“What kind of times are these”, asked Bertolt Brecht in 1939, “when / To talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
Trees have long, in the West, been an icon of escape from all emergency – a site for distraction, transcendence, renewal. To walk among them means losing oneself in nature’s fullness, the trees themselves standing for a retreat from crisis, for a place to convalesce far from the moment’s corrupting urgencies. When Thoreau went to the trees, he went to live deliberately, to deal with only the essentials. In Brecht’s poem, as elsewhere, trees represent the artful world, the sphere of goodness and wisdom and beauty that is no longer his to savour.
Like Brecht, we live in times of emergency – but, unlike 1939, the moral and political crisis now places trees right on the frontline. Climate change is proceeding at a maddening speed, threatening truly apocalyptic outcomes for life on earth. In Australia, deforestation and land clearing continue to devastate native tree systems and animal habitats, not to mention the trauma visited on the land’s traditional owners and ongoing custodians. Sydney and Melbourne, their tree coverage dwindling, face an accelerating urban heat island effect, to which planting can only be part of the solution. Literary critics are already talking of the “post-natural” in nature writing; psychologists have identified “ecological grief” as a pervasive, collective anxiety.
What does it mean, now, to go to the trees? Nature lovers today face a curious double bind. What used to mean comfort and enchantment now stands for disaster as well. But so much is lost when we give up that enchantment, especially when hearts and minds need winning over. (David Attenborough has been criticised for downplaying the impacts of global climate change for the sake of charm and beauty – but then how many children were inspired to love and then defend the forests by reading George Monbiot’s Guardian columns?) To write trees now requires new vision, and a deep rethinking of ourselves as we relate to them. Trees may indeed connect us to our past, but all is changing – and we had better change as well.
In City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest, Sophie Cunningham—an experienced essayist and devoted tree-lover—commits herself fully to the project of going to the trees, of bearing witness to what is taking place. In twenty-one essays she records a series of encounters with significant trees, mingling her personal experience of grief with the broader environmental crisis. These typically incorporate walking, a practice that the author dearly believes in; the essays, too, are mobile, associative, peripatetic in style. Whether in the US, Iceland or Australia, they tend to follow certain paths and then leave them – being out on a walk is a means of engaging with both the present and the past. In Melbourne, for instance, she writes:
For me these excursions were a walking meditation. I set an intention, but didn’t overthink it. I was finding my way home, I was staying with the trouble. I was thinking about the way my settler ancestors took up land in this country...I chased a history that shimmered, a force field of trauma, through the landscape of my homeland.
Cunningham is particularly interested in old trees, not just for ecological reasons but also for the sense of time that they represent: “the history they’ve eaten”, in one of her memorable phrases. Bearing witness, for her, means facing up to the past, including Australia’s colonial history. It also means experimenting with new ways of looking, ways of telling, ways of being.
Later in that Melbourne essay, she follows the walk of William Buckley, the escaped convict who fled on foot from Sullivan’s Bay (Sorrento) and eventually lived on and off with Wathaurong there. Cunningham also follows part of the trail of Burke and Wills, but in Buckley she finds a counterpoint to those explorers’ imperial hubris: a certain fluidity of identity, and openness to change. Quoting Barry Hill’s Ghosting William Buckley—"With each step we make / history on unthinking feet”—Cunningham muses on the stakes of our man-made emergency: “Unthinking. Unlearning. Unwriting”, she writes. “These are the word that make sense to me as I get older”.
Unthinking is a powerful idea in this context. It might mean being thoughtless – but then it might mean taking back the way you think, like by having certain thoughts and then un-thinking them. Either way (or both), Cunningham finds herself walking among gorgeous coastal moonah at Dromana, on the path of William Buckley, with her friends: “Our unthinking feet walk a vanishing beachscape, a porous and sandy place: the past, the future bleed.”
At the heart of City of Trees is the walk. Cunningham walks in California, in Puglia, in rural Victoria; she and her group tread the length of Brooklyn’s longest avenue. Recognising the walk as a literary device, she adapts its conventions, applies its associative power – and then moves on. Her essays make their own way, incorporating one or more literal walks into something larger that moves across time and place, and past and present. This kind of walking is an exercise in presence, a renewal of attention:
We walk to get from one place to another, but in doing so we insist that what lies between our point of departure and our destination is important. We create connection. We pay attention to detail, and these details plant us firmly in the day, in the present. They bond us to place, to people. Walking opens our hearts.
To walk means acknowledging privilege; it is a path to fellow-feeling. “Walkers stay with the trouble”, Cunningham states. In putting herself about, the walker shows that she is interested – inter plus est, in Latin, literally to be among or between. A way of knowing that puts the self on the line.
“Paths”, writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, “are the habit of a landscape”. Like W.G. Sebald, Cunningham traverses a landscape of the past, walking against vanishment and loss. “As you move through history”, she writes, “history moves into you, more surely than if you read it”. This entails facing inconvenient truths – about Australia’s brutal neglect of its environment, about White Australia’s ghastly record of dispossession and violence.
Walking is also, in these essays, a way to access a deeper sense of time, one that transcends our daily habits of consumption and destruction. Call this tree time. And it is old trees that Cunningham takes to the most. Faced with one historic river gum, she writes: “To understand Melbourne, its history, our environment, I need to know this tree.” Old-growth forests, such as the mountain ash, are ecologically of the utmost importance – slowing down fires, providing homes for native fauna. They also hold the past, a great long history of death and change and adaptation.
“Trees have witnessed a lot”, Cunningham writes, “and, notwithstanding the way we abuse and exploit them, that gives them cultural cachet”. One famous coolibah stands on Yandruwandha country, on the path of Burke and Wills’ expedition – it was carved with instructions to find some buried supplies. All the tree’s scars, except the word Dig, have been repairing themselves. A history-eating tree that says Dig: an appropriate emblem for these knowledge-hungry essays.
In her recent memoir Understory, Inga Simpson records her years spent living on a piece of Queensland bush. She records, in intimate detail, how her familiarity with each tree there brings her closer to them. “Some days, I feel part tree – or at least, I prefer their company”, she confesses. “Yet the closer I get, the more inadequate my words”.
Compared to Simpson, Cunningham’s relationship with individual trees is rather transient, conducted via literal and imaginative travel. Every day she posts a tree on Instagram under the handle @sophtreeofday. She is eager, in her own admittedly peripatetic way, to be amongst the trees, to communicate with them, to hear what they might have to say to us. While wary of anthropomorphising, she responds sincerely to her “genuine sense, when spending time among trees, that trees have personality”.
Cunningham’s essays are eminently sociable – they are led by conversations and interviews, they are appreciative of kindness, and they are driven by her interest in togetherness. She posits forests as a kind of society, as a model for companionship even. “Trees need strategic thinking in these difficult times”, Cunningham reasons, “and they also need friends”.
In the spirit of both friendship and activism, she travels to visit Ada, a mountain ash that (who) is the largest tree in Victoria:
I stood before her; leaned forward, tentative, as if to touch her, then spread my arms out to get some perspective on her girth. I’m sure if you had been an outsider watching me you’d have thought I was about to embrace her.
It is a strange kind of friendship between humans and trees. Whereas trees may well communicate amongst themselves, they do not speak to us in any tongue we understand (“It is in their indifference that they are comforting”, wrote Virginia Woolf.) We know so little of their private lives – the genius of trees is what takes place when we go out to them. Cunningham is at peace with their reticence. As in John Ashbery’s shyly intimate Some Trees, it might be that their (and our) “merely being there / Means something”. To love and respect beings that cannot justify themselves in our language – this is the book’s radical imperative, its need for a forest that includes and transcends us.
“This forest isn’t what it was”, Inga Simpson wrote about her tract of mongrel bush, “but then, who of us is”. If trees suggest a sense of togetherness, then they can also bring to bear what we have lost – and stand to lose. Bearing witness to the natural world means growing aware of an unfathomable tragedy, a grief without precedent or scale. How lonely humanity stands to become, how bereft of the companionship of animals and plants.
In City of Trees, both of Cunningham’s fathers pass away. She loses each of them to dementia first – the gradual loss of identity, the creation of absence in somebody familiar. At the same time, she is exploring the stakes of ecological destruction, what a loss like that might feel like. “You can listen”, she writes, “if you are brave enough, to the final chittering of the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat as it calls, searching for others of its kind. It received no reciprocal call and was never heard from again”.
These twin griefs are knotted together in the book. While walking the likely path of Ranee, an Indian Elephant brought alone to Melbourne’s zoo in 1862, Cunningham meditates on personal and ecological grief. “Going about your day as you once did is difficult”, she observes. “The very idea of self feels like a narrative fallacy, the kind of fallacy that makes you consider Ranee’s disarticulated skeleton as a metaphor, before you realise using her like that makes you feel physically ill”. The essays are experiments in facing down loss. Nature must be grieved, like a loved one – but it must also be defended, since that fight, at least, is far from over.
Cunningham is aware of the risk of egotism when it comes to producing a tree memoir, now, in this climate. Her personality suffuses the book, and her experience gives it its sense – yet these essays successfully transcend her, just as they contain but outgrow her individual walks. Her personal narrative inhabits the natural world without imposing her needs on it. Within the essays’ walking logic, personal and ecological matters are presented side-by-side, connected as if by semicolons rather than colons. Cunningham is interested in patterns, in what she calls the “not-difference” between things, but she is determined to resist grand metaphors and the “siren song” of narrative resolution. Her essays do not prescribe; instead, they try out ways to build communion, ways to go out to the trees while staying open and attentive. The author herself is offered up as an instance – self-ironical, self-scrutinising.
The final note of the book sees her stand in front of Ada with arms held wide: just the kind of sentimentalist, she admits, that scientists warn about. “I honour you”, she tells Ada, “I pledge allegiance to you, to this city – to our planet – of trees”. Faced with the age, size and beauty of this giant, Cunningham closes on a gesture of deference, of something like self-abnegation, performed across the boundaries of speech and understanding.
Ultimately, this is a book about change, good and bad – about the urgent need for change, especially among non-Indigenous Australians, and how this might be achieved. The essay ‘Biyala Stories’, on river red gums, follows the trees into a difficult colonial history that includes the disastrous management of water landscapes around what is now Melbourne. In these old trees—known as Biyala in Yorta Yorta—ecologists can see the traces left by waterways long past, as well as the ways that they have adapted to continual change.
As trees connect us to the past, so too they come with complicated baggage. But trees are nothing if not adaptive. For Cunningham, the river gum is full of narrative both real and potential: “We need its stories”, she argues, as we build towards a new understanding of nature, a process that must also foreground the voices of First Nations peoples. (“there are nights when we meet voiceless”, writes Evelyn Araluen, “in the shadow of oncewas gum”.)
Michel de Certeau has argued that walking, like every spatial practice, is a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place: it “affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc.” Cunningham’s walking essays perform a new kind of way-finding – they seek to reconstitute our relation to place by unthinking, unlearning, unwriting, in the hope that the self, too, might change under the influence of trees, and in their company. “Our survival is linked to theirs”, she concludes. “If the river red gum can find a way to regenerate successfully then maybe, just maybe, so can we”.
Alexander Wells is a writer and history researcher based in Sydney. He has written for Australian Book Review, the Mekong Review, Overland, and the Harvard Advocate, where he was editor. His Twitter handle is @ajbwells.