My Forests: Travels with Trees, by Janine Burke

My Forests: Travels with Trees is an exquisite book.  It’s been my companion for a week, reading one or two essays each day, and I’m sorry to have come to the end of it. It’s beautifully produced, comparable with books that come from the Folio Society.  The hardback cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman is graced by gilt leaves superimposed over the bark of a gum tree; the end papers are eucalyptus green; each new chapter is designated by a full page colour background image of bark; and, typeset in Bembo 12/15pt,  the papers feel soft and silky in the hand.  It would make a beautiful gift, but you’d need to be strong-minded not to keep it for yourself. Contrary to my expectations of a book about forests, the book begins in Elwood, a beachside suburb of Melbourne.  I know it well because I used to live above the Turtle Café on the corner of Glenhuntly and Ormond Rds.  (If interested, look here: the near turret was our sitting-room, the rear turret was the kitchen from which we could see the sea, and the left hand window was our bedroom. We loved the bustle of the street life below us, and only moved when The Offspring needed a garden to rampage around in.) Despite development, Elwood remains green to this day: When you turn into Elwood from the Nepean Highway, you are embraced by green: the parks and the ovals entwine in flowing emerald arcs like large, protective gestures.  It’s like living in a nature reserve.  The trees assist in giving Elwood its decidedly feminine air, its gentle, verdant appeal.  Elwood is inhabited by a wide variety of trees: Eucalypts as well as Wattle, Bottlebrush, Ti-tree, Banksia, Apple, Sheoak, Moreton Bay Fig, Jacaranda, Pine, Ash, Peppercorn, Cypress, Date Palm, Silver Birch, Elm and London Plane.  (p.4) The Yaluk-ut Weelam (‘river people’) of the Boonwurrug clans used to camp on the Point Ormond bluff which looks across to the You-Yangs near Geelong.  When Thomas Clark painted it in c1860, (see here) much of Elwood was swampland and there was an abundance of ducks, eels, tortoises, frogs, fish, shellfish, kangaroos and emus to hunt and harvest. Several of Elwood’s mighty Eucalypts, the sentinels of the suburb, grew along the wetland’s higher ground and flourish still.  Drooping Sheoaks (Allocasuarina verticillata) provided timber needed for hunting implements and weapons.  Today, sheltered behind Point Ormond are many original plant species including Sea Box (Alyxia buxifolia), White Correa (Correa alba) and Coastal Daisy Bush (Olearia axillaris), flourishing reminders of the Yaluk-ut Weelam’s reign. Ironically, it was the expert land management practised by Aboriginal people that made it so attractive to property-hungry settlers.  (p.6) The chapter goes on to record the leadership of Derrimut, who not only warned the infamous Batman that other Aboriginal clans were preparing to attack him and his men, he also tried to save Batman’s son from drowning.  By 1857 when the Boonwurring and the Woi Wurrung population had been reduced to only twenty-eight people, they had been moved on further down the bay to Mordialloc, from where they would be shunted onwards as settlement extended all over Port Phillip.  Derrimut confronted William Thomas, the (so-called) Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip, and asked him why ‘white man take away Mordialloc where black fellows always sit down’.  From sharing aspects of her local area’s history and ambience, Burke goes on to write some of the best essays I’ve read this year.  ‘Women of the Banyan’ is chastening reading… what begins with a Hindu religious rite under India’s national tree the banyan, becomes a shocking exposé of appalling cruelty in modern India.  In Australia we quite rightly are demanding changes in the status of women, but in India, the situation is truly dire for widows. …to be a widow in India is the worst of all possible catastrophes.  The widow is a living example of bad luck.  As Pattanaik comments, ‘in traditional Indian society, a woman’s chastity and fidelity ensured the longevity of her husband’s life.  If she became a widow, it was because she wasn’t chaste enough.  This was one of the reasons given for the practice of sati, in which a widow immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to prove her fidelity to her dead husband. While sati has long been outlawed, thanks to England’s imperial might in the nineteenth century, it may seem a better choice than the existence the widows are forced to endure.  There would be the terrifying moments of agony and asphyxiation on the pyre compared to a life of poverty and exclusion, where the most the widow can hope for is to die—soon.  She prays for it daily.  […] A widow’s fate unfolds like this.  Once her husband dies, the family turns on her.  she is made to shave her head, then don a white sari, the colour of mourning, which she is expected to observe for the rest of her life.  It makes her, literally, a pariah.  She’s then kicked out of her home, usually by her mother

My Forests: Travels with Trees, by Janine Burke

My Forests: Travels with Trees is an exquisite book.  It’s been my companion for a week, reading one or two essays each day, and I’m sorry to have come to the end of it.

It’s beautifully produced, comparable with books that come from the Folio Society.  The hardback cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman is graced by gilt leaves superimposed over the bark of a gum tree; the end papers are eucalyptus green; each new chapter is designated by a full page colour background image of bark; and, typeset in Bembo 12/15pt,  the papers feel soft and silky in the hand.  It would make a beautiful gift, but you’d need to be strong-minded not to keep it for yourself.

Contrary to my expectations of a book about forests, the book begins in Elwood, a beachside suburb of Melbourne.  I know it well because I used to live above the Turtle Café on the corner of Glenhuntly and Ormond Rds.  (If interested, look here: the near turret was our sitting-room, the rear turret was the kitchen from which we could see the sea, and the left hand window was our bedroom. We loved the bustle of the street life below us, and only moved when The Offspring needed a garden to rampage around in.)

Despite development, Elwood remains green to this day:

When you turn into Elwood from the Nepean Highway, you are embraced by green: the parks and the ovals entwine in flowing emerald arcs like large, protective gestures.  It’s like living in a nature reserve.  The trees assist in giving Elwood its decidedly feminine air, its gentle, verdant appeal.  Elwood is inhabited by a wide variety of trees: Eucalypts as well as Wattle, Bottlebrush, Ti-tree, Banksia, Apple, Sheoak, Moreton Bay Fig, Jacaranda, Pine, Ash, Peppercorn, Cypress, Date Palm, Silver Birch, Elm and London Plane.  (p.4)

The Yaluk-ut Weelam (‘river people’) of the Boonwurrug clans used to camp on the Point Ormond bluff which looks across to the You-Yangs near Geelong.  When Thomas Clark painted it in c1860, (see here) much of Elwood was swampland and there was an abundance of ducks, eels, tortoises, frogs, fish, shellfish, kangaroos and emus to hunt and harvest.

Several of Elwood’s mighty Eucalypts, the sentinels of the suburb, grew along the wetland’s higher ground and flourish still.  Drooping Sheoaks (Allocasuarina verticillata) provided timber needed for hunting implements and weapons.  Today, sheltered behind Point Ormond are many original plant species including Sea Box (Alyxia buxifolia), White Correa (Correa alba) and Coastal Daisy Bush (Olearia axillaris), flourishing reminders of the Yaluk-ut Weelam’s reign.

Ironically, it was the expert land management practised by Aboriginal people that made it so attractive to property-hungry settlers.  (p.6)

The chapter goes on to record the leadership of Derrimut, who not only warned the infamous Batman that other Aboriginal clans were preparing to attack him and his men, he also tried to save Batman’s son from drowning.  By 1857 when the Boonwurring and the Woi Wurrung population had been reduced to only twenty-eight people, they had been moved on further down the bay to Mordialloc, from where they would be shunted onwards as settlement extended all over Port Phillip.  Derrimut confronted William Thomas, the (so-called) Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip, and asked him why ‘white man take away Mordialloc where black fellows always sit down’. 

From sharing aspects of her local area’s history and ambience, Burke goes on to write some of the best essays I’ve read this year.  ‘Women of the Banyan’ is chastening reading… what begins with a Hindu religious rite under India’s national tree the banyan, becomes a shocking exposé of appalling cruelty in modern India.  In Australia we quite rightly are demanding changes in the status of women, but in India, the situation is truly dire for widows.

…to be a widow in India is the worst of all possible catastrophes.  The widow is a living example of bad luck.  As Pattanaik comments, ‘in traditional Indian society, a woman’s chastity and fidelity ensured the longevity of her husband’s life.  If she became a widow, it was because she wasn’t chaste enough.  This was one of the reasons given for the practice of sati, in which a widow immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to prove her fidelity to her dead husband.

While sati has long been outlawed, thanks to England’s imperial might in the nineteenth century, it may seem a better choice than the existence the widows are forced to endure.  There would be the terrifying moments of agony and asphyxiation on the pyre compared to a life of poverty and exclusion, where the most the widow can hope for is to die—soon.  She prays for it daily.  […]

A widow’s fate unfolds like this.  Once her husband dies, the family turns on her.  she is made to shave her head, then don a white sari, the colour of mourning, which she is expected to observe for the rest of her life.  It makes her, literally, a pariah.  She’s then kicked out of her home, usually by her mother-in-law, and abandoned by her relatives.  Violence, sometimes death, can accompany those episodes.  The women rarely have a saleable skill, let alone an education.  Older women go onto the streets to beg.  Younger widows are often pressured into prostitution.  It’s regarded as sacrilegious to remarry. (p. 149-150)

By contrast, tree-sitter Miranda Gibson in Australia, is an example of the power of just one woman.  In a chapter that begins with stories of human arboreality, Burke tells us that Miranda’s 449-day protest against clear-felling  led to a World Heritage listing and protection for the forest in Tasmania’s Tyenna Valley.  It’s fascinating to read about how she felt when she had to come down because of a threatening bushfire.

What were the sensations of arriving back on terra firma?  Miranda maintained an exercise regime on the platform, mainly yoga and sit-ups, so her muscles wouldn’t atrophy.  But returning to ground level did not provide the expected relief.  In fact, as Miranda tells me thoughtfully, that was ‘the biggest challenge.  I thought that things I’d missed, like a warm bath, would be really important.  But they weren’t.  I wanted to be back in the tree.’  While Gibson had steeled herself as best she could for the tree-sit, she didn’t have time to ready herself for coming down.  When the bushfire took off it was a case of an anxious watch and wait and then, skedaddle.  Once on the ground, Miranda felt she had landed on ‘another world’, a place she’d viewed from 60 metres up and that was ‘inaccessible.’  A kind of ‘separation anxiety’ that lasted for months.  She felt that she been ‘thrown overboard into the ocean, completely lost.’  (p.33)

Janine Burke is an art historian and curator as well as a writer, so there are forays into the world of art, with beautiful reproductions of important paintings, as well as discussions about history, myth, fairy tales and contemporary life.  It’s a gorgeous book, one that grounded me when I was feeling a tad discombobulated by current events and feeling sorry for myself because of my broken wrist.

There are links to podcasts about this book at the publisher’s website. 

Author: Janine Burke
Title: My Forests: Travels with Trees
Cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, and imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877328, hbk., 249 pages including the index and notes
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press