City of Trees: a Chat with Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is a Melbourne based author of five books – Geography, Bird, Melbourne, Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy, and the subject of today’s interview, City of Trees: Essays on Life Death & The Need for a Forest. As well as being a former publisher and editor, she was a co-founder of the Stella Prize and is adjunct professor at RMIT University’s non/fictionLab. She is also the face behind the Instagram account, ‘sophtreeofday’, and has been diligently posting a picture of a tree she comes across, every day, for over three years. Sophie’s love of – and deep concern for – the trees of the world forms part of the basis of her latest collection of personal essays. She talks to The Planthunter about the complex and rather fraught notion of trying and avoiding – through writing – to create a sense of personal and collective order, a symmetry, a neatness, to the chaos that is our destruction of the natural world.

Sophie Cunningham. Image by Virginia Murdoch

The theme of this month’s issue of The Planthunter is Order and Chaos. Is City of Trees, in some ways, an attempt at creating order out of the chaos of climate change? It is a series of essays about trees and animals (among many other subjects), exploring how we can take in the splendour of trees, have a relationship with them, a slow, responsive, creative, slothful, even, dalliance with trees, in the context of a rapid global ecosystem destruction which has, and continues to, destroy much of the trees on the earth – you use the statistic of a loss of 15 billion a year worldwide. I did attempt to draw order out of chaotic. In a way the trees became the narrative. I was writing all over the place in a chaotic way. I had to ask myself, how do I draw this together? I had a version years ago where it was more about personal crisis – my father’s dementia, my experience of menopause, but the trees I realised were symbolising a lot of the things I was talking about. There was a sense of personal chaos, but it quickly then moved onto the bigger issues. The trees were the recurring thing. Bringing it together as a book only happened towards the end of the process.

As you mentioned, in this book of life writing you organically blend themes of your personal life with the story of trees and broader environment in the context of ecological breakdown. Readers learn of the story of how you married your wife, originally in San Francisco, for example, as we also learn of the environmental after effects of Hurricane Katrina. These essays show the personal as intertwined with nature and the fate of trees, even if inexplicitly. It is not the story of you and nature, but rather of interconnectedness at the most intrinsic level. Was this a conscious choice? This wasn’t something I was particularly conscious of, though I became more aware of the way the personal and larger picture were overlapping as I started to pull these essays and thoughts together and turn them into a book. It was more that I was having a hard time for various reasons and walking and being in nature helped me with that enormously. But then the more time I spent looking at the natural world, and indeed the urban world, the more I became aware of how precarious it all was. I didn’t know, for example, quite how dire things were for Miami Beach, until I went there on my honeymoon and found myself ankle deep in water on a sunny day. There wasn’t a surge tide or anything else obviously ‘wrong’ and I learnt that this was an extremely common occurrence and that there were daily attempts to pump out the water — as well as a governor who had banned use of the word ‘Climate Change’ in communications. I also think that feeling fragile made me more sensitive to what was happening everywhere around me — and is happening around all of us.

I was going to ask you a question about how writing rather neatly provides an outlet for your frustration, worry, about climate change, biodiversity loss, and rampant loss of trees across the globe. And then I came across this passage: ‘I attempt to use language to describe various concerns, and fall into apocalyptic cliché…It is images I turn to: a hundred year old photo of a man standing atop a pile of bison corpses; Pacific islanders trying to sweep the rising sea from their homes; California on fire. I begin to paint and draw’. Can you explain how drawing differs for you from the writing? It’s partly because drawing is not about the creation of narrative. It’s about being with the tree (or whatever else it is that I’m looking at). Drawing and painting force me to focus, stay in the present, and observe the tree. It’s a way of learning where you start to notice how branch and root systems work. The practice of observation becomes a meditation. Instead of panicking about what might happen to that tree, or that landscape, I just think about the tree. I can do the research and the writing after that.  Another thing that the drawing and painting did was create a sense — illusory or not— that I knew the tree. That helped me write about particular trees in a more intimate way.  I also take a lot of photos, though I think of them more as diary notes than a meditation.

You write: 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. To read less about what was happening in the world in general, to elephants (and trees) in particular. When I was flying across America in early 2018 I read a book that spoke about the notion of narrative fallacy, which means in effect, trying to neaten things with hindsight, or to create a logical discourse through the inclusion of incidental details that are not, in fact, related…. I do not want to give in to the siren song of a resolved narrative. One that makes sense of what humans are doing to this planet…’ In a way part of me wanted the book to remain scattered and not be thematic and let it keep spiraling out, but a lot of readers couldn’t cope with that. I had some sense as I was going that I wouldn’t be able to convey my concerns properly if I didn’t make some concessions. I’m a slightly random, meandering thinker and it’s no bad thing for me as a writer to be forced to try and focus, to make the book more accessible. I worked hard to make people relate to what I’m saying rather than throw lots of facts at them. I made a point of talking about animals as he and she and giving them names if they had them, I talk about naming trees, I don’t shy away from anthropomorphising trees or animals and you could come up with various arguments as to why I’m correct to do this. There is not this massive distance between us and nature. I let myself write about Ada [the largest tree in Victoria, a 400-year-old mountain ash] in a romantic and sentimental way. I thought: I’m not going to make this unsentimental. I allowed this emotional excess in the narrative that we have in response to nature.

Illustration by Sophie Cunningham, from her book City of Trees

Your chapter, ‘Stay with the trouble’ is a reference to the quote (and book by the same name) by feminist theorist Donna Haraway, which you heard said by Australian environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren in a podcast theorising on extinction. I think here of Irvin Yalom, the existential psychiatrist and author, who has said that musing upon our own death is impossible for too long, like staring at the sun. Yet you’ve stayed with the trouble somewhat, in order to write this book. How does it feel to force yourself to do this? I’m depressed. I feel really miserable. I found it really hard. Because I was in this space personally – a combination of finding midlife really difficult, the deaths of my fathers, the death of a friend, the death of my two cats, these things make you think about death, so it’s possible that the combination of these things made it possible to think about these things because I wasn’t in the mood to be cheerful. I found the last two essays particularly difficult to write – the reading about the mountain ash ecosystems was very close to home, literally, as it effects Melbourne’s water supply. These are one of those forests that are amazing, and I hadn’t thought about it. It’s confronting that on your watch things are disappearing without you noticing. Seeing things like flying gliders and possums. They are amazing, and really understanding that those animals are probably going to disappear, I was really struggling.

To get people not to look away from the information is one of the main motivations of the book. I’ve been really struck by the way people are refusing to get it.”

I’m talking about people who are incredibly smart, even they are denying it…To ‘stay with the trouble’ is a slightly depressive frame of mind, you’re always seeing the negative in a sense. It’s almost as if you’re refusing to see the positive and that gets very draining. Weirdly, since the book came out there is a real sense of urgency about climate change and biodiversity loss. More and more ordinary people are saying things are changing dramatically and we need help, and these are people that may not identify as activists.

I found many times while reading, I had to stop, and noticed I’d placed the book against my forehead or closed my eyes, in mourning. I was sort of berating myself, for not knowing things, for being a part of the human race who, in essence, sees ourselves as separate from the natural world. I had the book covering my eyes, just for a moment, when I learnt facts about our carelessness, about the effects of our urbanity and industrialised dominion upon individual, and collective, plants and animals. Here’s a passage that made me stop, and mourn for a moment: You can listen, 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. Scientists warned the federal government about the ‘looming catastrophe’, but the government prevaricated – back and forth, back and forth – for three years, by which time it was too late’. This relates somewhat to the concept of staying with the trouble. Why do you think it is that we have, in general, so much trouble with conceiving of our impact upon nature? This is a big question — the big question. The Anthropocene is a form of narcissism writ large. We put ourselves — humans — at the centre of everything. It can be hard to step outside ourselves and see just how damaging that worldview is. And how short-term a view it is also — we’re not even acting in our own best interests in the long term. Unsustainable growth is, well, unsustainable. The economic impact, and the human impact, is being beginning to be felt and will only get worse. This might be why a decent percentage of the population is now pushing back against the view that making changes to the way we live will cause too much disruption. The disruption, if we do nothing, will be far worse. Trees can be a useful way of thinking about these things. They operate on a totally different time scale. (A notion that Richard Powers uses to wonderful effect in his novel The Overstory.)

Illustration by Sophie Cunningham, from her book City of Trees

The way you write about trees is detailed and passionate. Trees of many species are given space on the page to be examined, appreciated, in their nuanced and very grand glory. It is this detail, this knowledge about trees, their history, context, lifespan, that I think we often forget, or never discover, which allows us to so mercilessly and inconsiderately cut them down to the scale we do. Your book seeks to elevate them to a place of distinction, to suggest they are more than inanimate, unfeeling flora. There’s a passage towards the end where you are discussing Melbourne’s now dead ‘Separation Tree’, the famous 400 year old river red gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens and spot another equally impressive red gum beside it: ‘It is hard to convey the intensity this particular tree emanates as it stands, like a sentinel or an ancient god, looking across the land, without sounding slightly crazy… As I stood by the Ornamental Lake I found myself thinking: to understand Melbourne, its history, our environment, I need to know this tree. Another way of putting this is that the tree came into focus. I saw something in it that was clear both to our first people and to some colonisers: these trees have practical uses at the same time as having a particular quality I’m going to describe, until a better, perhaps more accurate word, strikes me, as spiritual. I wonder why we are reluctant to recognise this feeling, intuition we must all share, surely, about the spiritual power of nature? I was writing about the still living red gum that stands a few metres away from the Separation Tree. It was a tree that looked a bit scrappy, and old, but had a presence that drew you to it. Peter Boyce has written about this tree as well. It’s four-hundred years or so old so has been around for much longer than white settlers have been in Melbourne. Its roots used to sit on the banks of the Yarra but engineering (the straightening of the Yarra) has changed that. I think that traditional western culture puts a lot of value in categories and boundaries: Us-them, mind-body, masculine-feminine, subjective-objective. This spills into how we think about species, and about ecosystems. We think of humans as separate from nature but we’re as much a part of nature as anything else on this planet. Feelings of connection are spiritual: an opening out to sensation and types of knowledge rather than a closing off. There seems to be shame in this feeling. I mean I’m a bit embarrassed about how ‘passionate’ this book is. I assume a lot of people will read it and think I’m a total weirdo.

And, finally, how did @sophtreeofday start? I was posting a lot of tree picture and a friend suggested I set up a separate account, they were probably sick of looking at them! I found that I quite like the discipline of it and when I was feeling chaotic, I’d get up in the morning, have my coffee, and work out what the tree of the day is. I’ve done it basically every day for more than three years. Now people send me pictures of trees. It feels very positive. I realise that trees mean a lot to people.

City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest (2019), by Sophie Cunningham, is published by Text Publishing. Buy here