Notes from the Festival: Sophie Cunningham

28 November 2019 by Byron Writers Festival

This year’s Byron Writers Festival line-up included Sophie Cunningham, co-founder of the Stella Prize, editor, and author of five books, all of which reflect on our relationship with built and natural environments. Her latest offering, City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest, explores universal themes of dying and grief and our love and need for trees. The essays ruminate on a question that may be relevant for many of us: what does it mean to admire the beauty of nature in the face of climate catastrophe? Interview by Katinka Smit.

What was it that sparked your serious interest in trees?
I’ve always loved trees but when I was living overseas I did a lot of walking and started to really notice the roles trees play in making urban and rural places livable. A lot of trees had been bought from other places – figs in San Francisco, palms in Los Angeles, plane trees in my home town of Melbourne – and I started to think about why trees were used and moved around in certain ways and what that experience did to them – their growth patterns, their health, their happiness. I started to spend time sitting in groves – chestnuts, giant sequoia, river red gums, manna gum – and  ad such a strong feeling of the personality of the different forests. It went on from there.

It’s such a simple equation: trees equal life. Why are we as a society so ignorant to this simple reality?
I think it’s possibly because trees stood in the way of agriculture in secular society. There was a sense that you had to remove trees to bring in sheep and grow fields (even though it’s not even necessarily true that you need to do that) and I think it was partly because for those of us who came from England the trees were very ‘other’. This is obviously an Australian answer because trees are in trouble all around the world, but to the people who came to Australia it didn’t seem like they were ‘real’ trees: they looked weird. And there’s the terror of them dropping limbs, eucalypts do drop limbs fairly dramatically, so that might be part of it.

How do you think we can undo the settler imprint of broad scale land clearing on our national psyche?
The political lobbying really has to intensify around logging old growth trees. That’s the real priority because they’re irreplaceable. Once they are gone you can’t get back what they offer to ecosystems, let alone the spiritual, cultural qualities those trees might have, and the number of species of animals and insects we’ll lose if all those trees disappear. You have to prioritise trees that  have several hundred years under their belt, and not be fooled by formulas about off-setting, because they’re very wonky formulas. You can’t replace a five hundred-year-old tree with a dozen seedlings, and if you do, you have to make sure those dozen seedlings survive. It’s a long-term commitment, not just a kind of mathematical formula, ticking a box. These policies are in place; they are meaningful. It means something to produce X number of trees to a certain age, and understand that it actually connects to real life. I sometimes feel with bodies that build roads that they are just trying to game the system. It feels like they are very defensive, not taking suggestions seriously that they should not build a road, unless they are forced. It feels like it’s not really a discussion, just a bureaucratic exercise.

There are many cultures in the world that see trees – and all of nature – as sentient, yet the Western mind continues to denigrate this as superstitious and wishful thinking. Yet this is really the crux of the problem, isn’t it? These kind of ideas were once seen as fanciful, but I think there is an increasing body of accepted science which makes them less so. I suspect the problem is not so much that some people don’t believe that trees and ecosystems behave in a way you could describe as sentient, but that they don’t care. Industrialised thinking separates humans from nature which isn’t only incorrect but dangerous.

When you look at the indicative distribution maps of river red gums in Australia and recognise their relationship to waterways above and below ground, it upends the notion of Australia’s dryness. The tree is almost a symbolic representation of the entire continent’s (including its first people) effect on the European mind. Yet this places the river red gum in a unique position, having survived desertification, ice age and so on, to answer a lot of questions of how to survive from here on in, culturally and existentially. Are we capable of approaching this?

Well, there are a lot of scientists who are doing amazing work with river red gum and other Australian trees. And those scientists are talking more and more to the traditional landowners in different areas and learning from them. I think the question is, who listens to these people? How seriously do policy makers take this work? That said, as I meet more of these researchers, I’m aware of how adept some of them are becoming at general communication and media work. So they are doing their very best to spread the word – and are always very generous in sharing their research with writers like myself.

City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest is published by Text.

Byron Writers Festival