Whether she’s planting trees or writing books, labour and love are recurring themes for this year’s Stella Prize-winning novelist.
I left Tasmania with a backpack at age 19 and went in search of adventure. I travelled first to Asia and then on to Europe. In France, picking grapes in the Champagne region, I met a tall, blue-eyed South African called Jack and fell in love.
Almost a year later, we arrived on the banks of Loch Ness. That night at the pub, Jack spotted a notice: “Tree-planters wanted. Immediate start.” He called the number. It was arranged that in the morning a car would stop for us near the caravan park where we were staying and, at dawn, a Scottish Forestry Commission four-wheel drive duly arrived. The man in the passenger seat, wearing a forestry uniform, wound down the window and gave us a keen look. “Och, ye’re a lassie,” he said to me. “We’ve never had a lassie before.”
Jack hadn’t thought to mention my gender on the phone; he’d simply said that there were two of us.
I must have looked crestfallen because the man said, “What’s ye’re name, then, lassie?”
“Heather Rose,” I replied.
“Och, ye’re name’s more Scottish than mine,” he laughed. He consulted briefly with his colleague at the wheel and then said, “We’ll take you both.”
We were driven high up onto the bare moors to the west of Loch Ness. When the truck had gone as far as it could, our small team of six alighted. The back of the truck was filled with saplings in hessian bags. We each took a spade and lugged those weighty saplings and our tools for miles across the sodden heath to an allotted spot. There, under a grey sky, we began work.
More than a century before, these hills had been scalped of their forests for shipbuilding. Now, hour after hour, we dug our spades deep into the peat bog, sucking back the dense, wet earth, making a dark slit into which we placed a new tree. Sitka spruce, Scots pine, birch, fir, willow, elm. It became a mantra. We dug and planted, dug and planted. The job paid by the sapling and it was backbreaking work.
I planted slower than the men so I decided to plant more artistically. I wouldn’t make as much money but I imagined my forest in years to come. I planted rows of elms, groves of spruce and firs and willows near streams. I imagined the forests of a century ago re-emerging.
Twenty-one years later, I went back to Scotland on a writing fellowship. I rented a car and set out to find my forest. I came to the loch, prepared to see those familiar steep bald moors. But they were no longer there. People must have been tree-planting for years after we’d done our stint. The entire western shore was dressed in green and gold, filled with light and life as far as the eye could see. I cried then. For trees and old loves, for the years in a life and the things that grow at our hands.
I drove for most of an hour and still new forest graced the hills. I couldn’t find the old access road and the loch towns had been tamed by tourism. But my forest was up there somewhere, a fragment in the mosaic of a greater human endeavour. ￼