Life With Plants: Patrick Honan

Words by
Sally Wilson
Illustration by
Georgina Reid
| May 2, 2016

Patrick Honan is a renaissance man of the horticultural world. You might find him propagating local plant species alongside the team at St Kilda Indigenous Nursery Co-op one day; the next he’s presenting sold-out shows on the topic of native bees, or rooftop gardening. Regardless of context, Patrick’s message is consistent and clear. He’s all about conservation, sustainability and plants and that’s why we’re excited to feature him on The Planthunter this month. Here’s his story:

I grew up in a fairly typical suburban household in Melbourne’s leafy inner east. There was a white picket fence, a white daisy bush and our weatherboard house was painted blue. A drab concrete path leading to the front veranda was lined with foxgloves my mother raised. The soil was little more than grey sand. The nature-strip out the front held a towering Corymbia calophylla, limbs twisting outwards to touch the very sky.

I dreamt about being tall enough to scale its impossible heights. Fissures in the coarse bark bled red sap freely, staining even the black bitumen of the road beneath. The common name “bloodwood” is well earned. Every summer a flock of migrating lorikeets would take up residence for a few weeks. They would play in the upper crown of the tree, feasting on the abundant blossom.

Drunk off nectar, twirling and shrieking, playing into the long twilight.

One day some students came out to look at the tree. They took some measurements and nailed a little label with a National Trust logo to the base. The label was in Latin, and I wondered who was supposed to read it. Over time the tree bled enough sap from the nail to obscure the sign, rendering it even more obsolete.

When I was old enough I was charged with the first duty of being a man in the household: mowing the nature strip. My dad showed me how to prime and start the mower and I was off, directing the snarling chamber of petrol-powered blades over any surface that dared stand in my way. The warm red enamel gleamed in the sunlight and black exhaust poured into the air.

Finally, I was a man, ready to use real machines to bring unruly nature to heel in the name of order and suburbia.

As I pressed the blades to service for the very first time, an explosion rocked the chamber. I felt the vibrations through the handle and into my very spine. Had I broken it already? Maybe I hadn’t seen a large rock hiding the in the grass. I released the safety and pulled the mower over but I couldn’t see anything obvious. I fired it up again and the roar of two stroke filled the morning air. Nature will be tamed. Again the chamber shuddered, and this time I could feel the flurry of blades actually choke and slow. Shoving the mower around I could feel more detonations, a snarling chorus of landmines erupting.

The right rear wheel of the mower jumped off the ground, and from the output chute flew a large projectile at high velocity. It bounced off the white picket fence in front of the house and connected with my leg, leaving a welt. I winced sharply, and through tears looked down to see one of the hundreds of gumnuts the tree had spent all summer growing, its woody casing barely scratched by the mower.

The same gumnuts my mother collected to stoke the fireplace were turning against me, whipped into self defence by my own machine. I pressed on, but my pride soon waned as I worked under the continual volley of woody ricochets.

The lorikeets shrieked in laughter overhead.

As years passed, a lot changed. Mowing went from being a special privilege to a tiresome chore. The handle height of the mower miniaturised from a point above my forehead to the cause of a stoop when I fired it up (did it shrink or did I grow?). Where my little muscles once struggled to direct the engine’s fury, I could now push the machine apathetically, one-handed, while thumbing an MP3 player with the other. I became a man and realised there was more to it that priming the engine of a mower. Yet, no matter how tall or self-assured I became, I remained humble in the face of those little hand grenades. It’s very hard to look nonchalant and above it all while frantically dodging flying gumnuts.

I don’t mow the nature strip anymore, but I try to keep the lesson the big tree taught me close to my life; to walk humbly.

The plant world was here before we arrived, and will be here long after we’re gone. Everything we have and know, our homes, our cities, our conflicts and two stroke engines, will eventually break and fade away. The natural world will always be there. Perhaps this is a hard pill to swallow, to accept our inconsequence and embrace wildness. But the gumnuts will never stop falling.

Better to be a lorikeet than a lawnmower.

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