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Us and them: reconceiving trees

  • 04 July 2018


Charlie stood frozen in the doorway, tears streaming down his little cheeks. 'What's wrong, hon?' I asked. 'The tree,' he said, pointing at the huge Poinciana that lived in our front garden.

A week earlier, a large branch had fallen during a storm and the arborist had arrived that morning to check on the tree. To our dismay, he discovered that it was rotten to the core and would have to go. He just couldn't save it.

The kids cried all the way to the school bus. 'I'm going to cry all day,' said Charlie. 'I loved that tree,' my daughter, Lily, added.

It was dusk when I returned home, but through the dying light I could make out a large scar on the landscape of our garden. The empty space seemed to reproach me.

When I spoke to friends and colleagues about our tree, they all seemed to relate. One colleague spoke of the death of a large Jacaranda in her childhood garden. Another, of his and his wife's valiant efforts to save an old tree in their garden and their delight when it recovered. Other friends spoke of their deep sadness when neighbours sold up, and the new buyers cleared away beloved trees for new development.

Grieving the death of a tree seems to be a common experience, but it struck me that I had rarely heard about it. We often share stories of the loss of loved ones, including family pets, but not the loss of specific trees. Are we less comfortable acknowledging the depth of our relationship with the trees in our lives? Does it somehow challenge our cultural understanding of the natural world and our place within it?

Our earliest recorded framework for understanding the natural world — animism — had no hesitation in acknowledging the depth of our relationship with trees. Religious studies scholar, Graham Harvey, has defined animism as the belief 'that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others'. This cosmology (or way of understanding the nature of the universe) comes easily to children, but has historically been shunned by Western culture as misguided, even heretical, 'anthropomorphism'.


"Not only has this cultural bias blinded us to our reliance on the biosphere — and encouraged us to push it to the very brink — it has also been fundamentally challenged by recent scientific discoveries."


Western faith in