Book Review: City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham

James Arbuthnott

Cunningham’s essays on love, travel and nature humanise trees and animals, mixing the Anthropocene with the romantic.
Book Review: City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham

City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest by Sophie Cunningham.

Adjunct professor at RMIT’s non/fictionLAB and author of Melbourne, Bird, Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy and Geography, Sophie Cunningham returns in 2019 with City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest.

On drives in LA, San Francisco, Peru and all over Melbourne, Cunningham navigates streets, trees, forests and cities to learn from their inhabitants and histories. Her stream-of-consciousness narrations discuss the personal and the political and the scars that the law, colonialism and global economies leave on ‘our’ trees. Often the personal and the political become intertwined with philosophy, literature, personal experience and culture.

‘There is no disputing that there is a lot to take into account when street trees are chosen. Do their roots cause damage? Do the birds and mammals they attract cause damage? Do their limbs drop on unsuspecting passers by? … If a tree’s job is to evoke history, whose history should it be representing?’

Cunningham follows Ranee – a large Indian elephant who died in the early 1900s and is now stuffed, disassembled and in storage – nine kilometres from Port Melbourne to the police station, then to Melbourne Zoo. She grants Ranee ‘personhood’ using Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s ethical debate that we care for what we can humanise, and that reach should be extended to much more of nature than we currently do. It brings an Anthropocene view to history and encourages readers to do the same in their own cities and neighbourhoods.

Trees and other animals also become humanised in City of Trees as Cunningham quotes philosophers and writers, admitting she can come off as pretentious at first. This seems true until the larger picture comes into focus when nature is given a narrative alongside politics, mass tourism and technology – and the fact she will never write about coffee.

Then Cunningham becomes unpretentious and meaningful, giving Melbourne and especially its trees significance. From oaks to eucalypts, olive trees to the Moreton Bay Fig, Cunningham reads about, draws, studies, writes about and hugs trees all over the world.

Co-founder of The Stella Prize and ex-editor at Meanjin, Cunningham’s essays, journalism, travel and nature writing have appeared in numerous publications. Her father was literary critic and scholar Peter Nicholls, and she has also worked previously as a publisher.

4 stars ★★

City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest

By Sophie Cunningham

Extent: 224pp

Format: Hardback

Text publication date: 2 April 2019

ISBN: 9781925773439

AU Price: $24.99 

Categories: LGBTQIA, Science & Environment, Non Fiction

About the author

James Arbuthnott is a Melbourne journalist and book reviewer at ArtsHub Australia. Twitter: @we_forgot