Crusaders, crackpots and cacti

Professor Tim Entwisle in the vandalised Arid Garden. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Professor Tim Entwisle in the vandalised Arid Garden. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Three times in three years, someone has crept into Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens at night and committed, literally, crimes against nature. The most recent incident, on July 19, included the ringbarking of a 400-year-old river red gum known as the Separation Tree, a brush box planted by the Queen and a spotted gum, the slashing of four other trees and the attempted burning of another.

This occurred only six weeks after a savage attack felled all the large columnar cacti in the Arid Garden. And it was the second assault on the heritage-listed Separation Tree, which first had a wide section of bark hacked from its circumference in August 2010, and was still being intensively rehabilitated after losing 90 per cent of its vascular system.

This time, only 5 per cent of the crucial cambium layer remains. The garden's director and chief executive, Professor Tim Entwisle, says the wounds were quickly dressed with sphagnum moss and plastic wrap (''keeping it as moist as possible, just like a Band-Aid'') but it is unclear whether it can survive the damage, let alone another drought in the future. ''It's worrying us,'' he says.

These attempted arboricides are not only disturbing for tree-huggers, they represent a serious attack on one of the state's main collecting institutions, as serious as criminal damage to works in the National Gallery of Victoria or Melbourne Museum.

The garden has 10,000 different kinds of plants in its landscaped Melbourne grounds, and 1.4 million preserved in the Herbarium, as well as a seed bank of most of Victoria's rare plants. ''We [are] a heritage and scientific institution exactly like a museum or a zoo, with just the same mix of conservation programs,'' Entwisle says.

RGB landscape architect Andrew Laidlaw says the loss of something like the Separation Tree would be a tragedy for the national collection and to Victoria ''If this happened to an art work hanging in the National Gallery, there might be more outrage.''

Who could be behind these violent and concerted attacks and what is motivating them?

Victoria Police will not comment on the progress of the investigations because they are ongoing and has appealed for anyone with information to come forward.

But the damage - suggestive of a machete or an axe - and the choice of mature, valuable and highly symbolic specimens suggests the attacks are planned rather than spontaneous or misguided pranks. How many people are involved is unclear, Entwisle says. ''but with the right kind of implements it would only take a single person with a bit of time to do it all''.

How do you go about investigating criminal damage to valuable trees and plants? Such events are serious and those convicted can receive long jail terms, depending on the damage and value of the plants destroyed, says Detective Leading Senior Constable Ross Hill. But they are very rare and extremely difficult to investigate.

The Yarra Ranges detective investigated the ringbarking of six heritage-listed trees at a Belgrave property in September 2010 - just a month after the first Botanic Gardens attack. The historic property, Glen Harrow, was also the site of a 19th-century nursery that supplied significant root stock to the early Melbourne Botanic Gardens, says owner Marg Hesterman. Detectives considered a link but none was ever established.

Hill says a man with a suspected grudge was identified in the Glen Harrow case and, after a warrant was obtained, axes, tomahawks and chainsaws were seized from his nearby property.

''We were hoping we could do something with the [pattern of] chainsaw cuts [on the damaged Glen Harrow trees] as there were items around his place that he'd used the chainsaw on, so we took those items as well and sent them all out to forensic science.''

But there was not enough evidence to bring charges, despite DNA-testing the woodchips in the chainsaw, he says. ''They could tell me the type of tree it came from but they couldn't say 'Well, that's the tree'.

''Even though we strongly suspect it is the person of interest, [we] couldn't prove it.'' The investigation remains open and could be reactivated if forensic techniques advance.

The RBG attacks would be even harder to investigate, Hill says, because the site is so big, with wide public access.

Trying to figure out the motive - ''someone with a vested interest, whether they're a greenie and a bit misguided, thinking if they do this, it will result in this,'' he says - will be crucial.

It was Tim Entwisle who first publicly articulated what had occurred to a number of observers: that the attacks could be politically motivated. In an opinion piece published in The Age in June, he speculated the cacti attack might be driven by a hatred of exotic plants (''there are no cacti native to Australia'').

The reference was slightly provocative - indigenous versus exotic is a fault-line running through many gardening and landscaping debates - but the third incident the following month has brought the theory into sharper focus.

The Separation Tree, so named because beneath its canopy Melbourne's citizens celebrated the separation of Victoria from New South Wales in 1851, and the brush box planted by Queen Elizabeth in 1954 are highly symbolic of white colonialism.

Other trees attacked do not carry the same historical or political freight, Entwisle says, but they are all, like the cacti, established specimens that will take decades to recover, if they survive. The attacks, then, could be linked by a hatred of the garden itself as a symbol of white settlement and its social, political and environmental consequences.

The Botanic Gardens generally and the Separation Tree in particular were the site of indigenous clan gatherings before European settlement, according to the RGB website, and the location of an Aboriginal mission before the garden was established. Beth Gott, an ethnobotanist and adjunct research fellow at Monash University, says Aboriginal clans lived along the Yarra because it was a good source of eels and fresh water, and lined with edible vegetation.

Displacement of the original owners from their land was followed by the transformation of the landscape into one that rendered the colonial ideology into an aesthetic form: plants from around the country and geographic region ''assimilated'' into a panorama that spoke of European values and order.

''An exploration of colonialism,'' is how local garden historian Paul Fox describes its landscaping and plantings, designed by the RGB's 19th-century director William Guilfoyle. Fox says the combination of plants taken from voyages around the South Seas Pacific region, from northern NSW, along with local vegetation, all landscaped around lakes, are: ''a synthesis of a colonial and a European garden [and] quite an extraordinary achievement for a 19th-century garden in the colonies.''

A red rag to someone with a radical agenda? Entwisle says that while a political connection between the attacks can be drawn, it is ''100 per cent conjecture''.

''It's certainly a possibility [but] we don't have any evidence that's the case. There's nothing else happened alongside it, no message to us,'' he says.

''If I was looking for a thread, it's something that is having an impact on us, that we would notice. Targeting [those] trees and a collection of old, important cacti is targeting things of significance in the Botanic Gardens.''

Attacks on specimens in public gardens, in Australia or overseas, are incredibly rare. The garden does suffer from pilfering - plants are stolen or large cuttings taken about once a month, Entwisle reckons - and maybe ''twice a year we might get a tag on a sign''. His experience working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Britain was similar. Such pilfering is illegal - destroying or damaging items in the RBG can attract a fine up to $7218 - but it is driven by love, of desire for a particular plant, rather than the hate that seems manifest in the vandalism.

Outside parks, tree vandalism is most commonly associated with greed - for an uninterrupted view, or unfettered property development - as a spate of damage to trees in the city, reported recently in Fairfax Media, suggests.

But neither greed nor love was evident in the RBG attacks. Andrew Laidlaw says the site of the cactus attack appeared ''like someone right out of their body doing [it] … with cacti scattered over the ground, all the mess - it was like a real frenzied attack. That was fairly confronting for a lot of the staff.''

Criminal acts driven by rage are rare in gardening collections, but the recent history of theft and vandalism of heritage objects elsewhere shows it is often a motivating force - politically motivated rage in particular.

One of Australia's most infamous heists, the theft of Picasso's The Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986, was claimed by a group calling itself the ''Australian Cultural Terrorists'' and was accompanied by scathing denunciations of politicians and policies of the day and demands for increases in arts funding.

In Queensland in 2006, the tree known as the Tree of Knowledge, which marked the birth of the Australian Labor Party, was poisoned and subsequently died. Many suspected political opponents of the ALP were responsible.

In January, Captain Cook's Cottage, in Melbourne was vandalised with paint in an act claimed by anarchists as a protest against the ''absurd shrine to genocide'' and the celebration of Australia Day as the date of invasion.

''The monuments and museums that fill this dead city only enrage us,'' reads the January 27 post on website Anarchist News.

''Gardens are inescapably political,'' philosopher Damon Young, author of Philosophy in the Garden, says. ''They involve territory - when we make a garden, we demonstrate some ownership, individual or collective, private or public. Look at the violence in Turkey, over control over Gezi Park [one of Istanbul's last green public spaces, which the Turkish Prime Minister wants to replace with a shopping centre].''

Gardens are also where ethics, politics and aesthetics intersect, he says. ''The English landscape garden of the 18th century wasn't just a pretty adornment. It was a shot across the bow of French autocracy. If Versailles was linear and artificial, the English garden would be serpentine and organic. Both represented a view of nature, and of mankind in nature; of the world's 'right' order, and who was in charge of it.''

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow is the co-author of two books on the history of Melbourne activism and activists who disrupted the ''right'' order. Radical Melbourne 2 includes a chapter on Cook's Cottage and the 1976 attacks on it by indigenous protesters and their supporters. He is sceptical of the theory the RBG attacks may be driven by a radical political agenda.

''If it was an indigenous group or people sympathetic to indigenous Australians, it's hard to think who such a group might be and why those trees - there's no shortage of things you could target as a symbol that would be more obvious than some poor bloody tree,'' he says.

''When the contemporary indigenous movement is so focused on living in harmony with the land, ring-barking trees would seem kind of strange.''

Whether the attacks are the work of the crusading or the crackpot, how do you protect the garden from future assaults?

In the absence of high-tech security, the RBG's low level of crime, which Entwisle describes as ''surprising and consoling'', is striking. Staff think it indicates the widespread affection and esteem in which the garden is held. And, while Entwisle is reviewing security, this esteem may offer better long-term protection than the extra lighting, surveillance and perimeter fencing under consideration.

It's a sentiment Sparrow shares. ''When I was most recently there I was struck by what a different sensibility the 19th century had about these sort of public places, this idea of a massive, cultivated space that is just free to the public. How anomalous it is compared to contemporary equivalents, something like Crown casino.''

But this esteem is also why the attacks have been so distressing to the garden's staff and friends. Destroying a garden, or its plants, is more than a political gesture, Young says, ''and it can be more gutting than a broken museum piece.

''It is to attack the living expression of someone's view of themselves and the world, and the ties between the two. If you can't physically assault your enemies, you can savage the fragile symbol of their existence.''

Gina McColl is a senior writer.

This story Crusaders, crackpots and cacti first appeared on The Age.