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

2019, 224 p.

As might be guessed from the full title City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest this book of essays ties together a number of disparate topics: trees, the natural world, human heedlessness, loving and dying. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

So why trees? Sophie Cunningham has been photographing trees on her Instagram account for some time. The act of walking past a tree, stopping to photograph it, and to in effect ‘curate’ it as part of a collection means that she looks at trees closely. The trees are rooted in different countries- most particularly North America and Australia- reflecting Cunningham’s own journeyings between these two countries. So too the essays which combine personal reflection, and non-fictional writing. As one might expect from an author who has lived in America for a few years, there is a strong American focus, while at the same time, having written the Melbourne volume of New South Books series on Australian capital cities, the book is replete with stories of Melbourne and its history.

So there has been a concerted attempt to create a unity out of these disparate elements through the ‘sketch/small essay/big essay’ structure of the book. The essays themselves are very discursive, like jumping from one branch to another in a huge tree. This seemed particularly true of the earlier essays, particularly ‘The Fall’ and ‘Staying with the Trouble’, which ricocheted from one idea to the other. I don’t know whether I became more accustomed to her writing, or whether this digressive writing was reined in by the later stories. Call me a stickler for a narrative thread, but I preferred the more disciplined ones.

Given the effort that had gone into crafting an identity for this set of essays as a entity, I was startled and disconcerted by the inclusion of a chapter from a previous book Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy. I was reading this as an e-book, and perhaps if it had been a print version I might have been alert to the ‘additional advertising’ nature of this final chapter. As it was, the sense of ’rounding off’ that came in her final chapter, Mountain Ash, was ruptured. A poor choice, I thought, on someone’s part.

I always find it difficult to review short stories and books of essays. Despite the care in creating an overarching structure for these essays, I did find them particularly – and at time, too – discursive within themselves. The ache for the environment comes through strongly, but in many ways I preferred the more intimate human stories.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

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