'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 2 October 2023

Guest Post: Martine Murray on World

I wrote the book World because I feel that our relationship to trees is somehow central to our relationship to life, to aliveness and to the natural world.

The tendency to see a tree or a forest only as a resource to be extracted rather than a source of life– an essential and beautiful, alive transmitter of all that is good, seems to be one of the fallouts of modernity, urbanisation and consumerism.

In the book, a man approaches a tree with an axe and says, Sorry tree, but I need a house. The tree replies that it houses a whole world.

What ensues is a conversation in which the man tries to tell the tree what a 'real' world is. He points to some of the of hallmarks of modernity- roads, cars, ships, skyscrapers, supermarkets and then boasts about all that this world makes available- takeaway pizza, swimming pools on ships, ski slopes in the desert, for instance. The tree makes no reply. The more the man speaks, the less convincing he is, even to himself. The man begins to notice in fact, how very small his 'real' world is. Is it really the size of his couch from which he orders his dinner and watches his screen? He leans into the tree. The tree offers its shade. The man begins to notice the life that surrounds the tree…

In the book I wanted the tree to speak without speaking, to show without telling why its world is the real world, why it is also our world and why this world is larger and more integral to life than the constructed world the man inhabits. Instead of countering the man’s argument, the tree simply stands there in its magnificence and the man’s own argument diminishes in the face of the more alive and miraculously self-sustaining 'world' that the tree houses . The man finally asks the tree if he can live in the tree’s world. The tree says, You already do.

As much as this book is a homage to the tree it is also a lament for the globalising, materialist, technological forces that drive the world we find ourselves in a world which makes ski slopes in the desert not only possible, but desirable. A world in which supermarkets have replaced the local market and super powers have steadily plundered and erased local cultures. A world where the human has become lonely. This world, when pitted against that of the tree’s world, seems like a place where reality is constantly avoided or replaced by take away pizza or trips to the moon.

The story offers as an alternative– a place to return to, to revere and to understand, perhaps even to remember. The man literally 'comes to his senses' through his senses and to this extent, the book is a call to re-enchant ourselves, to listen and see and come back to the ground of our being. The final scenes in the book take a bird’s eye view of a trail of children who playfully wander towards the edge of the forest that the tree belongs to, thus suggesting a path back.

I realise this sounds like subject matter that is very serious or complex for the world of children. It’s also possible we do our children a disservice when we write down to them and that they are able to understand the moral sense of a story without in any way countenancing the realities that drive it. Fairy tales have always worked in this way. In times where we are endlessly 'entertained' by many iterations of the same, it seems worthwhile to write about something that matters.

Perhaps the 'art' of a picture book is to be able to suggest something that is profound without any sense of profundity, to speak of something that is important lightly, to convey depth without resorting to weight. The relationship between text and image is a sort of artistic conspiracy to balance the telling so that this lightness of touch is achieved. Much of the 'weight' of our book is playfully suggested through the illustrations, rather than imposed by the text. The man for instance raises an eyebrow, distracted from his mobile phone, by the sound of a bird singing or he sits atop an enormous pile of coveted objects-designer handbags, champagne, gold watches.

Anna has drawn the tree with all the animals, birds and insects that would be part of a local ecology. There are the very recognisable ones such as a sulphur-crested cockatoo, wombat, raven or swamp wallaby, but also others that may not be known by name such as the dainty swallowtail butterfly or the southern brown bandicoot. For the budding naturalist, the book yields a wealth of imagery. It also reinforces the particularity of a shared sense of place and the interdependence we have with our local flora and fauna.

The last pages provide drawings of all the wildlife shown in the book and a diagram of a River Red gum detailing the cornucopia of animals, birds, insects and fungi that live and support life within that ecology. It ranges from soil dwellers, ( earth worms, nematodes) leaf litter dwellers ( pobble bonk frogs, scorpions) bark hiders, ( velvet ants, wolf spiders) canopy dwellers ( jewell beetles, common brown butterflies ) and all the visitors– goanna’s, the powerful owl, the dear little birds, the antechinus and phascogale, the ring-tailed possum, the bronze winged pigeon, the wedge tailed eagle. This is accompanied by a text which describes how the tree creates and sustains this world and ours.

This is the third book for Parachute Press. It feels as if it's one of and for these times. We send it out into the world in the hope that it will land in many different 'worlds' and domestic ecologies.

Martine Murray is an award winning Australian children's author and co-founder of Parachute Press.