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Us and them: reconceiving trees



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.

Poinciana treeA 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 the uniqueness and superiority of humanity — and the related idea that we sit, just under God, at the pinnacle of the pyramid of life — has enabled us to justify our exploitative relationship with the rest of the biosphere. This worldview has compelled us to reject any understanding of plants that move them from an easily commodified object into a subject, a 'you' with which we can have a genuine relationship.

Not only has this cultural bias blinded us to our reliance on the biosphere — and encouraged us to push it and, thus, ourselves, to the very brink — it has also been fundamentally challenged by recent scientific discoveries on plant neurobiology and language, and the related emergence of critical plant studies.

Another problem with this reductive and utilitarian understanding is the way that it has ridden roughshod over the relationships that other cultures have with trees. Protesters near the small Victorian city of Ararat are currently blockading the construction of a road duplication project, because of plans to remove sacred trees, including an 800 year old birthing tree that has seen the births of 57 generations of Djapwurrung babies.

In his 2011 book, Plants as Persons: A Philosophy of Botany, Matthew Hall argues that 'cultural-philosophical ideas strongly influence human interactions with the plant kingdom, and humanity possess a multitude of different ways of thinking about and acting toward plants'. He then categories these modes of perception into broadly defined philosophies of exclusion and philosophies of inclusion — with the Western approach clearly falling into the former. He also warns that this 'view of plants as passive resources certainly plays a significant role in our ecological plight'.

While local Indigenous women have submitted an application with Aboriginal Victoria to have the sacred tree protected under heritage laws, this raises deeper questions about our legal system's (ontological) understanding of trees and related ability to provide adequate protection from the ravages of development. When Christopher Stone wrote his seminal essay in 1972 asking 'Should Trees Have Standing?', it was a provocative and slightly implausible question. Now, however, legal systems around the world have started genuinely grappling with this very question — indicating that something is happening in our wider culture that is enabling the law to follow.

On the weekend following the death of our Poinciana, we went to the nursery to find some new trees. We brought home a young avocado and a baby pecan tree, and Charlie helped us to dig new holes in the ground to bury their roots. As we covered them with water and mulch, we tried to imagine the lives they would have in their new home and the relationships that we might forge with them.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, trees, animism, Aboriginal Australians



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Being an admirer of the colourful shade-giving canopy of the Poinciana tree, I sympathise with the children’s loss. By coincidence, I had just read an article about a scientific study indicating that either most animal species and humans originated at approximately the same time (100,000 to 200,000 years ago), or some major population crash wiped out most of the original species. https://world.wng.org/2018/06/recent_origin_of_species This data challenges the evolutionary worldview, and indeed one researcher said, “The conclusion is very surprising…I fought against it as hard as I could.” So if legal systems are now having to grapple with issues of the standing of trees, perhaps this new data will force scientists to revisit evolutionary theory.

Ross Howard | 04 July 2018  

A much-loved pet called Poinciana died. After some grieving, it was replaced by two new ones, Avocado and Baby Pecan. A human can turn anything into a pet because the combination of self- and other-awareness and prehensility allows ‘it’ to designate anything in ‘its’ own image for its own pleasure or peace of mind. But not everything is chosen to be a pet by this creature which has omnipotence of conceptualisation. Cruel owners of animals can be prosecuted, but not by the state in the animal’s name (yet), just by the state or an assigned representative (such as the RSPCA). A public place has no ‘right’ (yet) not to be urinated upon. People don’t climb Uluru (yet) because Uluru has a right not to be pestered by human fleas. Given that social objectives can be achieved without descending into fantasy, what is the purpose behind the bizarre fiction of giving things rights?

Roy Chen Yee | 05 July 2018  

We all carry a divine timeless spark within us; we are more than a physical being. Places/things/ of natural beauty can create a spiritual replenishment, as in a state of wellbeing, something akin to the residual effect of a ‘Timeless Moment’ so it could be said they are afore taste of what our hearts long for, that is unity with God our Creator. Spiritually speaking, to hug a tree is to embrace Him in creation… Moist kiss, morning mist, lingering cling, covered hill quiet and still. Gentle glance heavy ray autumn day, full tree, heavy wasp and bee, wet bark dank and dark, field gate broken with weight. Hush of bush, sleepy leaf touching moss and peat. Thistle downs, dowdy crown, Dandelion fluff waiting for puff. Stinging nettle, abandoned kettle, wet thread spider’s web, sticking snail on empty pail. Rising Sun long shadow on the run, peek-a- boo discarded shoe, curled toe nowhere to go. Full nettle heavy with petal, morning stars, rain droplets of the night, reflecting light, sod of green hay stalks between. Bottle top, rusty tin, country bin, touch of love opening bud, plastic bag discarded fag. Falling nut chesty Rook, full brook, croak of frog below dead log. Rubber tire protruding wire, floppy poppy red as cherry, hawthorn berry. Drying land caress of hand, warmth of day rolled hay. Cropped wheat, bleat of sheep, weary oak, blackberry fruit, clinging near root, Touch- me- not, still in flower, pod of power. Bird eye maple, with wing, I take to flight consciousness, with gift of sight …Pease consider continuing, as in, ‘Timeless Moments’, via the link (With links) http://www.catholicethos.net/god-old-testament-hateful-wrathful/#comment-183

Kevin Walters | 05 July 2018  

A truly lovely article; thanks, Cristy. One might add that, according to Genesis 2:9 and 15, Adam and Eve were originally being trained by God in arboriculture. What a different world we would have if all our food and necessities were harvested from much cherished trees. No need to destroy the ecosystems and soils for agriculture and farm animals. No need to worry about pollution and global warming. Where the earth is clothed in many species of trees, weather patterns are smoothed and rain is more regular and gentle. Winds are tamed and dust does not blow around. Silt-free streams and rivers perennially bulge with fish and other aquatic life. Bird life flourishes. We began to lose this blessing with the innovation of agriculture and city-building (attributed to Cain in Genesis 4:17). Surely, not everything that our civilisation teaches as 'progress', is. To me, the wilting of human love and valuation of trees seems retrograde; nothing compares; all else is an impoverishing substitute. Yet, finally, I'm not depressed for Apostle John was privileged in a vision to see that trees are central to our eternal destiny (e.g. Revelation 22:2). Thank God that God who is Love has the last word!

Dr Marty Rice | 06 July 2018  

Thank you for such a beautiful and erudite article. Recently a chestnut tree fell over in a nasty stormat my family's farm in Ireland. Just as you describe, my cousins their parents talked about the loss of this tree, and what it meant to them. The truly beautiful thing was that the loss was felt over multiple generations.

chris | 07 July 2018  

"[W]hat is the purpose behind the bizarre fiction of giving things rights? asks Roy, thereby illustrating the consequences of 'Western faith in the uniqueness and superiority of humanity'. The truth, Roy, is that animals, trees and rocks are no more 'things' than are we. Rather, the bizarre fiction is that our species is in some way different from the rest of 'creation' because it alone possesses some sort of 'immortal' dimension denied every other 'thing' on this planet.

Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2018  

Roy! Said like a true atheist!

AURELIUS | 13 July 2018  

Ginger Meggs: “Rather, the bizarre fiction is that our species is in some way different from the rest of 'creation' because it alone possesses some sort of 'immortal' dimension denied every other 'thing' on this planet.” Irrelevant. The difference is that rocks and trees can’t think and of those creatures which can, humans comprehensively out-think them. As Aurelius points out, even an atheist can see that humans are sui generis.

Roy Chen Yee | 20 July 2018  

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