Our mulberry tree at Eaglehawk reclined in the side garden outside the bathroom window and while Mum was plaiting my hair, I would look out and plan my climb. Its trunk made a ramp just right for small children to clamber up to where it forked. Here, we could perch like a koala or scramble out onto a branch. The tree had a child capacity of about five.
The best time of the year was when the nubbly hard green fruit had finally ripened into clusters of soft, black, gleaming berries. We would swarm into the tree, tuck into a snug spot, reach out and pick a little handful of fruit. The sweet juice oozed all over us: on our hands, down our chins, onto our shirts and legs. We loved our purple lips and teeth.
The leaves were large and a bit rough on our bare skin. We knew that silkworms ate mulberry tree leaves because Les, the big boy from the house at the back, had silk worms and Mum would give him leaves. Once I took in some leaves for him and we had an embarrassing conversation about what the black specks at the bottom of his silkworm box were. It turned out that they were silkworm poo but Les found it hard to say the ‘poo’ word to a small girl. This was the early 1950s. As an adult, I’ve learnt that silkworms prefer the leaves of the white mulberry. Nevertheless, Les managed to get silk thread from his worms and wound it around a little metal spool. I wonder what he did with it.
I remember Mum and Dad being worried about damage to the mulberry’s roots when we put in a septic tank and again, later, when a deep sewage trench was excavated right through the length of our garden. The trench was about two metres deep, straight down through the orange clay. Each time the tree survived. My youngest sister, the last child at home, remembers sitting in the tree eating a sandwich on a plate which Mum brought to her.
A few years ago, in the gardens of Clivedon House, near Windsor in the UK, I came across a grove of mulberry trees lying down and taking it easy as if they were having a picnic. Branches crowned in rounded clumps of dark green leaves rose from the horizontal trunks sprawling on the green English lawns. Inside the colony, it felt like being in a small forest or a tree cave and despite signs forbidding climbing, children did just that. The trees were irresistible.
Over the years our Eaglehawk tree sank lower and lower and leant harder and harder onto the neighbour’s fence. It was maturing within the luxuriant garden which surrounded the entire house.
When Mum finally sold the house to come to a retirement village in Melbourne, she had been with the mulberry tree and our house for fifty-nine years. By then, the tree would have been about one hundred years old.
When I was up in Bendigo about a year later, I went out to Eaglehawk to have a look at our old house.
We drove around the corner and there it was, isolated in a sea of asphalt and concrete. The new owners had razed the entire garden: roses, mature deciduous trees, a jacaranda, shrubs, lawns and the fruit trees which had lined the back and side fences. With them went the mulberry tree.
Something in me died.
Ten years later, I returned. The house now had a small formal garden which was starting to soften the edges. I walked up the straight front path, stepped up onto the verandah and knocked on the front door. I heard the familiar sound of footsteps walking up the hall. I introduced myself.
‘Oh, Hello. How lovely to meet you. We often think about your family in here.’
And then: ‘Would you like to come in and have a look?’
I couldn’t believe it, of course I would.
These owners had bought from the original renovator and loved the house. They welcomed me as part of the history of the house and were interested in what the house and garden had been like when our family had grown up in it. The mulberry tree came into the conversation.
They are now going to plant a new mulberry tree in memory of the old garden and our family.