The Tree on the Hill

by Paul Beirne

In 1966, after taking a year ‘out’ following high school to determine what to do with my life, I joined a Catholic religious order to begin training as a missionary priest. One did this by ‘entering a Novitiate’–a religious tradition dating back centuries–which required a significant leap of faith. There were twenty of us in the Novitiate, and ironically, considering our future occupation, we were required to spend the first two years of our training in prayer and reflective silence, hidden away from society, rather than proselytising within it.

Our sequestration took place in South-East Queensland, midway between the capital, Brisbane, and the garden city of Toowoomba, on a hill encircled by lush farmlands, with the peaks of the Great Dividing Range visible on the southern horizon.  Taking pride of place on The Hill was a seventy year old mansion surrounded by a clutch of ancillary structures which housed a community of priests, brothers and novices. It was a place apart–literally and metaphorically.

In stark contrast, during the two years we spent on The Hill, our generation was being picked up and swept along in a psychedelic wave that encircled the globe. The Age of Aquarius was dawning, and with it, revolution. Martin Luther King preached justice and freedom in Mississippi, Alabama, and all around the United States; four lads from Liverpool were approaching the apex of their popularity; a six day war began and ended in the Middle East; another was gaining momentum in a country to our north called Vietnam. And in Rome, Pope Paul VI was in the process of composing an encyclical entitled Humanae vitae[1].

In our very own ‘Cone of Silence’, with no access to TV, radio and newspapers, we were oblivious to these particular events, and many, many more. Yet, by dint of some mystical, cosmic osmosis, we were nevertheless alert to the fact that beyond the confines of The Hill, not only our generation, but the whole world was in a state of turmoil, and we were left floundering in its tumultuous wake.

This should have filled us with a sense of restless frustration, and indeed it did. Yet even though we did not appreciate it at the time, we had our consolations. During those years something enveloped us like the morning mist and seeped slowly and imperceptivity into our very souls, altering their landscape. Rather than the arcane rituals and prayers, it was the moods and the seasons of The Hill that truly shaped our lives at that time, and irrespective of the length of our individual spans of life, or the path we eventually took, these moods and seasons would never be forgotten.

In the course of a year, nature unfolded her secrets to us with a combination of subtlety and vigour. My favourite time was the beginning of summer. Tissue-thin mauve Bougainvillaea began the floral parade, sending a message to the Jacarandas whose branches soon hung with myriad bell-shaped blossoms which dropped and blanketed the earth like purple snow. Then wisteria–its fragrant clusters hanging like succulent grapes–covered the stone wall above the Grotto.  In the garden encircling the main house, pale pink, white and yellow roses, golden hibiscus, and clusters of lilies vied for attention. The heady fragrance of jasmine saturated the air around the fern house below the Brothers’ quarters.

A magic mix of trees spread across The Hill. Bunya pines rose majestically above the chapel, silky oak, pepperina, golden wattle and frangipani added colour and fragrance to the slopes around the mansion, and groves of macadamia, olive, mango and banana trees provided us with their fruits and nuts in season.  Persimmon trees thrived in the small enclosure in front of the dairy, and in one of the fields not far from the main complex, two huge mulberry trees, pregnant with purple berries, stood watch over an abandoned shack.

But when it blossomed, it was the tree at the front entrance to the mansion which stole the limelight, and relegated the other players to mere supporting roles.

The tree was a stately Poinciana, which waited until the Jacaranda blossoms had fallen before beginning to flower, as if not willing to share a competitor’s attention. The tree had been planted on the first day of the new century, and its branches spread outward rather upward, weighed down by the burden of its years. Unlike the Jacaranda, the Poinciana did not shed its leaves. Rather, its blossoms– sprays of red ochre with speckles of gold at their base– crowned the entire tree, and rested on emerald-green leaves. Hanging from the branches like rusted scimitars, foot-long pods swayed in the summer breeze. When their season came, they dropped into grass which grew right up to the tree’s massive trunk. Eventually, the outer shells of the pods split open to reveal shiny, dun-coloured seeds.

In my first summer on The Hill I was assigned to mow the grass under the Poinciana. While looking around for stray rocks, I almost stepped on the tiniest of tiny shoots nestling in the grass. Camouflaged, it was very difficult to spot, but once I had discovered one, others, which unfolded like miniature rotor blades of a helicopter, were clearly identifiable as offspring of the tree towering above. With great care I dug up all the shoots I could find and wrapped them, with a coating of their own soil, in tin cylinders. When the shoots began to grow I transferred them into discarded jam tins and placed them in rows in a makeshift nursery. In the evening, after dinner and before the magnum silencium[2], I watered my charges in sight of the mighty tree from which they sprang.

By the end of that summer I had several dozen plants at various stages of growth under my care. When they were about a foot high, I gave them away to any visitor who took an interest in them. They became such a popular item that the other novices urged me to sell them and give the proceeds to the missions, as Poinciana trees were highly prized and quite expensive on the market. But I couldn’t do that. Gathering them from the base of the old tree was like accepting a gift from a grandparent. The least I could do was to try to preserve it for posterity. Besides, being a bit player in nature’s cycle of procreation was ample reward in itself.

Every year we were permitted to see our families and friends four times, for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. During these all too brief reunions, we would arrange wooden tables and benches under the Poinciana and picnic there in its welcoming space. On one of these occasions my Dad took a photograph of his twin grandchildren, Amanda and Andrew, sitting in the Poinciana’s branches. It looked as if the tree was wrapping its arms around them lest they slip and fall. I was glad, then, that I had given gifts of its offspring to the people who gathered under the tree. Perhaps in years to come, their grandchildren would climb and play in Poinciana branches too.

Over the years, when I was at home visiting my family from far flung corners of the globe, I would undertake a pilgrimage to visit the offspring of the stately Poinciana, in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba and surrounding areas. Sadly, just before the turn of another century, their progenitor was judged to have reached its allotted span of years and was cut down and discarded. It is a great consolation to me, and I think to many others, that dozens of its descendants not only survived, but thrived, and do so to this day.

* * * * *

While writing this reflection on the moods and seasons of The Hill, and the majestic tree that had a lasting effect on many lives, including my own, it occurred to me that exactly fifty years had passed since the day I knelt in front of a revving Victa motor mower and cradled a tiny helicopter shoot in the palm of my right hand.

Perhaps it is the things in life we do by chance that have the most lasting effect.

A bit like faith, really.


[1] ‘Of Human Life’

[2] ‘The Great Silence’