When, as an undergraduate enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Sydney, I was told – or perhaps it was written in a handbook or on a noticeboard – to sign up for Philosophy subjects under the jacaranda tree, it sounded very quaint and ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ English.
Until I realised the entrance to the faculty offices were in the part of the Main Quadrangle behind the jacaranda tree, and the relevant notice boards were around the entrance.
I was to discover just how much of a role the jacaranda played in campus life, as much a part of the quadrangle as the tables laden with jugs of juice and platters of pastry (provided as post-graduation refreshments back in the day when budgets allowed such lavish morning and afternoon teas); Christians dry rooting on the lawn in front of the clock tower; and random students inviting you to bible studies.
I remember signing up for SUDS (Sydney University Dramatic Society) auditions under the jacaranda, and reclining on a lawn garlanded with the tree’s petals during marathon O-Week debates featuring PUIs (pronounced ‘poo-ease’, and standing for ‘prominent university identities’) who have gone on to careers in politics, media and, occasionally, international celebrity.
It was said that students who hadn’t started studying by the time the jacaranda began to bloom would fail. I was oblivious to this element of folklore – probably because my own experience had proven that students who didn’t take Sudafed had a harder time pulling all-nighters to cram or complete essays.
But don’t mistake this for evidence of nostalgia for my varsity days – my most fondly recalled days were after the degree, editing publications for the Student Representative Council and then being employed by the University of Sydney Union.
I am saddened by the passing. Not of those days, or of campus life, which, back in the 1990s, seemed only a pale imitation of previous decades as depicted in various collected memoirs of past students (but shine more vibrantly than the ensuing decades til now). Rather, I am saddened to hear that the landmark jacaranda tree, around and under and behind which students gathered to fulfill a myriad of agendas, collapsed on Friday 28 October. it had ‘thrived’ in the Main Quadrangle since 1928, apparently planted by Professor E.G. Waterhouse, McCaughey associate professor of German and comparative literature, in preparation for a visit by the Duke and Duchess of York.
After 88 years its passing is sadder than that of free education, compulsory student unionism and legendary halcyon days of 50-cent cappuccinos and 20-cent donuts. (Did such days exist? Oft-promised by many a candidate in the lead-up to student elections, I can remember no occasion of the 20-cent donut discount taking place in the same week as a 50-cent cappuccino discount, during four years of my three-year degree, or the subsequent two-and-a-half years of forgetting to leave the campus and editing publications for my supper…)
However, I’m not shedding a tear. To everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn, etc.
The jacaranda’s imminent passing was announced in 2014 – it was nearing the natural end of its long life. Cuttings were taken by a specialist jacaranda grower, two clones produced, and thus, the university reports, the now defunct jacaranda will be replaced with genetically identical stock.
Future PUIs – the offspring of PUIs past who progressed beyond dry-rooting on the lawn – will go on to marathon debate, dry root, audition for SUDS productions and register for courses and subjects on or around the jacaranda in the future, just as they have always.