Review: Bernadette Brennanon Sophie Cunningham

Living Things: City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham

Some trees are the equivalent of a city, so many millions do they support; such massive infrastructure do they provide.
— Sophie Cunningham, City of Trees

This quiet dying is all around us.
— James Bradley, ‘An Ocean and an Instant

In his opening address to the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Max Porter delivered an excoriating assessment of Brexit and the lies of Empire, history and neoliberalism. He began with a reading of ‘The Misanthrope’, a 1568 painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder. ‘The Misanthrope’ depicts a thief, caged by his greed and desires, stealing from a tall clergyman. In the clergyman’s posture, Porter suggested, ‘we are asked to read honour, and moral uprightness.’ Porter’s passionate, erudite performance built to a devastating conclusion: immanent, catastrophic climate change makes a mockery of foundational concepts such as nation and borders; there is no us and them, no Leave or Remain, there is only a ‘community of living things…dying because of us.’ He revisited the Breughel, reimagining the now-discredited clergyman as a tree, warning that ‘it is just us and that upright life-giving deity, and if we rob him and strip him of his assets with no thoughts for regrowth then it is us that we will kill.’ It is too late to say that we will plant another tree, he cautioned: ‘There are no more trees. The responsibility is ours.’

Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest, is driven by the same urgent need to protect the world’s trees, animals and biosphere. Over twenty-one essays, ten of which focus on a specific genus of tree, she enumerates what has been, and is being, lost while also celebrating the beauty and magnificence of the natural world she encounters. Almost daily she reads about entire populations of trees becoming endangered. ‘We’re losing trees by approximately 15 billion a year worldwide’, she writes, trees such as the cedars of Lebanon, North America’s mountain ash, the northern hemisphere elm and chestnut, Roman old holm oaks, almost all the baobabs from Africa, the ancient olives in Puglia; the list goes on. Less than ten per cent of Australia’s ‘pre-settlement’ forests remain and within ‘fifty to a hundred years Australia will have lost tens of millions of its large old trees’.

A shocking hallmark of white Australian settlement was the systematic eradication of native vegetation across the continent. By the 1920s, Cunningham notes, the American Museum of Natural History was so concerned about the ‘ferocious removal of Australian trees’ that it prioritised collecting them. Today, drought and extreme weather events are contributing to further destruction of our forests. In January 2016, the world heritage forests across Tasmania, some of them home to 1000-year-old trees with a metre of peat beneath them, burned for weeks. With that fire, begun by unprecedented dry lightning strikes, the world lost the last remaining fragments of an ecosystem that once spread across Gondwanaland.

Waanyi author Alexis Wright has drawn attention to the increasingly destructive capabilities of Australian bushfires using language once unknown, or at least unfamiliar, to most. Describing how the cloud mass generated from the ‘Bunyip bushfires’, in the mountain ash forest east of Melbourne, set up its own ‘erratic weather system’, she noted:

This was another massive pyroconvection producing bushfire – a super cell thunderstorm that was perhaps similar to the cumulonimbus flammagenitus clouds associated with the 2003 Canberra bushfire, and the 2009 Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires which created pyrocumulonimbus storms.

Wright pinpointed a crucial question: ‘How do you find the words to tell the story of the environmental emergency of our times?’ One partial answer can be seen in the Guardian’s updated style guide, which proposes usage that describes more accurately the severity of current environmental crises. In May 2019, climate change became climate crisis, global warming shifted to global heating, wildlife replaced biodiversity, fish populations replaced fish stocks, and climate science denier took the place of the more benign climate sceptic. Writers, historians and scientists — to name just a few — are publishing essays, stories, podcasts and data about the world’s climate emergency searching not only for the right language, but also for the best form with which to engage audiences and galvanise awareness. Cunningham’s City of Trees is an important contribution to that body of work.

Cunningham writes in engaging, accessible prose. She wears her extensive research lightly and passionately explores her topic without veering into preaching. She muses on erasure, loss and grief, all on a personal, local and global scale. With an incremental power, this collection of essays invites us to be present absolutely to ourselves, our environments, our histories and our world. City of Trees is a deeply ethical and thoughtful call to consciousness, a call to see and feel being in and of the natural world.

In early 2016 Cunningham, living in San Francisco, committed to an Instagram feed where she posted daily a picture of a tree: @sophtreeofday. Her photographs feature magnificent trees that she visited over the ensuing years as she travelled the world. She quips that her essays are ‘all over the place’, as they are, in various ways. Geographically, she writes about trees, animals and landscapes that she encountered in Iceland, the United States, Peru, Australia, Italy and central Europe. The essays roam seamlessly from the flat wetlands of Florida to Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and back again, or from her father with frontal lobe dementia in a Melbourne nursing home to P-22 the mountain lion roaming in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park neighbourhood. The imaginative leaps within and between essays make connections the way trees do through their intertwined root systems. Connectivity is paramount; the (usually) uncontested boundaries between humans, trees and animals dissolve. As Cunningham explains: ‘in a culture obsessed with classifications and difference I sometimes find this way of thinking — considering the not-difference between things — useful.’

City of Trees is also a book about walking. Cunningham knows how to play with established literary traditions. She cites Rebecca Solnit: ‘As a literary structure, the recounted walk encourages digression and association.’ She casts herself as a flâneuse. She is at home navigating cityscapes or forests. She walks alone and with friends, traversing the vast distances of Manhattan, retracing Ranee the elephant’s route through Melbourne, visiting Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens, leading tours to the ancient river red gums. Walking provides a sense of embodied connection to place and time:

As you move through history, history moves through you, more surely than if you read it. Writers mark the page, but walkers mark the earth, and the earth in turn marks us. I feel increasingly compelled to walk to random places, to know them through the soles of my feet.

In describing her walks, Cunningham teaches much about local, global and ecological histories.

A tree is never just a tree. It speaks of the history of the place where it has grown of been planted: the hills that were dynamited, the creeks that were concreted, the water that has been drained to give it a place to root.  Trees speak of the displacement of first nations. Of the endless lust of governments (small and large) to control places and the ways in which trees should or should not grow, the ways in which humans should or should not live.

In 2018 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only twelve years in which to limit climate change catastrophe by phasing out fossil fuels. In the same year, the World Wildlife Fund’s biennial Living Planet Report advised that 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife populations had been lost in the last forty years. We are living through what has become known as the ‘sixth extinction’. Cunningham notes that Australia has ‘the worst mammal extinction rate in the world and a massive 1700 species of our animals and plants are listed by the Australian Government as being at risk of extinction.’ Despite the introduction of federal laws designed to protect the ecosystems of a host of rare species, ‘7.6 million hectares of [threatened-species] habitat has been destroyed between 2000 and 2017’.

The disorienting disparity between the timescale of ecological evolution and its destruction wrought within half of an average human life span, emphasises both the urgency for us to be aware of what is happening and the need to be informed about, and fight against, what is being lost. Forgetting, or a learned amnesia, will surely facilitate further devastation. Who will remember what is no longer present? Who will care? City of Trees is a call to urgent action, or at the very least a call to urgent consciousness. And yet Cunningham knows that ‘the production of your average physical book takes months, which is plenty of time for an ecosystem to be destroyed.’ In ‘Fort. Da!’ she records instances of bureaucratic protections which are too little and come too late. When she stands beneath the giant sequoia — one of the world’s oldest trees — or the ancient river red gums, she comprehends the brevity of a human lifespan.

In Melbourne (2011), Cunningham had explained the significance of the 300-year-old river red gum known as the Separation Tree. In ‘Biyala Stories’ she revisits that tree, only to notice a second red gum nearby. She feels that ‘to understand Melbourne, its history, our environment’, she needs to know this tree, yet she struggles to find words to capture the ‘intensity this particular tree emanates as it stands, like… an ancient god’. Ultimately, she can only describe its quality as ‘spiritual.’ Cunningham is equally at a loss to convey the soaring majesty of the giant sequoia. Language fails in the face of such towering presence. She tries painting the trees, with little success. Is it possible, she wonders, ‘to draw, or write, a forest?’ Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory is one of the few things she reads ‘that begins to convey how being in the presence of giant sequoia is like being in the presence of qualities Christianity ascribes to God.’ The link between trees and religions is also temporal: ‘There are individual giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) still living that are older than Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism.’

Through the ages, magnificent cathedrals have been constructed to reflect the glory of God. Like the giant sequoia they draw the human gaze upwards; they reach towards the sky.  In April 2019, the world looked on in horror as fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral and the spires came tumbling down. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the Cathedral, proclaiming that it was ‘our history, our literature, part of our psyche’. Cunningham makes a similar case for the river red gums on Yorta Yorta land now part of the Barmah National Park, trees that generate stories and continue to bear witness to geological, Indigenous and colonial histories.

Some on social media challenged those who mourned the loss of Notre Dame to focus their attention on the threatened destruction of 3000 similarly-aged sacred trees on Djap Wurrung country, outside Ararat in Victoria. These trees are to be sacrificed for an additional two lanes of freeway; a road widening expected to cut a mere three minutes off existing travel time. This project is only one of many currently underway in Australia. Writing about harvesting old-growth timber, a despairing and disgusted Cunningham asks, ‘In what universe would a reasonable person think it okay to cut down an 800-year-old tree and reduce it to a few hundred dollars’ worth of woodchips?’ Alarmingly, the answer is ours.  In The Overstory, the scientist Patricia states the case succinctly:

Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb…is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

Encouragingly, the City of Melbourne is embarking on an ambitious $19.1 million plan to boost urban forests and encourage vertical greening. The city council has committed to planting at least 3,400 trees in the next year. Yet as Cunningham stresses repeatedly, time has run out to replace our old growth trees. Recent initiatives that make it possible to email thousands of Melbourne’s trees, or to livestream peregrine falcons nesting and hatching on the Collins Street rooftop garden, are to be applauded, but they are not enough. Governments need to plan long-term initiatives. One hundred and sixty years ago the French government realised that the huge oak beams supporting the roof of Notre Dame would need at some point to be replaced. Presciently, an avenue of oaks was planted at Versailles so that wood of sufficient age would be available when needed. The oaks may or may not be harvested for the reconstruction, but they are ready.

In 2017 Cunningham felt paralysed by ‘physical changes, private anxieties and global catastrophes’. The hot flushes and sleeplessness of menopause combined with self-doubt, Trump, Brexit, terrorist attacks and extreme weather events, gave her a sense of unravelling. ‘#MeToo and the Australian equal-marriage debate’ added to the toxicity. Cunningham and her partner Virginia were married in February 2015 in Brooklyn City Hall. Virginia’s work saw them living in the United States and travelling extensively between 2013-2016. Cunningham studied painting, and threw herself into researching, writing and volunteering. She counted mating pairs of horseshoe crabs on Brooklyn beaches. After moving to San Francisco in June 2015, she volunteered as a gardener on Alcatraz.

In ‘Escape to Alcatraz’ we are introduced to the island’s birds, gardens and long history of Native American occupation. The gardening project is part of a larger drive to conserve the island’s multilayered history but, when almost everything on the island has come from somewhere else, the issue of conservation becomes complex and uncertain. Cunningham notes that on Alcatraz survivor ‘means all kinds of things’. The ‘survivor’ plants she works with are those that grew through forty years of neglect following the prison’s closure in 1963. In ‘I Don’t Blame the Trees’, Cunningham returns to the topic of incarceration, including her own. With a lightness of touch, she recounts how, along with her mother and baby brother, she was placed in quarantine after a trip to the United States ended unexpectedly in her parents’ separation. Her mother returned to Australia, but her brother had not yet been vaccinated against smallpox. It was 1968. There was outrage in the Senate that a white Australian family by the name of Nicholls were forcibly detained. She links her sketchy memories of that time with the desolate dormitories on Angel Island, once an immigration camp. She then employs the contentious debate around the removal of eucalypts from Angel Island to question implicitly words and phrases such as ‘native’, ‘refugee’, ‘immigrant’, ‘invader’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. She asks: ‘What does it mean to be “native” or “non-native” in a global world?

A major contributor to Cunningham’s sense of unravelling was the death of both her biological father Peter, and John, the beloved father who adopted and raised her and her brother. Peter died of Parkinson’s disease. He had dementia. John died of frontal lobe dementia. Cunningham writes of John’s death, particularly, with great love and restraint; it would be ‘disrespectful to detail’ his decline. When her friend later reads the manuscript and comments that City of Trees is really about repressed grief, Cunningham is horrified. In no way did she wish to equate the personal grief of losing a parent to natural causes with global catastrophe or ecological collapse. Yet the personal essays on grief sit beautifully within this collection.

Cunningham loves the phrase ‘as I get older’. After decades of less mindful travel, she is now aware of the ethics of tourism. She acknowledges that she contributes to the throng of people overcrowding Barcelona, descending on the Grand Canyon and trampling Machu Picchu. She offers broad outlines of the fraught history and politics of these places, as well as moments of wondrous revelation: the hummingbirds and bumblebees at the Incan ruin; the wonder of a cloud inversion and majesty of a condor over the Grand Canyon. On a dark, violently windswept beach in Iceland, however, her disappointment in not being able to see a puffin morphs suddenly into ‘deep shame’. Why did she need to look at them? ‘Why couldn’t I, couldn’t we, leave them alone?’

As a white, educated Australian, Cunningham writes from a position of self-conscious privilege. In 1860 her Scottish great-great-great uncle, Ebenezer Syme, purchased The Age. On his death shortly thereafter, his brother David, Cunningham’s ‘triple great grandfather’ took over ownership of the paper. Between 1910-1914 Oswald Syme, David’s youngest son, bought more than nine hundred acres at Mount Macedon, land that once provided food for the Wurundjeri people. Cunningham acknowledges that she is implicated in this dispossession. In ‘History on Unthinking Feet’, she walks the boundary lines of Melbourne, thinking about how her ‘settler ancestors took up land in this country’. She is chasing ‘a history that shimmered, a force field of trauma, through the landscape of my homeland’. As she walks she chants the names of significant roads, buildings and rivers. They are a ‘mix of the descriptive, nods to political power and royalty, the wives and daughters of political men, and echoes of the languages of the clans of the Kulin Nation.’

She touches on the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition. She traces some of the settler history writing of Ludwig Becker and William Buckley: ‘Both died heavy of heart with the knowledge that wilful ignorance and cruelty would do their best to render the settler nation blind.’ With friends she walks from Sullivan’s Cove to Dromana, knowing that they ‘could not re-create what it might have been like to run from a camp, shots fired at your back, taking down one of your number, moving through land where no settlers had trodden, and speaking a language no white men had spoken.’ This essay, and the collection as a whole, affirms Tom Griffiths’ belief that ‘Australians seem predisposed to navigate the Anthropocene’. Griffith’s rationale describes some of the most powerful essays in City of Trees:

I think it’s because the challenge of Australian history in the twenty-first century is how to negotiate the rupture of 1788, how to relate geological and human scales, how to get our heads and hearts around a colonial history of 200 years that plays out across a vast Indigenous history of deep time.

In 2013, biologist Edward O. Wilson proffered an alternative name for the Anthropocene, ‘a time for and all about our one species alone’. He preferred to call it the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness. Delia Falconer applies Wilson’s term to our present and future world depleted of wildlife. She emphasises the extraordinary creative loss we are in danger of experiencing  in a world where humans have only themselves as points of reference:

As John Berger, and many writers since, have pointed out, humans have used animals to think with since we first began to paint their drawings on cave walls with our blood; they entered our lives, Berger writes, not as our subjects but as ‘messengers and promises’, their presences magical, oracular, sacrificial.

In her penultimate essay ‘The Age of Loneliness’, Cunningham takes us back to Ranee, the first elephant in Australia, who died at Melbourne’s Zoological Gardens in December 1903. Through Ranee she revisits ideas of captivity, the function of zoos and the existential question of an animal’s emotional life. Ranee arrived from Siam in March 1883 and was walked from Port Melbourne to the Royal Park Zoo. Cunningham retraces what she believes to be the most logical route taken, imagining as best she can what it might have felt like to be the solo elephant in a strange land. Was Ranee lonely?

Cunningham’s research on the suffering of elephants is almost her undoing: ‘Having undertaken to bear witness to what humans are doing to this planet, to all that lives upon it, I found I was beginning to look away.’  She reads about the notion of ‘narrative fallacy’, which means ‘trying to neaten things with hindsight, or to create a logical discourse through the inclusion of incidental details that are not, in fact, related.’  But she refuses to find some greater or more benevolent meaning in Ranee’s life. She will not ‘give in to the siren song of a resolved narrative. One that makes sense of what humans are doing to this planet, or what the passage of time does to us’. At this point, Cunningham is attempting to navigate a number of disorienting griefs. She wonders if the trauma of bearing witness to ecological catastrophe might ultimately be unsustainable. Could that explain why ‘I, we keep living in air-conditioned houses and eating meat’ and going about our daily lives? Is it easier to just keep living as we are, rather than try and comprehend the breadth and depth of ‘wider timespans: the life of an elephant, of a father, of a tree, of the glaciers and icecaps, of bedrock’?

City of Trees concludes with a heartfelt pledge of allegiance to Ada, a mountain ash and Victoria’s largest tree. To reach Ada, Cunningham walks through myrtle beech rainforest, ‘home to thirty per cent of all Victoria’s rare or threatened flora species.’ She stands before the mighty Ada appreciative that this single 400-year-old tree ‘provides shelter for more than forty species of vertebrates and innumerable invertebrates’. Mountain ash forests are ‘among the most carbon-heavy forests in the world’, yet we are cutting them down. Cunningham laments: ‘There is much that broke my heart when researching essays for this book.  But it is… our wanton destruction of mountain ash and those that live in them, that has brought me close to giving up hope.’

Cunningham is articulating her experience of what philosopher Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, a form of existential grief caused by environmental destruction. Solastalgia, Albrecht explains, ‘is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault’. Last month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Warren Entsch, the newly-appointed special envoy to the Great Barrier Reef, has backed a plan to bulldoze 2000 hectares of pristine forest near the Reef. Guardian Australia reported that land-clearing in NSW rose by more than 50 per cent in 2016-2017, ‘the year before the introduction of native vegetation laws that make deforestation easier.’ Immediate and continuing assault, indeed.

For all the brutal truths it outlines, City of Trees is a wondrous book. I learnt much about populations and places I did not know. More importantly, this collection made me feel and think and see. See the horror and extent of the destruction of forests and wildlife, the beauty of what we have left and, crucially, the absence of what we have already lost.

Works cited

James Bradley, ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, SRB 21 August 2018.

James Bradley,‘Writing on the Precipice’, SRB 21 February 2017.

Lisa Cox, ‘Land clearing up more than 50% in NSW even before new laws introduced.’ Guardian Australia 3 June 2019.

Sophie Cunningham, Melbourne, Sydney: New South Books, 2011.

Delia Falconer,‘Signs and Wonders’, SRB 22 March 2019.

Delia Falconer,‘The Opposite of Glamour’, SRB 28 July 2017

Georgia Clark, ‘Melbourne’s plan to green the city’, Government news 16 May 2019.

Tom Griffiths, ‘The Planet is Alive: Radical histories for uncanny times’, Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country.

Nicole Hasham, ‘Coalition’s reef advocate backs massive tree-clearing plan’, Sydney Morning Herald 1 June 2019.

IPCC 2018, ‘Global Warming of 1.5 ºC’, World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

Max Porter, ‘Opening address Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Max Porter and Meg Wolitzer’, Sydney Writers’ Festival 30 April 2019.

World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A. eds. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

Zöe Schlanger, ‘A philosopher invented a word for the psychic pain of climate change’, Quartz 13 October 2018.

Edward O. Wilson, ‘Beware the Age of Loneliness’, The Economist, 18 November 2013.