Trees for Life: Canada and Australia

Michael Christie and Sophie Cunningham.

Writers’ Week, Festival of Arts, Adelaide, Australia  – Tuesday 3rd March 2020.

Book design by W.H. Chong

Connections Sophie Cunningham makes. Richard Powers, the American author of Overstory quotes Australia’s First Nations Kakadu Elder, Big Bill Neidjie. Sophie Cunningham, this Australian author, now Adjunct Professor RMIT University’s Non/fiction Lab, acknowledges this First Nation Elder, Bill Neidjie. She thanks Magabala Books of Broome for permission to quote from Story about Feeling by Bill Neidjie and Keith Taylor.

 Read the whole review by Johanna Leggatt. Here are two excerpts.

City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest by Sophie Cunningham Reviewed by Johanna Leggatt •  

May 2019, no. 411  ‘. In ‘I Don’t Blame the Trees’, Cunningham displays a talent for great observational detail, noting that the debate as to whether eucalypts should be removed from California’s Angel Island is loaded with inflammatory phrases such as ‘immigrant’, ‘invader’, and ‘refugee’. She resists championing the cutting down of non-native species simply because they don’t support local flora and fauna, wondering instead, quite astutely, what will replace the old trees after they are removed and pointing out that these days all of us are from somewhere else anyway.’

Like David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, she visits trees. Being Australian, she brings in the Eucalyptus and the Moreton Bay Fig. Compare their visits to olive trees!!! [See previous blogs re David George Haskell and Richard Powers in Sciences-and-Humanities.]

Johanna Leggatt writes: ‘Cunningham leavens her firsthand stories with summaries of scientific research and interviews. The result is an intriguing mélange of personal journey and journalism. The giant sequoia, we learn, are among the world’s oldest trees and their final numbers can be found along a belt of the western Sierra Nevada. When Cunningham walks through a grove of them, tears streaming down her face, she thinks, ‘I would lay down my life for you’. . .  Standing before old-growth trees, reaching for description, her mind stalls before their majesty. She sketches the trees instead, but even this proves challenging, with Cunningham left to wonder, ‘Is it possible to draw, or write, a forest?’

Michael Christie is a Canadian writer, whose debut story collection The Beggar’s Garden was a longlisted nominee for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a shortlisted nominee for the 2011 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Read the whole review of Greenwood by Michael McLoughlin of ‘Readings’ in Melbourne.

“Every generation experiences a catastrophe: history can be read as a series of apocalypses. Do you think the people affected by the Dust Bowl felt like the Plebs during the Fall of Rome? Will we all feel these same experiences as conflagrations continue to decimate entire regions and the seas rise up to drown our cities? How far will we go to protect life? Will we do the right thing?’

Greenwood is a novel. As with David George Haskell – non-fiction, and Richard Powers – fiction, we have here the non-fiction of Sophie Cunningham and fiction of Michael Christie.  Both are story tellers of the highest order. Both speak to the heart of the matter.

But, in Tasmania Bob Brown and Conservation volunteers, despite the crisis, are trying to protect the takayna/ Tarkine – old growth forest – from the loggers and the insanity of the Tasmanian State Liberal government. They are being fined for protesting. They are being treated like criminals when they are caring about the future for the time when this crisis is over. Check the Bob Brown Foundation website. See the pictures of the impact of the logging already. Let us use our collective voices to fight for the future.

Offering this gem, in hope -– Find Edges by Belinda Broughton. Poet and artist.

The world’s forests

Listen to the voice of this woman, 40 years on. She is asking us

if we are going to trash the place. Not just us in Australia.

Developers and fossil fuel magnates want profit now. Anywhere.

Some governments show little indication that they care.

I offer Robyn Williams’ reflection in this Science Show

for all with ears to hear and eyes to see, hearts to open,

minds to wake and decisions to take about our future.

Terania Creek – a final reflection

On The Science Show with Robyn Williams


Download Terania Creek – a final reflection (11.88 MB)

Australia’s first environmental battle saved the forests of Terania Creek 40 years ago.  Recently they have been burned by wildfire. The world’s forests are under increasing threat. And now their value and importance is greater than ever.
This is our final reflection on Terania Creek 40 years after people came together, and politicians saw the light.

From the film ‘Give Trees a Chance’, Jack Thompson tells the story of Terania Creek from the stump of a logged rainforest tree

Robyn Williams

David Fisher

Duration: 8min 39sec    Broadcast: Sat 7 March 2020, 12.50 pm

‘US STEM students least likely to vote.’ Could this be true!

By Robyn Williams on the ABC RN’s Science Show. His guest is Melissa Varga.

Download US STEM students least likely to vote (8.42 MB)

Melissa Varga. Trainer for the Union of Concerned Scientists

Tufts University surveys university students across the US and reports STEM students least likely of any subject group to vote. In 2016, the humanities turnout was 53%. The STEM turnout was 43%. The Union of Concerned Scientists provides students with voter registration information and trains scientists for involvement in policy and advocacy.

Getty images


Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume. 6m 7s. Broadcast: Sat 29 Feb 2020, 12:53pm

In Australia the national curriculum, set up by the 2015 review, separated STEM from HASS. As a teacher, well aware of the value of cross disciplinary engagement, I abhor that separation. But, at least, we have compulsory voting. Voters must turn up. We are citizens of this nation. Voluntary voting in USA appears to allow citizens to abdicate. At least here they must turn up.

STEM students – future scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians – ignoring the humanities! USA has had an Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1780! They must realise what governments are capable of. We need STEAM – for young people’s future.

Thought ‘too wet to burn’

Listen to Australia’s Science Show, ABC RN  February 22nd 2020.

 Some trees were over 1.000 years old. The intensity of the fires destroyed them.

The story of Terania Creek.

Saved by protesters in 1979 when loggers wanted entry. So many burnt now. BUT in NSW in 2019 legislation, protesters who dare to try to protect the environment, to protect the trees and what we have left are to be penalised, fined. It appears, despite the fires, this government would rather pollute than protect. We have to ask whose interests they are promoting.

In 2020, in NSW developers are to be allowed in without checking the impact on the quality of the environment. They don’t have to do a count to check the impact on the koala population. It’s the NSW Liberal government backed by Shooters, Hunters and Fishers. Now in power!!! BUT other States are doing the same thing. In Queensland protesters against the Adani coal mine were put in gaol without bail! I question the direction Australia is taking. Towards USA? Or towards the EU? Which approach to the environment and the future are we taking? Always the ABC RN’s Science Show makes us think about where we are going. [See also the interview with Jared Diamond about his new book, Upheaval in the February 22nd 2020 program.]

Terania Creek 1979 and 2019

Image : Darcy Grant


Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.


11m 52s

Download Terania Creek – saved in 1979, ravaged by fire in 2019 (16.31 MB)

Download 16.31 MB

Many people have been celebrating as 2019 marks forty years since the climax of protests to save the rainforests of northern NSW from clear-felling by foresters. It was the first environmental protest in Australia and led to protests which saved Tasmania’s Franklin River and other areas. But there is a sadness, as the area was not spared by the fires which have burnt so much land in eastern Australia. Sue Higginson, now an environmental lawyer was 19 when she protested to save the forests of Terania Creek. She reflects on what was achieved. ABC reporter Leah White reports on recent changes to laws which lessen environmental protection aid developers and threaten protesters and now, what has been lost by fire, and Scott Stephens, a contributor to the ABC RN’s ‘Minefield’ asks why we mourn the loss of animals, but not trees. He asks why our concern for people, fauna and not flora when, without the flora and the fungi, we are nowhere. How short-sighted are we? Will we learn? It will show in the way we vote. This is also a podcast for listeners.

In a previous blog, I focused on The Songs of Trees: Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell. Look at it. And read Overstory by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

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Bushfires. Climate. Politics.

A dead koala in a burnt-out forest on Kangaroo Island


Peter Parks/Gerry Images

Melanoma Country – a poem on bushfires, climate, politics and society

By Jonathan Happold on The Science Show with Robyn Williams Share

Download Melanoma Country – a poem on bushfires, climate, politics and society (3.84 MB) Download 3.84 MB

Jonathan Happold is a veterinarian and epidemiologist based in Canberra. He wrote his poem, Melanoma Country on 2nd January 2020 as south east Australia was on fire. He included the following:

I wrote Melanoma Country in the hours before evacuating from the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, on 2nd January.

As an Australian – it was simply an expression in response to the bushfires. Shortly after Christmas, I drove to the coast through dry and dusty paddocks, and forests of tall Spotted Gums that had been rendered black and sepia after fires in early December. I walked through tinder-dry patches of unburnt forest to the edge of a national park that was unrecognisable in its bleakness. Earlier, I’d been on the edges of an active fire ground, helping mates on a farm prepare for the threat that loomed on a dark and reddening horizon.

The words of Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem came to mind – ‘I love a sunburnt country… of droughts and flooding rains’ – and the words didn’t resonate as once they might have done. In the face of climate change, the romance of droughts, floods and a perpetually ‘sunburnt’ country is wearing thin. 

And hence the idea of Melanoma Country – Australia isn’t just sporting a tan anymore: it’s ‘sunburn’ (read: effects of climate change) has become dangerously cancerous.

As a veterinarian – I’m deeply saddened by the loss and suffering of wildlife and livestock, and worried by the impacts of climate change on our farming communities. Images of burnt animals are horrifying and it’s hard to get your head around the scale of destruction of wildlife and their habitats.

Also as a veterinarian and epidemiologist, I work in an area of science that is fundamentally about understanding cause and effect, and critically appraising evidence. So it concerns me greatly that denial of human-induced climate change still appears to have traction in some quarters of politics, the media and society.

As a father of two young kids I am worried about their future. It saddens me that they won’t be able to enjoy many of the places of natural beauty in south-eastern Australia that I enjoyed as a kid. It troubles me that the ‘new normal’ that they inherit may well be – in so many ways – less secure and less nourishing for mind, body and soul. And it angers me to see policy and politics in Australia being so incredibly short-sighted and bereft of a deep sense of what really matters.

And as someone who senses the urgency of the climate situation – it is time to get serious about addressing the mess that we’ve created. The effects of climate change are happening now; it hurts and it’s really costing us. We need to turn this thing around through mitigation, not just adaptation. I don’t want to adapt to summers like this! And we need to do it through personal responsibility and political action. When I wrote the poem, it seemed even more futile than holding a hose to 20m flames. But if every single one of us does something, then perhaps there’s cause for hope. Duration: 2min 47sec Broadcast: Sat 18 Jan 2020, 12:05pm




  • A dead koala in a burnt-out forest on Kangaroo Island famed as Australia’s “Galapagos” for its unique and abundant wildlife. Now, the charred forest floor is littered with corpses of animals incinerated by the blazes that swept through in early January 2020. Peter Parks/Gerry Images

Full episode 54min 7sec How bees see, how fish change their sex and a poem on bushfires, climate, politics and society

For 2020, connections we need.

In February 2019 I began this blog thanking Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann quantum chemist, poet and playwright for all his work. Now, he suggests this book.

The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, published  by Vintage 2019. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019. Its focus on trees and our connections with them challenges mind and heart. We need it in the face of climate change. We need to be thinking again.

Why is it special for me? He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Lovelock and Bill Neidjie. An Aboriginal Elder, he is Gagudju Man: Bill Neidjie’ and his book, ‘The environmental and spiritual philosophy of a senior traditional owner, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, published by JB Books, Australia, 2002.

Gagadju Man: Keeping his legacy alive is a film made, with permission, by AIATSIS . “Big Bill Neidjie was the keeper of ancient knowledge and the last speaker of the Gagudju language from northern Kakadu. He was instrumental in the establishment of Kakadu National Park and was deeply committed to sharing his love for his country and his culture,” Professor Dodson said. “He was a truly great Australian and we are honoured that his family has chosen AIATSIS to hold this very special film and help continue his journey – to share his culture with all Australians.” I’m glad to see his approach to life acknowledged by Richard Powers in this book that Tim Winton calls ‘a masterpiece’.

Richard Powers quotes part of his poem about ‘tree’. He ends at this point. ‘Tree and grass same thing’. Big Bill Neidjie goes on. ‘They grow with your body/with your feeling.’

For 2020, I offer trees, despite our devastating bushfires. As well as Richard Powers’ ‘Overstory’, in the ‘The Songs of Trees’ by David George Haskell, visit the olive tree.

Carlo Rovelli – Enhancing our understanding of nature.

We are now moving from Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz’s geological research to the origins of scientific thinking and its connection with democracy in Ancient Greece. [I thank Adriana for the gift she gave me when she introduced me to Carlo Rovelli.]

First of all, go to YouTube. Listen to Carlo Rovelli speaking about Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. This book has been translated into so many languages for its clarity and beauty and sold in millions. It offers us knowledge on which to build our capacity to approach the future. He makes clear to us that ‘nature is our home and we are at home in nature’. Published by Penguin 2016, this translation into English by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is a delight to read. Take time to pause. Absorb the connections he makes before going on. Take it slowly. Like a good wine it is to be savoured. You will find so much here our curriculum reviewers in Australia had no understanding of in 2015. There should be none of this debate about climate change. Carlo Rovelli makes clear just how and why, for example, the separation of STEM from HASS by Australian reviewers, is ‘pernicious’. Subtle. Insidious. Damaging. Denying thinking. Dangerous.

Then come to Anaximander, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Westholme Publishing, English translation 2011. First published in 2009. In its introduction he makes clear how pernicious is this modern separation of the sciences from the humanities. All students of the humanities denied connection with the sciences need to read his work. He is bringing us knowledge in such a way that we learn.

In his introduction, Carlo Rovelli speaks of ‘the pernicious modern separation between the sciences and the humanities.’ And he goes into the past with such depth of knowledge and understanding of humanity to show just how significant have been the attitudes developed before this significant scientific revolution. Note. IT IS MODERN. Thank you C.P. Snow and his ‘two cultures’. Thank the Cold War mentality. He makes clear the immense value now of scientific thinking. For those still subjecting students to that pernicious separation his historical analysis is important. He shows how scientific thinking, always respecting the past but being willing to challenge it, as Kepler respected but questioned Copernicus and as Einstein respected but questioned Newton, helps us to approach the future we all share.