The Fallen Soldiers: Campus goers react as the iconic 120 lemon-scented gums in the courtyard fall to chainsaws

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Words || Angus Dalton

In 1968, four years after the founding of Macquarie University, a squadron of soldiers took up arms in the central courtyard. One hundred and twenty lemon-scented gums were planted in a grid, providing much-needed greenery and shade in between the hulking shapes of the three brutalist buildings that – until very recently – bordered the courtyard.

The trees were planted in the shape of a phalanx – a Roman military unit that would assemble into a tightly-packed formation in preparation for an oncoming attack. The trees’ establishment was emblematic of Macquarie’s classification as a ‘verdant’ university (Australian universities are informally categorised as either ‘sandstone’ universities, i.e. those established in the colonial era with inner-city campuses, such as USyd and UNSW, as opposed to the more contemporary ‘verdant’ or ‘gum-tree’ campuses founded later in synergy with native landscapes, like Macquarie and the University of Wollongong).

The Central Courtyard prior to the felling of the trees.

For 50 years the trees have stood guard over the university’s central hub. But over the summer break, all 120 trees were felled.

The campus courtyard was closed in October last year as Semester 2 came to an end, due to ‘advice that the age, type, location and microclimate of the trees there make falling branches a significant risk,’ as reported by an article published on MyMQ. ‘This risk is heightened during and following storms.’

Staff and students were immediately skeptical. One commenter wrote on a MyMQ article about the continued closure of the courtyard:

‘I was a bit surprised to see the claim in Friday’s email that the Courtyard was being closed because of concerns over predicted storms – the Bureau of Meteorology wasn’t predicting any storms and I’m pretty sure that the “microclimate” (really?) of the Courtyard doesn’t extend to creating its own storm activity.’

The commenter went on: ‘I hope this isn’t a cover-up for a tree removal project.’

Others linked their suspicions to the university’s mishandling of the closure of Campus Hub (C10A) and the abrupt dismissal of independent food businesses with little to no student consultation.

Under the moniker ‘Cynical Susan’, a commenter wrote: ‘Considering how poorly handled the C10A closure has been conducted, it seems very suspicious to me that there is a sudden, imminent threat from these trees within the same timeframe as the buildings closure.’

‘Is this really just some smoke and dust to justify ridding the courtyard of its soldiers to make way for more glass boxes?’

Mark Broomfield, Macquarie’s Director of Property, states that this wasn’t the case.

“There have been incidents at other sites (outside of the University), where the same species of trees had ‘dropped branches’, which led to injury. We had incidents of dropping branches in the Central Courtyard which was becoming more regular, hence our request for a more in-depth analysis. The trees were not being removed as a part of the redevelopment of the campus, but purely for safety reasons, as the courtyard is highly populated,” he told Grapeshot, citing a report from Australian Tree Consultants that recommended all of the trees be removed mid last year.

A different arborist company had been monitoring the trees for over five years, and handed over a recommendation management plan that recommended further diagnostics, but didn’t require full-tree removal. The university went to Australian Tree Consultants, who undertook diagnostics and recommended that the trees be removed.

The fact that the university seemed to ‘shop around’ for an arborist who recommended the removal of the trees sparked further suspicion among students and staff. Many saw the mass felling as a stain on the university’s reputation as a leafy, open university as opposed to the brick-and-concrete laden campuses of the city – particularly as the planned construction of accommodation building on campus are set to infringe on the green space in front of the lake.

Above all, the prevailing response to the trees’ removal from campus-goers was one of sadness.

A photo of the cleared courtyard posted to the Grapeshot Facebook page in December sparked a huge response. Hundreds of comments flooded the post expressing shock and confusion.

One student wrote, ‘It’s not my place anymore. In the last six months, mq has lost its heart. No longer a welcoming place to be, I wish I didn’t have to go back next year.’

Walanga Muru, the university’s Office of Indigenous Strategy, was involved in the removal of the trees and acknowledge the emotional and historical significance the trees had on campus. Director Dr Leanne Holt was included in Property’s consultation committee and took the issue to the Aboriginal Advisory Board, who reiterated the particular importance of Macquarie’s natural landscape to the campus’s Indigenous staff and students.

“One of the things that one of the Elders talked to Property about was our connection to country,” Dr Holt told Grapeshot. “For us, all of the environment carries our stories, our songlines. The trees have captured our journeys and our experiences for the last 50 years.”

An Indigenous smoking and water ceremony was undertaken prior to the removal of the trees in an effort to acknowledge their history.

The university has promised to replant two trees for every one taken, although some argue that two saplings won’t replace a full-grown gum for its importance in providing habitat to native animals such as the critically endangered powerful owl.

“The replanting of the courtyard will take place as part of an extensive landscape overhaul of the courtyard in the next two years, while the major development works are underway,” says Mark Broomfield.

While most can understand the need for campuses to upgrade and redevelop for the benefit of future generations, it comes at a cost for the current students, and dissatisfaction is amplified by the university’s poor communication and lack of consultation regarding campus redevelopment.

For the next few years students will contend with huge construction sites on campus as well as the closure of the Macquarie train station, which will bring a litany of practical complications. For many, the tree’s felling represents the university’s disregard for its distinctive, verdant history, and symbolises the apparent prioritisation by modern universities of creating slick, Open Day-ready campuses in the place of a campus shaped, enjoyed and cherished by current students and staff.

It seems the trees, who stood strong and battle-ready for half a century, were no match for the chainsaws of an increasingly corporate, profit-driven university.

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