Ten years ago, stepping out of an airport for my first taste of Australian air, the first trees I saw looked like pines. My intellect was ready for the wonders of strange new flora, but the old homing heart craved only recognition. "Look!" I thought, "they have pines here!" I went to look closer.
But up close, these pine needles looked like slender pieces of horsetail. And the redness that I assumed to be pine-like bark came from minuscule furry flowers, dancing with conelike fruits.
However acclimated I become, I'll probably never shake the first impression that Australian plants and animals seem designed to mislead the northerner. Like those pit-traps in the jungle -- deep holes with vines strung across them to entrap large mammals -- the landscape offers quick resemblances to draw the northerner forth into the world, so that he tumbles headlong into the chasm of the alien.
Hordes of escaped convicts and military poets have sung the path into the abyss. "Common" names for Australian plants resound with the desperate longing for northern certainties, as though they were all assigned by an escaped and starving convict stumbling through the woods, hallucinating an entire Yorkshire of flora. Anything remotely conifer-like is called a pine. Casuarina, pictured above, is inexplicably a 'she-oak.' Ubiquitous eucalypts were called ash, boxwood, and even apple.
I'd like to think I'm beyond such grasping. I try to learn only the botanical names as arbitrary and thus supposedly clean signifiers. But still, I notice my attraction to plants that cannot possibly be mistaken for anything in the north: the primary-colored plastics of protea-family flowers, the naive symmetry of Araucaria, the full-on chattering diversity of Eucalyptus. Not that such descriptions, hurled into the bush in my northern tongue, land any nearer the mark than the convict's delusions of home.