The Book of Australian Trees by Inga Simpson

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This is a beautifully presented hardcovered 24.5 x 32cm book about fifteen Australian trees.  It is presented as a children’s book and I believe is best suited to middle to upper primary school children. Wording on the back cover states – ‘This book is a love song to Australian trees, from the red ironbark to the grey gum, the Moreton Bay fig to the Queensland bottle tree’, giving some guide as to what information we might find inside the covers.

It has been presented by Inga Simpson, who won the final Eric Rolls Prize for her nature writing and completed a second PhD exploring the history of Australian nature writers. Her memoir, Understory: a life with trees, was published in 2017 and is about her decade spent living inside a south east Queensland forest. It highlights her love of Australian nature and life with trees.

For her latest publication, her first children’s book, she was ably supported by the illustrator, Alicia Rogerson, a Western Australian regional artist who paints, draws, screen-prints, digitises her work, creates products, and spends most of her time absorbed in her creative world. She was a co-founder of Made On The Left, a series of handmade markets in Western Australia. Her creations are regularly exhibited and showcased and several retailers stock both her art and the objects that she creates.

The pages inside the front and back covers contain sketches of parts of Australian trees – leaves, seeds and flowers. Each tree promoted in the book receives two pages. One is for the information about the particular tree, the other page is for the work of the illustrator. Each tree has its name in bold enlarged font and is accompanied by its botanical name beneath it.

Page One has the title Australian Trees and is followed by a general statement of approximately 130 words about the importance of Australian trees to birds and animals. ‘But trees aren’t just for other animals – we need them too. What trees breathe out, we breathe in. They are a vital part of the Earth’s ecosystems’ (1).

The information presented is interesting. After a general description highlighting the individual aspects of the tree’s appearance and location, little snippets of information have been added for the interest of the younger reader but will also be appreciated by the more mature reader.

‘Old Blotchy’, the spotted gum in Murramarang National Park in New South Wales, ‘is 500 years old, which must be why she has so many wrinkles’ (2). The name of the Grey gum comes from the colour of their bark which ‘like humans, the older they get, the greyer they become’ (6). The Brush box have branches which ‘grow out like arms, with crooked elbows, thin wrists and long fingers… Their bulging pink roots look like giant feet, and the bumps and lumps on their trunks are a lot like noses’ (9). While the Bunya pine have dark leaves that ‘sprout like hands at the end of long arms, held out straight on top, but falling by their sides further down, as if tired’ (13).

I could imagine how a school lesson on just one of these trees could lead into research about other information added in the text. In the description of the Illawarra Flame tree, reference is made to the 1984 Cold Chisel hit song ‘Flame Trees” and the National Arboretum in Canberra where Jimmy Barnes planted a flame tree. ‘Ninety-four mini-forests of rare, endangered, and special trees from around Australia and the world now grow across the Arboretum’ (18).

This plus other places mentioned could easily be added to the traveller’s wish list for the future. Other destinations, mentioned in this book, are the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens where the Moreton Bay Fig called the ‘Children’s Tree’ is found and Moore Park, also in Sydney, where one would find the ‘Dragon Tree’. And who wouldn’t want to visit the karri trees in Western Australia and be tempted to climb the 153 steel spike steps in the Gloucester tree near Pemberton or visit the Lamington and Springbrook national parks in South-east Queensland to see the World Heritage Gondwana rainforests and the Antarctic beech trees? ‘Three trees at the Best of All Lookouts, in Springbrook National Park, are 2000 years old’ (22).

The last tree to be discussed in this book is the Mountain ash and Inga Simpson leaves the reader with a reminder of our responsibility for the trees around us.

‘Old mountain ash forests store more carbon than any other type of forest. We all depend on trees, but their future is in our hands’ (30). The following two pages contain a glossary of important words and the book’s publishing details.

When I first saw this book, I assumed that it would be a coffee-table book to be flipped through while filling in time. How wrong I was. There is so much interesting information in the pages and so much more to find out if one follows up on the extra information provided like the May Gibbs characters in the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series. The Banksia men in her stories were inspired by the flowers of the old man banksias which ‘turn grey and shaggy, with wooden seed pods that open like mouths’ (26).

Though presented as a children’s book, I believe that adults could also find much in these pages for themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed this well presented and beautifully illustrated book.

The Book of Australian Trees

(2021)

by Inga Simpson

Lothian Children’s Books

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-0-7344-1853-1

$29.99; 36pp

 

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