North Sydney and the Expressway Tree

With the festive season over, decorations have almost disappeared from shop windows and front gardens. Suburban frontyard light displays have been packed away, and the dry, dead remains of Christmas trees protrude from green waste bins. The decorations that are still up seem stubborn or stale, behind the times, which have churned on into an already stressful new year.

Driving through North Sydney, I’m not yet thinking about Christmas decorations or anything much except making sure I’m in the right lane for the Arthur Street turnoff. Berry Street splits in two like ram’s horns, left to go north, right to the bridge. Choose wisely, for the Warringah Expressway awaits below. There’s an intensity to this intersection, perched as it is at the edge of the North Sydney high-rises. Here the view opens up towards the sky and the harbour and the far shore of the eastern suburbs. Below is fifteen lanes of surging motorway traffic although this is, from this high vantage point, out of sight.    

(The Warringah Expressway, quite some time ago: see the film that documents its construction for details of its construction and scenes of mass demolition and earthworks accompanied by a chirpy orchestral soundtrack.)

I turn into the lane closest to the edge, which is hemmed in by a barrier and a railing. Beside the lane is a narrow strip of concrete, which runs the length of the road. Something glittery catches my eye. A short way along the roadside, from a crack in the concrete, against the odds, a tree is growing. It is a casuarina tree, about two metres high, roughly the shape and size of a Christmas tree. Evidently someone had noticed this, as its lower branches had been decorated with glittery plastic ribbons. What a tenacious little tree, there amid the concrete and the traffic, thriving where no tree is meant to grow.

I might have noticed the tree and keep going on my way, but instead I change lanes and travel back around the block. I park the car in a laneway between two rows of office buildings, where the mood is concrete, security cameras, and garage doors with ads for Magic Button (featuring the cheerful mascot of a magician figure in a tuxedo with a button for a head, pressing down on the top of it to release a shower of sparks).

No one much is around, a combination of it being the first week of the year and the recent huge upsurge in Covid infections. This means there’s less traffic, too, which is helpful as I dash across the road, to the siding just before the strip of pavement with the tree. Here it’s wide enough to stand to take a photo, though I feel conspicuous as the cars go past. Like the tree, here by the precipice of the motorway, I stand in an unlikely place. For a moment I take in the view of the lanes of traffic below and then the harbour, before dashing back across to safety.

Later, I look up the slices of time captured by Google Street View to follow the tree’s growth. It’s not there in November 2017, but then by the next image, October 2018, it’s a small, sturdy sapling. By November 2019 it’s up above the railing. I watch it get taller over 2020, then 2021, until the last capture in May, in which it looks much like it does now in its decorated form. I think of it growing these last four years, nourished by the sunlight and the rain, as the skies filled with bushfire smoke for months, and then the traffic dwindled as the city went through lockdowns. Maybe it was during lockdown that the person who decorated it had noticed it, in that time when local details were our comfort.

I walk the long way back to the car, deciding to look around North Sydney a little bit. My mental map of it is outdated by decades: going past on the expressway I still look up expecting to see the clock/temperature that used to be up on the side of the Konica Minolta building (then the Sunsuper building). I had a childhood association with it, where it represented for me both the high rise world of business and something closer to home: the orange numerals resembled a bedside alarm clock. A few years ago the view of it disappeared when a new gleaming glass office tower was built in front of it, but I could see it was still there, a black box high up in the top corner, visible in the gap between the buildings.   

All was quiet around the offices buildings, apart from a few construction sites and removalist vans. The smokers’ courtyards were empty, and few people waited to cross at the street corners. I watched my reflection move across mirrored glass that sealed off the views into office windows. Only real estate signs gave a sense of what might be inside them.

17 Comments on “North Sydney and the Expressway Tree”

  1. I had a similar sighting with a tall flowering Gymea lily that stood a good 18 months as the Westconnex works totally surrounded it. It was like the workmen valued it’s beauty and left to the very last moment before it had to go. I took photos if you’re interested. Couldn’t seem to do ‘paste’ into this comment. I also produced a photo collage imagining it to be an intended part of the massive development.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      I’d love to see it F – I had a dig around in the comments settings but it might be you can’t include images on WordPress, so I will email… I love it that the construction workers respected it enough to leave it there.

  2. matttdevine says:

    Another great article
    I loved the second last image – I can’t recall the name of this building, but it was originally orange. I loved it as a kid and always looked out for it on our drives from one grandmother (Northern beaches) to the other (Eastern Suburbs) when we came to Sydney during the Christmas holidays!

  3. I love this piece. I hope some road or Council crew doesn’t remove the little-tree-that-could

  4. Tony says:

    Wondered where you were Vanessa, what a Lovely start to the year . Beautiful Spot .. Tony

  5. Tony says:

    P.S. .. The tree 🌲 is a Casuarina or She-Oak ..

  6. Christine Haldane says:

    So well written and I love how you, like me, enjoy finding the stories behind what would go unnoticed by many others.

  7. Tony says:

    Funny thing is, and warming unity here, an hour or so after reading this post, I drove out of Sydney, after a week of working on songs and recording with a friend, .. to go back up the coast .. soon as I looked up I saw the tree ( She- Oak or Forest Oak) high up on the left, above the main road .. Simple things seem to be so warming and important now ..

  8. Arnum Endean says:

    A sheoak in the cold concrete canyons of North Sydney. Only you, Vanessa.
    I attended the North Sydney Demonstation School from 1968 to 1972. My parents vied with the Whiteleys (Brett and Wendy) who would pick up their little Arkie after school, to see who could wear the most velvet and floppy felt coloured hat. North Sydney CBD represented glamorous Radio 2UE at the corner of Maclaren and Miller Sts, Radio 2SM on Blues Point Rd from whose 5th storey roof Duran Duran waved to fans in 1982, and the building with the “flying saucer” done on it’s roof beside the orange rimmed reflector window skyscraper you included in your gallery(now with less 70s-ish khaki round cornered window rims).
    And the little bronze jug carrier on the badge atop the turquoise-tiled 1950s wonder of the MLC building on Miller and Blue St.
    Ta V. You are a poet.

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