by MARK MORDUE
I’ve been working at Addison Road Community Centre Organisation as their Media Adviser for the last six months. After a career in rock journalism and editing an inner-city paper that collapsed last year, leading me into a tough period of unemployment over Christmas, it’s been a real education for me to land here and find new purpose.
Among the varied duties that have fallen to me has been the chance to write a children’s book called The Hollow Tree. Not something I saw myself doing. But the story behind why a community centre has published a children’s book is well worth speaking about now.
Addi Road is currently the largest community centre in metropolitan Sydney, highly active across a variety of social justice programs, environmental and community activities. This includes everything from operating a Food Pantry for ‘people in need’ to initiating events like ‘Community.a.Fair’ and engaging with campaigns to combat poverty.
Set across nine acres, Addi Road has almost 170 trees on its grounds in Marrickville. Apart from leasing premises to over 40 different community groups and artists, tree management forms a significant part of its operations. In other words, it’s a large, rambling, green space that welcomes all kind of people and events.
Community centre a community home
In that regard, Addi Road is not just a community centre – it’s a community home. As its CEO Rosanna Barberio says, “If places like this disappear there are so many people who will have nowhere to go, nowhere to gather, nowhere to connect and be a part of a community, even it’s just to come here and sit under a tree and say hello to another human being.”
The old Sydney Blue Gum tree that inspired the story I would come to write was not well when the Addison Road Community Centre Organisation first consulted arborist Michael Sullings in 2014. Together with Addi Road’s Environmental Coordinator, Rose Porter, they came up with the innovative idea of pruning the tree back to its core structure, loping off dangerous branches that could fall or cause it to topple over.
Rather than cut the dying tree down completely – a common practice – Addi Road decided to use the tree as a case study in how to conserve and create habitats for living creatures. Tree specialists at Inner West Council were further consulted about the project.
Hollows were cut into the old Sydney Blue Gum, some freshly made, others enhancing the hollows already there, a process that can take a hundred years or more in nature. Two cameras were then mounted on the tree to assist in ecological observations and documentation of bird behaviour. An edit of the more entertaining footage can be seen at Addi Road’s website (www.addiroad.org.au).
Along with an ecologist, arborists and trained observers, children were invited to take part in this project through school tours and art classes. When it became clear this experiment was working, that bird life and other fauna were making use of the hollows and the preserved structure of this now dead Sydney blue gum, one of the arborists on the project broke down and cried with happiness.
Here was a new approach that urban planners and local councils across the country could learn from as a model. Dying trees need not be entirely removed. Some could be saved, leaving homes for living creatures, many of whom are battling to maintain a foothold in metropolitan environments. Some of the fauna who came to use the tree at Addison Road Community Centre Organisation grounds are struggling so much they are regarded as threatened species in our urban environments.
All of this would intensify Addi Road’s concern for trees across our inner-city neighbourhoods: appreciating how they help the environment, as well as our community well-being. It directly inspired a national conference here in May called Rethinking the Urban Forest that brought together 30 speakers and over 300 delegates to look at how we can develop greener, better cities. It also inspired the book called The Hollow Tree.
In very simple terms, it tells the story of a single tree – and the living creatures who come to depend upon it as a home, or simply a place to rest and shelter. It’s a story about community in the broadest and deepest sense, the community we are a part of in the natural world. It’s a story, too, about nature in the city and how we can protect and sustain it – and how it helps us in return.
The tree speaks to the reader
In the story, the tree speaks to the reader of its changing life as the buildings grow higher and closer in the city. The tree shares its secrets – and how it relates to friends who live in and around it, the varying bird-life and fauna who need it to survive. And the many planes that swoop overhead!
Giving our children hope, and some creativity and power over where their world is headed. The Hollow Tree offers this and so much more. Perhaps, too, some small part of it connects to the Strike4Climate actions of students that have so inspired people this past year.
Ultimately, I just alighted on a branch of this story and sang my little song. The bigger story has grown out of the school children’s observations – and, most importantly, their artworks.
It offers a reading experience that is once educational and inspiring, for and by children. You could even say the tree and the birds called to the children, and the children have now called out a story to each other and all of us.
The Hollow Tree will be launched at Berkelouw Books, Leichardt, this Friday, July 26th at 6pm by Darcy Byrne, Mayor of Inner West Council.