being seen so I could drink. If I had one of those canteen water bottles like the cowboys I’d only need to sip it. They only ever seemed to sip the water. Even when they’d been shot.
I lent up against an old Manuka trunk to rest. It was thicker than most, probably a few hundred years old. And it had a hollow deep enough that I wouldn’t put my hand in it. Things lived in there. Insects and there were traces of birds nests well after the chicks had flown the coop. I put my ear up to the hole to listen. There was only that sound of a hollow silence. I put my mouth up to the tree hole and whispered my deepest secret.
‘I love Andrea’.
I set off home quite pleased with myself. When I reached the Blue Gums I zigzagged through the clearing like I was being fired upon by lasers from an alien mothership. I jumped down into eel creek like Rambo and ran downstream, stopping only to scoop water into my mouth. It was 20 to 6 and I’d be home just in time or dinner. But then something hit me harder than my cousin Rob. My secret had been spoken. I had been let out. What if someone found that same trunk and put their ear up to it and heard my secret? I was devastated. And I had to be home in 15.
I turned and sprinted. No stopping for scoops of water. No zigzagging laser beams. I tripped in ‘the jungle’ and in my panic couldn’t see the thick-trunked tree. Where was it? Had I imagined it? The sun was that much lower and the bush had changed. It was suddenly sinister. I had to calm my breathing. Still panicked I stepped out into the open and scanned the bush. I didn’t have time for enemies. Relieved I spied the silhouette of the old tree. My mind and heart were racing. I had to think of something to say. Something to replace my secret. I leaned into the hole in the trunk and whispered, ‘ The world is only a speck of dust under an alien’s fingernail’. I loved that concept. But then I worried again. If someone put their ear up to the hole in the trunk and heard that they’d think I was crazy. So I lent in again and whispered, ‘You don’t know me.’
I never saw Andrea again after leaving primary school. I and many of my cousins moved away from our home, only returning for holidays or weddings, birthday celebrations or funerals. But the thick trunked Manuka, Apple Tree Valley, the blue gums with an eel creek bordering my Uncles land are still there. Thicker, bushier, bluer and full of life and whispered secrets.