Dr Adrienne Hunt and Louise Fowler-Smith

Arboreal Narratives 2020 showcases works by sixteen artists from the Tree Veneration Society Inc. – an environmentally – focused artist collective that honours the beauty, power and the importance of trees (https://treevenerationsociety.com). Each of the works featured in this 2020 multidisciplinary exhibition at Sheffer Gallery, Sydney, draws on the lived experience of these contemporary artists since last year’s exhibition and seeks to invite reflection on the current status of our natural world, and the world of our future. 

Our artists, just as everyone else in Australia, experienced the living hell of our 2019-2020 Black Summer – an extended summer season of terrifying and devastating bushfires. Although it was unprecedented in so many terrible ways, our Black Summer was not unexpected. Twelve years ago, in 2008, Australia’s federal leaders were warned by economist Ross Garnault’s comprehensive review of research (The Garnault Climate Change Review, 2008) – of the more intense and prolonged fire seasons that could be expected in Australia by 2020, unless immediate action was taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Black Summer fires were the result of those 12 years of inaction and an underpinning denial in circles of influence of the reality of global warming and climate change, and our impending existential crisis. They burned an estimated 46 million acres of land (much of which was forest and bushland) and emitted an estimated 306 million tons of additional (greenhouse gas) carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and killed trillions of animals – including at least 181 million birds and 60,000 koalas. Trees and their understory plants, and even soil, burned. Hundreds of species of plant life were pushed into near extinction and in some cases, extinction. Now, almost 12 months later, the charred and silent landscapes in eastern Australia that were left behind, bear no resemblance to their previous original biome and despite some regrowth, many may never achieve their former biodiversity. These apocalyptic ‘landscapes’ are the legacy of our Black Summer and 12 years of the considered choices made by our leaders. 

It seems that humankind needs to be reminded that the health of everything on this planet depends on healthy trees and forests, and they are now needed more than ever. It took millions of years for the atmosphere, climate and edible resources to develop to the point of being able to support life on earth – made possible by trees and plants, and which are still fundamental to life in so many ways. They are often referred to as the lungs of the planet, since through the mechanism of photosynthesis in daylight, they release oxygen into the atmosphere, and absorb carbon dioxide – a respiration process that is opposite to that of humans and all other animals. Trees and plants also absorb other harmful gases – carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and remove them from our atmosphere. In each tree, tons of carbon dioxide and other gases are sequestered, and are mostly retained within the earth upon its death – harmless even as coal (the result of ancient, compressed trees and plants), unless burned. Trees and plants release moisture through transpiration – en masse, providing microclimates that are moist and cool, and generating clouds and rainfall. In the heat, they cool the environment. 

Trees and plants provide the habitats essential for wildlife to survive – the healthier and less fragmented the better for biodiversity. Humankind also needs to be reminded that it evolved in dynamic relationships with plants and other animals, and that we are all dependent for our survival on biodiversity. So aside from the ethical considerations that other animals are due in their own right, we have a shared existential crisis. Neither of these realities are played out in the ongoing shameful deforestation that takes place in Australia, through several mechanisms. The euphemism of ‘land clearing’ applies to the officially sanctioned removal of (habitat) trees on private agricultural land – primarily for grazing by cloven hooved (non-native) animals, such that 20 million acres of land were ‘cleared’ in Australia between 2000-2017. Also sanctioned, are logging of old growth forests and grazing of cattle within old growth forests. Australia has the highest national rate of extinction of its native mammals – primarily due to land clearing. Scientists continue to report on our environmental crisis and have described the situation that is affecting Australian threatened plants and animals as a national disgrace.

Black Summer was followed by the international pandemic, Covid-19, which found its ways to our shores in March. The ensuing lockdown was something that none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. Aside from the personal stresses that it caused and continues to cause, our limited freedom of movement put significant constraints on any environmental action that the population could undertake – such as tree planting for wildlife habitat restoration and protection, necessitated by the Black Summer fires and superimposed on pre-existing needs. Sadly, our governments cynically used the lockdown as an opportunity to change land clearing laws and approve more coal mines, more logging (including old growth trees) and more development, and sought to compromise the process and outcome of the current “Independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999” – to the detriment of the natural environment.   

The Tree Veneration Society, in line with several other environmentally-focussed groups, has the implicit aim of redressing what can only be described as a suicidal estrangement from nature (John Macdonald, 2013). Arguably, the root problem here is a delusional anthropocentrism – the belief that humans exist separately from other nature – in control and in charge of everything. This belief is often referred to as the nature-culture binary. It leads to a false sense of autonomy from nature and of having agency over it, and is the basis of short-sighted capitalist economy-driven activities that incorporate wanton destruction of habitat, of economic rationalism pitted against scientific reason, and of the prevailing approach of the current leadership in Australia, under non-governmental yet powerful negative influences. Notably, Australia’s leaders abandoned a ‘green stimulus’ initiative in 2013, but continue to spruik coal for power production and exporting, and now increased gas exploration.

In stark contrast to the government’s stance, the Tree Veneration Society accepts science as reason and respects and admires the natural world. It is a registered charity – acting as a conduit to promoting trees as part of the world community, promoting understanding and care of the environment through exhibitions and public workshops. Its 2019 Arboreal Narratives multi-disciplinary art exhibition explored aspects of trees as key constituents of the arboreal ecosystem – their importance and their imperilled status via lectures and workshops as well as a gallery exhibition. The context for Arboreal Narratives 2020 is that of an ongoing global pandemic, with its inherent constraints on gatherings – in the aftermath of Black Summer. But rather than dwelling on eco-anxiety, the artists show us the loss, by demonstrating their acceptance of the facts and in doing so, guide us toward active hope.

The works in this gallery exhibition, speak to loss and humility towards what has been lost, recognition of the ability of trees to survive against the odds and the need for greater respect and protection of trees and ecosystems. With a focus on loss, Elizabeth Gervay’s installation of a burned tree trunk confronts us with some of the reality of the bushfire legacy; Jane Green’s clay works serve as a memorial to lost trees; Jade Gunn’s photography serves as an ecological memento mori, though of objects not very still, but giving us time to ponder; Liz Perfect’s silkscreen prints have captured the trauma meted out on our forests by the Black Summer fires as a forensic record; and Amanda Farquharson’s assemblage of the various found burned objects following the fires, reminds us of our integration with nature.

Several of the works speak to the ability of trees to survive against the odds, providing us with hope: Hobart Hughes’s video reminds us of the use and abuse of trees as a commodity, and of their perseverance; Melinda Clyne’s sculpture pays homage to ironbark trees surviving after Black Summer; Jan Garben’s charcoal drawing of a scribbly gum tree encourages close looking and provides documentary evidence of its survival to date; Sally Reinhardt’s painting of a woody pear burst open with the promise of new life, reminds us that many of our tree species can survive; Miho Watanabe’s photographs of street trees printed on silk highlights the fact that each tree is isolated from its kin, and surviving on an uncertain water supply and Adrienne Hunt’s painting of scribbly gums shows them as hollowed out, hanging on to life but embossed with scribbled messages of inspiration to keep trying.

We are prompted toward a greater respect and protection of trees and ecosystems by Kassandra Bossell’s broken pottery repaired with gold and expressing a process of repair to damaged ecosystems, for bird habitat; Paula Broom’s leaf wing sculpture invites interaction with the viewer as an empathic performance; Jean Burke’s prints of mangroves show them as biodiverse and important ecosystems; Margaret England’s assemblages put us in the space of reflecting on our dire situation while giving us a clear message that there is hope and Louise Fowler-Smith’s plant sculptures show us exactly what we might lose if we don’t make the required changes. The ecocentric focus of all of these works translates as an expression of ecological empathy – the opposite of apathy and the dispassionate stance of economic rationality. Ecological empathy is applied in this exhibition to the past, present and to the future, projecting beyond the human lifespan.

It is said that each work of art has the capacity to provide new sensations and stir new behaviours by the responses engendered (Elizabeth Grosz, 2008), leading to new beginnings and future hopeful possibilities. So what might be the tree veneration change that is needed in Australia? What do we need to do to safeguard the future of humans and other animals? The explicit and implicit aims of the Tree Veneration Society are more relevant than ever before, and we must concede that we cannot put blind faith into systems to address the problems or expect external agencies to do so. We must individually and collectively apply our imagination to forge change, to stir a desire for a change in policies, but more than that, we must promote an empathic and respectful focus on the natural environment, and all of its inhabitants. 

Grosz, Elizabeth A. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008

McDonald, John. “Louise Fowler-Smith,” in The Macquarie Group Collection: The Land and Its Psyche, ed. Julian Beaumont, Felicity Fenner, and John McDonald (NewSouth Publishing, 2013)

The Garnault Climate Change Review, 2008. Free download per section is available at: https://www.rossgarnaut.com.au/climate-change