Chainsaws

TREES ARE RARELY ASSESSED as significant cultural heritage in Australia; the bar is too high. When a project manager gets on the blower and asks ‘now listen, but is it heritage?’, a professional applies the standard frameworks of his or her calling, and decides—with a standardised process—either a yes/no significance answer, or a level of significance (from ‘little’ to ‘exceptional’). Human involvement in the thing or place is the most important: places where historical events happened, buildings made by specific people, artefacts of a known history. The reason trees rarely meet the ‘but is it heritage?’ test is because they’re ephemeral by nature, growing and reproducing themselves and dying by themselves, without people needing to be involved. ‘Cultural landscapes’, the fashion of the 2000s, remedy part of the question of individual trees by seeing the forests, but there’s generally no such thing as a ‘heritage tree’. You see the problem already.

The test is a European one, and doesn’t account for Indigenous relationships with specific trees and specific places associated with them. And when the chainsaw teams come in to fell the tree, the Courts are asked to deal with the question of heritage, on significance terms, and on the basis of specific forms which the defendants either did or didn’t correctly fill out, or in the argument of the corporation, ‘previous assessments of the tree …“did not reveal characteristics consistent with cultural modification”’, that is, the involvement of a person in the business of the tree. It’s a racist system, but it’s more than that too: ours is a degraded and barbarous culture of forms, as I wrote the last time the Philistines detonated a culturally significant place:

the only thing that matters is is the letter of the law, because that’s how the application forms will be drawn up, and forms are where power is exercised.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Australian heritage industry came into being with an odd-couple political deal between architecture-fanciers and Communist building workers, both protesting barbarism in their own way. What was obvious then, was that without a protective law, the status of ‘heritage’ was fundamentally decided by power: real people risking the sack or arrest to protect places, and on the other side, real thugs, real fist-fights. When the architecture-fanciers betrayed the unionists and formalised the process, making Heritage Acts, it was deliberately to eliminate that element of plain power of ordinary people, and to deny the concept that ‘Heritage’ was whatever anyone cared enough to protect.

But is it ‘heritage’? If people are willing to be sacked or arrested for it, you already know the answer.

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