Talking to Trees after a Touch of Tinselitis

Let’s talk trees. In fact, why bother talking, let’s write to trees.

I thought it was only the heir to the British throne who had a reputation for hugging our green frondy friends, spouting poetry into their lofty limbs, and emitting a regal air of arboreal abundance. It turns out that hundreds of Melburnians – yes, you and me, and him over there – are in the daily habit of actually writing to trees. Short messages on SMS, whole passages of purple prose, screeds of words on the leaves of notebooks.

There’s one fine Golden Elm on Punt Road, which receives hundreds of emails each year. Yes, Hundreds. ‘Dear Tree’, begins one such message, not yet on first name terms, ‘ if you are that big round beautiful low hanging tree, I think you are my favourite tree. Such beauty in such an ugly road.’ (Which may be a tad unfair on Punt Road, although having sat in an interminable traffic jam there last week, maybe not). The anonymous message concludes with the rather cryptic imprecation:  “Keep up the good work.”

In fact, Melbourne’s trees – all 77,000 of them – have a Name (usually two: the common version and the scientific one), an Address (‘on the corner of Letsby Avenue’) and a Number (“I am a tree, not a number!”) and they form a virtual woodland called the ‘Urban Forest’ that was established six years ago, with its own interactive website, promotional video, range of T-shirts, and syndicated merchandise. But it’s the messages that really resonate. It seems that we really like writing to trees. Over 3,000 treemails have been received by the elms, planes, and gums that beautify our sprawling metropolis. Some of them are even answered: ‘So lovely to be appreciated. I am lucky to be well looked after’, then a link to the tree’s webpage, and a perky cheerio from ‘Your special elm’.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief, to keep a grasp on reality. I mean I’m still wavering about Father Christmas, but emailing trees? So I implore you, log on to the site * (refer to the link at the bottom of this blog) and you can learn about the nearest branch of urban forest in your neighbourhood. I’m delighted to discover that the two pink-limbed giants on the roundabout near the vast cemetery in Carlton are on the protected list; gladly, the two immense lemon scented gums (‘Corymbia’ to the scientists amongst you), are fully expected to live at least 60 years despite the vortex of exhaust fumes they suffer every day.

Discovering this fabulous on-line resource compensated for the acres of burned and charred trees that surrounded me while wild camping in the Grampians last month. And it made me feel better about the thousands of neat conical Balsam Fir and Norway Spruce that are lopped in their youth to decorate our Christmas lobbies and halls. Hence the title to this unseasonal blog: a tinsel-tagged Christmas Tree goes to the Doctor feeling unwell; after a short diagnosis the medic says: “it’s OK you’ve just got tinsillitis.” Beats my other favourite surgery joke: ‘Man visits his GP. Doctor, I can’t help myself, I keep wanting to do impersonations of Tom Jones!’. To which the Doctor, unconcerned, replies: ‘It’s not unusual’.



A Christmas Message

There’s a cartoon of three Carol Singers gathered in front of a house on Christmas Eve; light pours from an open door illuminating the owner who is admonishing the hapless singers: ‘What? You want me to give you money? Don’t be daft, no one pays for music anymore!’

So, time to sign off for another year; amidst the mandatory mayhem of Michaelmas. I’ve been in Saigon and Hanoi, been in Bundoora and Brunswick, and have been recovering from night after night of student shows, exhibitions, runways, talks, screenings and book launches. It’s exhausting but exhilarating. I bought some applied art, in fact, an applied artefact:  a 4-foot high ceramic object of piled high teapots with white spouts, which are – apparently –  all fully functioning and pour tea. It was created by a wonderful overseas student who travelled here from the US because he knew that RMIT still taught and treasured crafts programs. I’ve been working with a group of post-graduate students on our renowned professional Writing and Editing programs. It’s produced some of Australia’s great writers. [Rosalie Ham of The DressMaker; Graham Simsion of The Rosie Project, and many more] Each year the students work in groups to produce up to a dozen books; six students allocated to each book; they work closely with the author; they edit, they proofread, they design. In fact they undertake the entire production life cycle. They are guided by the formidable program manager, Tracy O’Shaugnessy. What’s more they have their own imprint. Bowen Street Press, but they also work closely with many commercial presses. I also commissioned a graphic designer called Kit, an RMIT alumnus from Vietnam, and together all 8 of us produced a book, 208 pages, 60 colour reproductions.

And so, I hear you say ‘what’s the book about’. Well, you should never ask a writer what a book is about. The playwright Tom Stoppard was once asked the same question by journalists. ‘What’s it about?’ he replied, ‘It’s about to make me a lot of money I hope!’ This book won’t make any money, but it’s better than that: it’s a genuine collaboration between me and the two artist-academics on our ARC Discovery Grant project, and it’s a collaboration between me and the students. They’ve surpassed my expectations – hard-working, intelligent, fastidious and constantly seeking the highest quality. I can’t thank them enough, they embody everything that RMIT does well, and I wish them the very best as they go forth into the world of publishing, and I wish them – as I wish all my readers, Seasonal Salutations and a Happy New Year.

Still Talking: Still Listening!


Many thanks to many, many of you for your insightful and enthusiastic engagement during the last 7 weeks of Shape DSC.  As always your passion and enthusiasm has shone through. I have been consistently impressed with the thoughtfulness of the input and the deep sense of purpose across the College.

So far, we have had:

–       over 19,000 words of response against the 4 headings in Shape DSC

–       131 responses in writing, with over 200 ‘Likes’

–       23 separate email contributions, directly to me

–       5 Round Tables with 68 participants

–       47 attendees and contributors at the College Office Forum

–       discussions at School level and through other committees

  •       51 participants in the extended leadership forum and workshop at the State Library

I’m working with my colleagues to put together a report and a set of follow-up actions, which will be ready by the end of the month.

Thank you so much for enriching the conversation.