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  • Writer's pictureJane Sullivan

Tree-loving authors are creating a new branch of literature

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Japan's gingko trees were the first living things to grow back

after the bombing of Hiroshima.

They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum, sang Joni Mitchell in 1969. Today, with the effects of wholesale logging and burning off in forests all over the globe, we’ve never been closer to the tree museum.

It might explain why writers are getting obsessed with trees. We’re losing all the world’s big trees, says Sophie Cunningham, who has spent the past few years photographing them, walking among them, sitting under them, drawing them and writing about them for her book City of Trees. Fortunately, trees are resilient. The gingko trees of Japan were the first living things to grow back after the bombing of Hiroshima, Cunningham told the recent Melbourne Writers Festival. But will they withstand the ravages of climate change?

Cunningham is not the only one to convey love of trees and concern for their future into print. At a bookshop the other day I counted six tree books. Perhaps the best-known is Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling The Hidden Life of Trees, which makes the startling claim that trees are social beings and form families, supporting and communicating with their children and warning each other of danger.

Wohlleben worked in Germany as a forester for the timber industry but was gradually converted into a conservationist. “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines,” he writes.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which is good for the planet, and a walk in the woods is good for your health. According to immunologist and “forest medicine expert” Dr Qing Li in Into the Forest, being among trees can reduce your blood pressure, lower stress, improve energy levels and boost your immune system. In The Secret Therapy of Trees, Marco Mencagli and Marco Nieri make similar recommendations about recharging your batteries with just one visit to a forest.

Author Peter Wohlleben makes the startling claim that trees are social beings.

Credit: Gordon Welters

Trees have also inspired some widely differing memoirs. Thomas Pakenham is an indefatigable champion of trees; in The Company of Trees he tells us about his quest to establish an arboretum on his family estate in Ireland and his worldwide search for seeds, including shinning up hills in the Himalayas in his 80th year. “Thomas Pakenham could convert a property developer into a tree-hugger,” says one reviewer.

James Aldred also does plenty of shinning up. In The Man who Climbs Trees, he recounts his adventures as a cameraman for David Attenborough and others, climbing alongside gorillas and getting chased by elephants and African bees.

Australian writer and historian Michael Pembroke’s Trees of History & Romancetakes as its starting point the deciduous trees and conifers in the Bue Mountains, then launches into a memoir and an encyclopaedic look at trees, drawing on history, literature, poetry, mythology, botany and folklore. Somehow he has also found the time to be a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Sophie Cunningham in her book describes how she visits Ada, a mountain ash, the largest tree in Victoria, and she’s unapologetic about anthropomorphising her: “She is a queen, an empress – a goddess – of trees.”

Mountain ash forests are among the most carbon-heavy in the world, she writes, which is a good thing; and yet we’re cutting them down, destroying both the trees and the homes they provide for so many animal species. So what can tree-lovers do? Continue to plant trees, make sure we look after them for the first five years, and not give up.

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