The light that falls through the rainforest is always mottled. By the time it reaches you it has passed through the layers of the leaves and vines, the branches and trunks that fold and twist over and among each other. The humus and leaf litter are soft and moist underfoot because the light that reaches them is muted. They cook down there in the wet, and are thick with insects, worms, and new ferns just emerging like green beetles.
When it has been raining some of the fungi that grow on the forest floor seem implausible. In the first year we were here in Kangaroo Valley, I photographed an extraordinary form that was larger than a tall man’s boot, bright orange and porous like a sea sponge. Last year, I walked down the slope to the place where the mushrooms used to grow and the earth smelt dank. Now the leaves crackled beneath my boots. There was no give in the earth.
Down where the rainforest slopes towards the river there is a grove of huge trees, their ochre trunks reaching high above the canopy. It hurts your neck to try to see their upper branches. There is one whose trunk must have a diameter of three metres at least. You’d need a good eight people, arms outstretched and holding hands, to encircle it. He is remarkable and when you see him, he stops you in your tracks. He is also, quite evidently, part of a larger multi-generational family, not only of the trees of the same species but also of creepers, bird’s nest ferns, other trees, the animals and insects that live in and on him, and the mycelium that stretches beneath and among them. Even when he dies, he will continue to nurture this community. The hollows that form in his trunk will be homes for small marsupials such as bush rats, possums, and antechinuses; for bats and gliders; goannas; frogs and snakes; parrots and owls. The decaying wood will provide habitat, breeding grounds and food for beetles, ants, worms, and snails. Those wonderous orange parasites that catch your eye when you walk through the forest will form a line along his body when he eventually lies horizontal.
And as they all do this, they will transform what he has become into nutrients in and on the forest floor, from which others will grow. I named the tree Isaac.
Isaac was my grandfather. He came on a boat to Australia with Hela, my grandmother, and John, my father, in April 1950. Right after the end of the war they fled from Poland to Paris, and it was from there that they obtained refugee status and a passage to Australia. Other than Hela and John, no one from Isaac’s family survived the war. He told me that his business partner had escaped to Argentina, where he changed his family name from Zając — Polish for hare — to Królik, which means rabbit. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Isaac and Hela’s daughter, my father’s sister, Alma, was taken by the Gestapo in 1942 when the family was in hiding in Warsaw, and murdered. She was twelve.
When the three of them arrived in Australia with barely a word of English, they virtually stopped speaking their native tongue. Their lives were, and, I came to understand, had to be, about the future. As he had learned from his Jewish forebears, everything that Isaac did was oriented towards the community he felt part of, and to the lives of his grandchildren, and their children — down seven generations. People who did not yet exist, and whom he would never know, but whose yet-to-be lives guided his. It is one of the human qualities that takes your breath away, this capacity to be consciously present not only to what you might make from what is immediately in front of you in time and space, but to what that could become, long after you are gone. We continue to draw nourishment from the spring he opened.
When I turned fifty it occurred to me that it was my turn to live towards seven generations. It sounds like a romantic idea, but when you actually go about realising it you start to fathom the difficulty of the task — to orient yourself, and to start to act in ways that are given by your care for future lives whose context and shape will always remain opaque to you. It means imagining not only what those lives might be like, but what nourishment they might most need. And even if you have a model to inspire you, as I did in Isaac, your time is not their time. 2014 was not 1950.
When I tried to look forward, to feel forward, what seemed most vital was access to fertile land and sources of clean water. And, along with that, lifeways and understandings that would have those seven generations feel at home in, delighted by, grateful for, and responsible to the earth and the other beings who supported and accompanied them. That is what had us find our way to this valley, and that is why the most magnificent tree in our midst bears the name Isaac.
What Isaac “knows”
Around me I hear whisperings, almost shamefully spoken, of people’s fear for the future. Since the fires began to consume the worlds around us, the reverberations of those whisperings have intensified. People have started to use the term “existential threat” to convey the idea that not just human lives but human life is at stake. It is not inaccurate, but it does not quite make present or bring close what is happening in our bodies as we sense this peril. Maybe it is easier to adopt an abstract idiom than to speak out loud about the intimate, palpable, and direct losses we would prefer not to name. Maybe we believe that if we don’t give them shape in the form of words, they will cease to exist. Or maybe we are trying to shield ourselves from the flood of feelings they would elicit.
But it is only fantastical thinking that has you believe that silence will not stop the dreaded future from coming to pass. I’d hazard a guess that wrapping words around our still-amorphous feelings, and giving voice to the ones we already know we harbour might be a corner piece in the puzzle of learning how to live in this world. If we are to have any chance at mitigating that dreaded future, difficult actions lie before us. Speaking the feared future, and being present with each other to how desperately we do not want it, may give us the clarity and resolve we need to act. And if or when it is too late for such actions, if there is no more to be done to prevent that future, honesty will be the only solid ground to stand on. To stand and hold on to each other.
Sometimes I take a walk to visit Isaac. He is good for being straight with. These last few years, through the work of scientists, as well as novelists and artists, we have learned so much more about trees than we in the West have ever allowed ourselves to acknowledge before. So I would not presume even to guess what capacity Isaac has to “know” about the future. It took us suspending our certainties about the order of life for long enough to pay attention to trees as something other than resource, aesthetic object or environment for (other) sentient life. Already we have learned that they communicate with each other about drought or disease or harmful predators using chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals. They know, and share with each other what they know, about what might threaten them. I’d hazard a guess they also know, and share what they know, about what pleases them.
I wonder what Isaac has come to know, both in these last years, as the temperature he lives in has risen, the rainfall has declined, and now, as the fire that is approaching has already killed others like him who lived in the millions of hectares that form his larger home. I wonder whether Isaac had received the message that others’ immediate worlds are disappearing as the fires move from root to crown, from the leaf litter to fungi to trunks to leaves to birds. I wonder how Isaac, who by his nature orients his life to seven generations, looks to the future now.
This article originally appeared on ABC here.
Danielle Celermajer is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her most recent book is Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, from which this is an edited extract.