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Five minutes with author and art historian Janine Burke

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Award-winning author and art historian Janine Burke meanders along forest trails within art, myth, history and present day, in the enchanting and illuminating My Forests: Travels with Trees.

She travels the ancient Incense Road with the Biblical Magi, enjoys the dancing olive groves of Tuscany and visits tree-sitter Miranda Gibson, whose 449-day protest against clear felling in Tasmania’s Tyenna Valley led to a World Heritage listing, presenting the role of trees in contemporary life in a world where most people don’t live in the wild.

We caught up with Janine about natural and bookish inspirations ahead of her in conversation event with Inga Simpson at Muse on Sunday 7 August.

Have you always been a tree-lover, or is this a recent interest?

When I was 17, there was a mighty Eucalypt outside my upstairs bedroom window in suburban Melbourne. I felt like I was living in its branches. Very safe yet high up. I used to talk to the tree, confiding my hopes and fears, and I fancied the tree listened. Not only are trees beautiful, they can be consoling.

My connection with trees consolidated when I wrote Nest: The Art of Birds. By studying birds, I found myself studying trees as well. I was in awe of the birds’ architectural abilities and how the trees they chose (for example, the Magpie-Larks choose the London Plane for their solid mud constructions) served them well as a structural device.

Can you describe one of your favourite or most memorable forest moments?

There’s a magical place, fittingly named Paradise, a few kilometres behind Apollo Bay in Victoria’s Otway Ranges. It’s rich with ancient tree ferns, old-growth forest and deliciously pure mountain streams.

There I saw my first Superb Fairy Wren. A very flash fellow who, in summer, to attract the ladies, wears a dazzling array of iridescent blue feathers. The scent of the forest, the sound of the water and the sight of this forest fairy moved and delighted me.

What similarities are there between spending time in galleries and forests?

That’s a good question. Janet Laurence is one of my most admired artists. She’s a nature activist and her installations are aesthetically pleasing while revering the natural world and the havoc that is being wreaked upon it by humankind.

In My Forests, I discuss her exquisite installation Forest: Theatre of Trees, part of her retrospective at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019.

It’s a labyrinth made of drifting voile curtains in subtle tones of mauve and grey imprinted with towering, dark images of trees. It reaches from a very high ceiling to the floor.

I follow the circular path, past the tree-curtains which move gently in my wake. The labyrinth is composed of three concentric rings like those of a tree. Trees are, in fact, giant organic recording devices that contain, in their rings, information about past climates, civilisations, ecosystems and even galactic events, much of it many thousands of years old.

In recent times, the techniques for extracting information from tree rings—dendrochronology—have been honed and expanded. As more tree data becomes available, a much richer perspective emerges of life on Earth.

This forest of perpetual twilight feels like a place of contemplation, even mourning. A precious place. There is beauty here but also sadness. Both the trees’ strength and delicacy are palpable: their vast bodies dwarf me yet are rendered fragile and ghostly by the soft-hued, diaphanous veils. Nature’s contradictions are presented: it’s tough but vulnerable, resistant but defenceless, surviving but teetering on the brink of collapse.

If you are patient and humble yourself before nature—and contemporary art!—the rewards are tremendous. It can change your life for the better.

How have your experiences with nature informed your writing of the book and its structure?

I start the tree journey in my home suburb of Elwood (Melbourne—most humans live in suburbia not the wild!). Elwood is like a park with its nature reserve, vast green swathes of ovals and many varieties of native and introduced tree species.

Elwood instructs me about the natural world every day. It teaches me that I am part of an ecosystem. Also that I’m honoured to live and work on the land of the Yalukit-Weelam (‘river people’) of the Kulin nation.

My Forests invites you to wander—through art, mythology, film, history and poetry. The book is lusciously designed and copiously illustrated. Quite a work of art in itself! I’m very grateful to Melbourne University Press to produce such a sumptuous object.

Do you have any favourite Canberra or ACT green areas or forests?

Perhaps I’ll find one on my visit!

What books are on your to-be-read list at the moment?

I’m looking forward to Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest soon to be released in Australia. Simard is a scientist and her work can be compared to Peter Wollheben’s well known The Hidden Life of Trees.

Simard takes us through her career in the forests of North America where she discovers that trees communicate underground through a web of fungi. “At the centre of this web”, writes Tiffany Baker-Francis in The Guardian, “is the “mother tree” who helps to coordinate a powerful network that heals, feeds and sustains the other members of the forest”.

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