This is the sassafras tree in flower. A native to wet forests in south-east Australia, especially in Tasmania, this sassafras is in no way related to the homonymous trees in North America. (How many times in writing a natural history have I had to explain this! The northern hemisphere exiles, invaders and migrants of the late 1700s and 1800s were so desperate to make sense of this antipodean foreignness that the first English names they received were those of trees from elsewhere, of which they were very roughly an equivalent. Our sassafras, for those keeping track, has the Latin binomial of Atherosperma moschatum – and to clear up these confusions is why the botanical names exist.)
These are my favourite flowers. They bring me a great deal of pleasure, both for their aesthetics and for what they offer my imagination. Generally speaking, it is more common to find the flowers on the ground, fallen; as they exist in the rainforest, often the flowers are at the top of the tree, receiving daylight. Sometimes you are lucky and find one in bud or in blossom, usually in a clearing, such as where a landslip has occurred. But to be honest, I’m just as happy seeing them star the dark forest floor.
White forest flowers mean a lot to me. In particular, I attribute great significance to three different species that give white flowers in the high country at different times of the year. September’s sassafras signals the incipient end of winter; in early summer, especially around the longest day of the year, smoky tea-tree flowers fill the landscape with grey-white clouds; leatherwood flowers are a sign of the end of summer, and despite their beauty and their exquisite aroma, their arrival around February or March brings me great sadness.
I feel lucky to be here for the sassafras bloom. I have lived much of my life in seasons, and it’s never quite clear what the next will bring. This has been my first full winter in Tasmania in nearly a decade; it has brought as much contentment as any circuitous international journey of the past. You will hear Tasmanians whinge about the weather, but I can’t say a bad word against it. Snows, in April and August, fell hard and low on the multitude of mountain ranges; I have been fortunate to crunch across the Western Tiers and kunanyi/Mount Wellington, to see the peaks of the Hartz Mountains and the massifs of Ben Lomond and Black Bluff bold and white on the horizon. I have woken to frost on my tent; my boots have frozen stiff; I have sheltered in mountain cottages and highland huts while rain comes pattering down.
Then again, as I noted with a mate at a wake the other day, winters can be long and Septembers seem often to bring tragedy. Sometimes the colourless days, the bitter cold of solitude, the shrunken hours of daylight are hard to bear.
Soon enough it will all be gone. Snow can fall in the mountains of Tasmania at any time of year, but the seasons are so distinctly different. Sassafras flowers will seem like a dream. Long sunsets will stretch out, filling the olive buttongrass tussocks with the blackest of shadows. Lakes will beckon swimmers’ bodies.
Everything is different as the seasons change. As I washed the dishes this morning, I watched fairy-wrens flirting. Elsewhere boobyalla brightens the coasts. Grey baby swans dot the estuary’s waters. Yes, it’s cold again today, but the season is not defined by the temperature. The silver wattles were early this year; the blackwoods have their bommyknocker buds exposed too. I walk down to the creek and sassafras flowers are strewn everywhere, amidst the moss, beneath manfern fronds. Have hope: it is spring.