‘Good morning,’ I said.
He held up a piece of bark and looked at me over the rim of his specs. ‘Good thing about this is it doesn’t bark,’ he said.
I’m slow with jokes so it took me a few seconds to get it, and he didn’t wait.
‘You’ve got to get this stuff now,’ he said. It only drops once a year.’
His skin was a kind of grey-brown colour, the complexion of a heavy smoker. I was standing close enough that I could smell the sourness of alcohol mixed with body odour.
‘I found a piece once that looked like angel’s wings,’ I said.
‘Yep, you can find some rare stuff,’ he said. ‘Look at that. All the colours. I’ll use it in the collage I’m making.’
The bark he held looked like it might have been painted with a blend of watercolours: Pink, purple, brown; or it could have been a segment of frozen muddy river. Where it was ribbed in the middle it resembled an elbow or a headscarf with a wild tunnel of hair flowing over his thick fingers. He turned it over. Against the thick texture of his hairy hands, the bark was as smooth and creamy as vanilla ice-cream. We both took a moment to admire the scrap of tree skin. My dog trotted away from us toward the perimeter of the park.
‘Only mad people pick up bark,’ he said. ‘Gives the psychiatrists something to do.’ He grinned.
Just half an hour before I had been crying while writing about my Welsh grandmother; thinking about the years I didn’t have with her because my family immigrated to Australia when I was young; amazed that grief seems to live permanently under the skin, seeping out at unexpected moments.
My dog had reached the park perimeter and was rolling in the dirt.
‘I’d better get that,’ I said.
The man picked up a long piece of bark that looked like a smiling crocodile.
When I reached the dog he was on his back, shimmying against the carcass of a grey dove. I held my breath against the stink and tried to pull him off. He resisted me; he was having too good a time. We were engaged in this scrappy, smelly tug of war for just a minute or so. I wasn’t annoyed with the dog. It’s what he does, what he’s supposed to do. He also eats cat shit, and food discarded on suburban pavements, mostly sandwiches and take away chicken pieces; cold chips. The dead bird’s belly was open to the morning light and jam-packed with fat, writhing maggots. None of this was of any consequence to the man collecting bark, and when I looked up he’d gone.
I’d been going to the park every day for two years, often twice a day, catching up with the same people and their dogs (we know the dogs’ names but not each others’; such is the way with dog owners) and yet, that was the first conversation I’d had about trees and bark and collage. I got the poo bag out of my pocket and collected bark for my own collage. Then I looked up at the tree. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed it; it’s a lemon-scented gum, an imposing tree, but I didn’t know until that moment that I was in love with it. I loved its trunk, as mottled as an old man’s skin; I loved the zingy citrus smell of it after rain; and I loved the way it was so present in the space that it occupied. I felt like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter when he told Robert de Niro he liked the way the trees are; but I couldn’t remember the exact line so I made a mental note to look it up on-line when I got home. I clipped the dog’s lead onto his collar and thought again of how emotional I’d been just a little while ago at my computer, in my study, a space that can be as wild as virgin bush, and that I move through in a frenzy of words and memories and emotions; and there are other days when writing is as serene an activity as walking in the park and on those days I hover in space, calm and weightless.
That old timer knew something about trees and space; he knew lemon-scented gums shed their bark in November and where to collect. When I arrived home I turned on the computer and found what I was looking for:
I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different … the way the trees are.