Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2019

City of Trees (2019), by Sophie Cunningham

Don’t you hate it when four of your library reserves come in the week before you take off overseas?  I hope no one detected a note of panic in my hasty reviews of The New Animals; A Mistake and The Resurrection of Winne Mandela but I have managed to dash through them in under a week, leaving only City of Trees unfinished. By the time you read this the book will be back at the library and I will be on my way to Wellington, our first stop en route to the Auckland Writers’ Festival.

City of Trees is a collection of essays by Sophie Cunningham, the Melbourne author of Geography, Bird, Melbourne (City South Series, on my TBR) and Warning: the Story of Cyclone Tracy. She’s a former publisher and editor, she contributes to literary journals like Meanjin, she was a co-founder of the Stella Prize, and is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University.

This is the blurb for City of Trees:

How do we take in the beauty of our planet while processing the losses? What trees can survive in the city? Which animals can survive in the wild? How do any of us—humans, animals, trees—find a forest we can call home?

In these moving, thought-provoking essays Sophie Cunningham considers the meaning of trees and our love of them. She chronicles the deaths of both her fathers, and the survival of P-22, a mountain lion in Griffith Park, Los Angeles; contemplates the loneliness of Ranee, the first elephant in Australia; celebrates the iconic eucalyptus and explores its international status as an invasive species.

City of Trees is a powerful collection of nature, travel and memoir writing set in the context of global climate change. It meanders through, circles around and sometimes faces head on the most pressing issues of the day. It never loses sight of the trees.

Back in the 1980s, I was at a social occasion once with Kay Setches, the then Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands, when she said something about how difficult it was to bring together the loggers and the Greenies to reach an agreement on the perennial problem of managing Victoria’s forests.  She said something about not understanding why they couldn’t be logical about it, and I remember telling her that it’s not a matter of logic: sure, there are logical reasons why we should protect trees, but when it comes to old growth forests, people feel emotional about them.  If you’ve ever stood in awe beside a very old tree, you know what I mean.

Well, Sophie Cunninghamm is emotional about trees too.  She likes the splendour of trees, she photographs them daily for her Instagram account @sophtreeofday, and she’s taught herself to draw them.  She talks to them, she naps under them, and she confesses to hugging them too.  And although she’s never done it herself, she tells us that it’s been possible to email thousands of Melbourne’s trees directly, and more than four thousand people have taken advantage of this opportunity.  (Visit Melbourne Urban Forest Visual if interested).  My own local council doesn’t enable emailing trees, but (having for too long permitted the haphazard development of McMansions with no garden space big enough for trees) it has now developed a planning strategy that mandates having a canopy tree in both front and back gardens.  (And that’s logical, because trees reduce the heat bank effect which is going to matter even more as the climate warms). My part of Melbourne is lush with trees, but we want to retain that even as the suburb enables greater population density.  So the strategy plan gets a tick from me…

Cunningham’s first essay is an introduction to why people love trees, and there are awful statistics about entire populations of trees becoming endangered.  I was quite shocked to read in Chapter 3 that the Giant Sequoias are not doing well: they are now confined to a small area, and they’ve started to be badly affected by droughts.  The temperatures are now too high for them, even at higher altitudes.  And here in Australia, we’ll have lost more than ninety-eight per cent of our large old trees within fifty to a hundred years.  It’s a terrible thought…

But though trees are part of every essay, the focus of some chapters lies elsewhere.  ‘The Fall’ tells about her marriage to Virginia in America, and the tension and joy of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite in 2017.  It also explains cogently why it mattered:

Low-key as the wedding was, ambivalent as we were, it had a powerful effect.  It reinforced our commitment to each other.  It changed people’s reactions to us. In my experience people are less homophobic if they can find a way into understanding your relationship, and in America our being married gave people that way in.  Once I was married I started to understand just what was being denied to all people in same-sex relationships, to anyone who is told by the state that they are not due the full opportunities and protections of the law.  I was grateful to the United States for giving me that right. (p.12)

(It is really creepy to discover that there are still fossils in the Liberal Party who have seen fit to share their discriminatory ideas in this election. They may have been (belatedly) disendorsed by their party, but they’ve still been spreading their poison and I don’t like that at all.)

There’s also a lovely chapter about the joys and consolations of walking, which includes a moving segment about Cunningham’s stepfather and his descent into dementia.

This is a lovely book, I’ll have to borrow it again when I come home.

PS The plan for NZ is to take Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and finally finish off the third in the trilogy, The Cross. I’ve been putting this off because Kristen apparently becomes very religious in Book #3 and I haven’t found that very appealing.  Having nothing else to read on the plane should enable me at least to make a start on it. It’s about 400 pages long, so you may not hear from me until the end of next week or the beginning of the following one when we get to Auckland for the festival…

Of course if I don’t figure out the mysteries of connecting to hotel wi-fi with the new laptop, you may not hear from me at all until I get back!  But assuming I can get online, you can follow our travels here.

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: City of Trees, Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781925773439 (hbk.)
Source: Bayside Library



  1. Happy Travelling! Yes, trees are an emotional issue as well as logical. Who could imagine wanting to live in a place without trees. And of course lots of the trees I love are stubby little things, but they support wildlife and hold the soil (sand) down – until a Barnaby supporting yokel sweeps them away with a bulldozer and chain to set up another drought relief con (sorry, ‘farm’).


    • Well, look here I am! Our home away from home has wi-fi and so far the new laptop has behaved well, except I haven’t worked out how to lift my photos up to the cloud in case I lose the camera. That’s a task for after dinner, I think:)


  2. Enjoy your trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to some NZ posts – I have this book on my TBR pile as I too feel emotional about trees – thanks for the link to Sophie’s insta account, I’m now following her…and you’ve helped to bump this up to the top of my what to read next pile.


  4. Hi Lisa, have a safe and enjoyable trip. I have reserved City of Trees at my library. I have also told my council to read the book before they make a carpark that will destroy the environment of trees and bird life.


  5. Have fun at the festival. I look forward to hearing about it. 🤠🐧


  6. Enjoy your travels and the writers festival! Wonderful!!


  7. Thanks Pam and Theresa, if all goes well I’ll report on events I attend the way Sue and Jonathan are for the Sydney festival:)


  8. PS Progress with Kristin, I have read 100 of 400 pages. We’re not getting on too well together but I determined to leave this brick of a book behind in NZ. I can buy three new books while I’m here with the space vacated in the suitcase….


  9. I’ve nearly finished City of Trees and am enjoying it very much. Just the right mix of readability and intellectual depth.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest (Sophie Cunningham, Text), see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  11. […] City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham […]


  12. […] City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham, Text Publishing, 2019, see my review […]


  13. […] Christie has constructed a time-hopping, world-spanning, page-turning family saga that’s as intricately constructed as the rings of a tree. With Sophie Cunningham (author City of Trees, see my review here). […]


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