My Forests by Janine Burke

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

The world is full of trees. And the world is full of books about trees. We may be able to live without the books, but not without the trees. The competition for the reader’s attention is tangible and any author has an incentive to present something new and different about the topic.

It is into this crowded world that art historian Janine Burke has plunged, producing a book of diverse vignettes based on her travels and interests.  Growing up in leafy suburbia helped her to develop a curiosity for trees and birds of her neighbourhood.  She realised “how ignorant I was of their history and journeys, of the extent of their impact on human and non-human cultures.” [3]

In recent times, our knowledge of trees and their interactions has exploded. Suzanne Simard discovered in 1997 that trees and forests form complex fungal and root networks for mutual co-operation. This is not just about chemical exchange, but communication between trees – even those of different species. The term “wood wide web” is often used to describe the communication services that fungi provide to plants and other organisms.  “My Forests” even has a chapter entitled “Sentience” which cites recent research suggesting that trees can communicate with people.

But this is not really a book about the science of trees. There are plenty of those, among them Peter Wohlleben’s superb “The Hidden Life of Trees” which is a modern classic of a different breed.

So what is this book about? The anecdotes about trees and forests play second fiddle to a plethora of non-botanical topics. The ‘My’ and ‘Travel’ in the titles intimate a personal journey with examples from across the world. To be honest, after reading this multifaceted book, I was unsure how to describe it and even turned to the publishers blurb: “like strolling down a meandering track through the trees, you never quite know what you’ll discover around that next bend.”

The connection with trees – let alone forests – is frequently tenuous. But while somewhat disappointing to tree lovers, the topics are certainly worthy of reflection. For example, a brief introduction to the famous Banyan tree is followed by an extraordinary expose of the harrowing fate of widows in Varanasi, India.

The chapter on “Trees as Victims” deals with forest clearing in colonial Australia, but makes it clear that the real victims were the indigenous inhabitants who were forced from the very land on which their survival and way of life depended.  “Trees as Home” is not about the ecosystems they support so much as the extraordinary construction of free standing tree houses by the Korowai people of West Papua; and the life of Miranda Gibson who spent a year living on a tree platform 60m above the ground, in a successful attempt to prevent logging.

The breadth of subjects is wide – from the biblical gifts of the Magi to the America slave trade. There are snippets of fascinating information – such as the devastating affect that Vikings had on the hitherto forests of Iceland – a country now dominated by exposed rock.

The most compelling stories have little to do with trees, but they let us see locations of important social events – often of human suffering – where there is prejudice at play. The story of Janine’s journey to the slave huts of the Evergreen plantation in Louisiana is poignant. The widows of Varanasi have been ejected from society through no fault of their own. In both cases, the unfairness of societies to their culturally constructed lower ranks is writ large and yet the stories themselves are unspoken or actively suppressed: “What an uneasy existence for a woman, trying to fulfil the role of a good wife, tenderly and anxiously caring for her husband, knowing that on his longevity depends her comfort and security, perhaps even her life!” [153]

A more familiar story is that of aboriginal people demonstrating sophisticated management of a continental landscape through firestick farming and the inability of newly arrived colonists to understand a system that had evolved over tens of thousands of years. That the Australian landscape in 1788 was a product of that management, not some entirely natural process that could be easily tamed by people from a cold, wet and largely cleared land. A photograph of aboriginal men and children at Framlingham station, Victoria “is haunting because it places the men near or on a felled tree, in a direct physical relation to lost lands and a way of life.” [133]

Janine Burke has given us a journey of self-discovery of a large array of biological systems and social events. If you are looking for focus, this book is not for you. But if you are prepared to strap in and zoom briefly into to unexpected places, then give it a go.

My Forests: Travels with Trees

(May 2021)

By Janine Burke

Melbourne University Publishing Limited: The Miegunyah Press

ISBN: 9780522877328

$39.99 [hardback]; 224pp


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