Later, in a different home, I befriended a eucalypt, using a resilient bough as a trampoline. Learning nothing from having plummeted from the peppercorn, I'd bounce happily in my haven in the heavens. I loved that tree - and fully understand why Heysen, Roberts, McCubbin and the rest devoted so much time and effort to painting arboreal portraits.
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I've spent a life-time attacking religious beliefs and have not wavered from a view of the universe that many would regard as bleak. Namely, that it is a meaningless place devoid of deity. However I'm unwilling simply to repeat the old arguments of the past when, in fact, God is a moving target and is taking all sorts of new shapes and forms. The arguments used against the long bow are not particularly useful when debating nuclear weapons, and the simple arguments against the old model gods are not sufficient when dealing with the likes of Davies et al. For example, the notion that God didn't exist, doesn't exist but may come into existence through the spread of consciousness throughout the universe is too clever to be pooh-poohed along Bertrand Russell lines. And if I had the time I could give you half a dozen other scientific theologies that will need snappier footwork from the atheist of the future.
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I became aware of Jews in my early teens, as I started to pick up the signals from the Christian church. Not that I was Christian - I'd been an atheist since I was five. But my father, a Congregational minister, had some sympathy with the idea that the Jews had killed Christ. But any indoctrination was offset by my discovery of the concentration camps, of the Final Solution. Whilst the term 'Holocaust' had yet to enter the vocabulary I was overwhelmed by my realisation of what Germany had perpetrated on Jews. It became a major factor in my movement towards the political left. I'd already read 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck, the Penguin paperback that would change my life. The story of the gas chambers completed the process of radicalisation and would, just three years later, lead me to join the Communist Party.
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The old dead trees are the most fascinating - the countless trees lying in the gullies and up the hills that fell perhaps a century ago, pulling up their roots from the earth as they toppled. The great upheavals left rocks in their huge tentacles and, as they slowly rot, the trunks are home to populations of creatures, from goannas to wild pigs. As grey as tombstones in a cemetery they lie there, having outlasted generations of farmers, as they'll outlast me. In their own way they are as beautiful, more beautiful, than living trees.
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Trees are very good friends. Firm friends. My five year olds tree could be relied upon to be there next day, uncritical and protective. And think of trees contribution to our lives. They provide boats, buildings, paper, furniture and, for clog-wearers, footwear. As well as contributing toothpicks and chopsticks they give little birdies somewhere comfy to sit. Best of all, they help produce breathable air and lock up that naughty carbon. Why is why I am talking to the Greens about giving trees the vote.
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When I was five, a tree was my best friend. An old peppercorn on Grandpa's little farm. I'd haul myself into its calloused arms and hide from the world in its foliage. Apart from the pleasure of looking down on unsuspecting adults, I could be Robin Hood in a one-tree Sherwood Forest or Johnny Weissmuller in his jungle. I fell out of my friend once while Tarzan-ing. Gashed a large chunk from a leg. Almost 70 years later, there's still a scar.
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Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the people. Opium suggests something soporific, numbing, dulling. Too often religion has been an aphrodisiac for horror, a Benzedrine for bestiality. At its best it has lifted spirits and raised spires. At its worst it has turned entire civilizations into cemeteries.
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