To the west of Sydney lies the vast and ancient Capertee Valley, isolated and slumbering, far from our urban existence. Twice a year, my boy and I drive westward, put our hands in the soil and together with a hundred others, plant a forest.

In part, the valley is a microcosm of land clearing across the country for agriculture, denuded paddocks covered in coarse summer grasses under a baking sun, eroded creek banks, diminished wildlife. But its woodland remnants are also one of the last strongholds for the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater, of which only a few hundred are left in the wild.

We plant three thousand trees at a time, starting at 8am. At 11 o’clock, just as we’re flagging, a bus trundles down the drive, disgorging a veritable battalion of Taronga Zoo’s youth program. They take up their places alongside us, sending a ripple of renewed energy through the early planters.

Some years the soil is kind to us, crumbling and forming easily under fingers to accommodate each tree. These years we finish by early afternoon and strut back to the cottages for wine and cheese, cocky with success. Other years, the soil is heavy and clayey, rocks so hard the mattock bounces back. Those years, planting feels like unfounded hope and it is only when the cliffs are casting long shadows that the most stalwart planters head home.

The restorative nature of replanting the birds’ habitat works its own restorative magic on me. There’s an inter-connectedness and a hopefulness to planting trees that reminds me of Jean Giono’s ‘The Man who Planted Trees’. On returning to a previously barren landscape, he finds a restored landscape following the tree planting efforts of a single man:

“Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in the forest. Most amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool. “

My boy has been planting with me since he was three. In the early years he worked steadily alongside me nestling tree after tree into its new home with his miniature trowel. Now 7, he darts back and forth to fit in time with the grey bearded ‘watering crew’, sitting up front of the ute yarning with Don, leaping towards me over the furrows from the far off horizon to regale stories of refill adventures from the dam. Such joy and expanse in that run, freed from the constraints of inner city fence lines and roads.

It is easy to identify previous plantings dotted through the valley, from tiny saplings to trees that look like they’ve been there forever; and I marvel anew at the volunteer power that has doggedly planted 125,000 trees and shrubs over 30 years – over 260 hectares have been replanted.

I like to think of my boy in decades to come, taking his children and grandchildren to see the groves that we planted, from time to time pointing out the flashes of bright yellow, black and grey of honeyeaters ducking and dipping amongst foliage. Tree planting gives you that kind of mad hope. All because my boy, at 3, learnt to put his hands in the soil beside other hands, planting out a forest.


Audio produced by Gretchen Miller, sound engineering by Judy Rapley.

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