How plants and trees talk to each other and why we should care

4 March 2019
The last decade has seen significant scientific discoveries on how forests sense, respond and communicate - yet we haven't paused to understand what these discoveries mean for us and trees.

Inspired by a new exhibition by acclaimed artist Janet Laurence: After Nature, the University of Sydney is leading a series of public talks called Talking Trees. The talks bring together artists, researchers and advocates to exchange and discover new ideas around one of the most vital elements of the natural world: trees.

“We wanted to combine science and art and public discussion to really wake people up to the importance of plants,” said Professor Margaret Barbour, a plant scientist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

“Janet Laurence has done more to highlight the reality of the environmental catastrophe we face than almost any other living Australian,” said Professor Marc Stears, Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. “The Sydney Policy Lab is absolutely thrilled to be working with her and with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia over the next few weeks in bringing some of the country’s best scientists, artists, thinkers and activists together to see how we can escape that environmental catastrophe and collectively build a fairer, richer and more sustainable future.”

The Talking Trees series is held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The program is a collaboration between Dr Dalia Nassar (University of Sydney), Professor Margaret Barbour (University of Sydney), Sydney Policy Lab, the MCA and artist Janet Laurence.

“All of the big moments of political change have been driven by movements in art, from the campaign for the vote to women to the civil rights campaigns of the late 20th century,” said Professor Stears. “We’re now witnessing the birth of a major artistic movement demanding change to protect our environment. Janet Laurence’s MCA show is a big part of that movement.”

“We don’t often take notice of the plants around us,” said Professor Barbour. “Janet is waking us up through her artwork, and we want to wake people up to the science by bringing together a range of speakers from arts and science to broaden our understanding of environmental issues.”

Dr Dalia Nassar, senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, said "in this time of crisis, it's become apparent the data that science has been offering us is not enough."

"What is also necessary is that we transform the way we think  about and perceive the natural world and our relation to it," Dr Nassar said. "The humanities have been working on this, but art has a special place here. It can affect our perception and imagination in an immediate and exemplary way, enabling us to better grasp our connection to the natural world and to appreciate the processes of nature as well as their fragility and come to grips with the need to really act in a timely way. 

Janet Laurence's work is particularly significant in this regard, Dr Nassar said. "And so it seemed natural, indeed necessary, to work with Laurence and the MCA, as well as the Sydney Policy Lab, to create a series that reflects on the significance of her work, of art in general, and of the ways in which the natural sciences and humanities can come together to help bring about this transformation of perception, imagination and understanding."

photo of an art work called Heart Shock, it is large dead tree lying on its side in an art gallery

Heartshock, Janet Laurence: After Nature, Museum of

Contemporary Art Australia. Photo by Elissa Blake.

Talking Trees, series of talks

These talks are fast booking out - if you've missed out on a spot the Sydney Policy Lab will be publishing podcasts shortly after each event.

The Language of Trees 

March 6

Can trees talk to each other? How do we talk about trees? How powerful are words when it comes to caring about the environment? Hear from linguist Nick Enfield, evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, and Indigenous language expert Jaky Troy, on the power of words we use to speak about trees.

Trees and Democracy

April 20

Do trees build a stronger sense of belonging and wellbeing? Living in a green neighbourhood is good for our health, but who has access to these neighbourhoods? And as green spaces are under attack, what happens to our democracy?

Confirmed speakers include Councillor Jess Miller, artist Raquel Ormella and cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer from the University of Utah.

photo of art gallery visitors looking at an art work which is live plants in tall test tubes

Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) by Janet Laurence: After Nature, Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Jacqui Manning.


Trees and time

May 1

Could the effects of climate change be etched in tree trunks?

A scientist, civil society leader and an Indigenous leader will unpack the lessons we learn from trees about the human impact on nature. Trees contain their own histories, capturing timescales far beyond the human lifespan. Speakers to be confirmed.

Trees, art and social change

June 2
How has art played a role in environmental movements, and what role could it play in stirring the pot today? Confirmed speakers include former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, artist Janet Laurence and Dr Amanda Tattersall of the Sydney Policy Lab.

photo of artist Janet Laurence in her workshop

Artist Janet Laurence in her workshop. Photo by Jacqui Manning.


Sounding trees: a poetry and music salon

June 1

In an intimate setting, poets and musicians will perform works inspired by trees, the natural world and Janet Laurence’s work. Poets include Evelyn Araluen, Debbie Lim, Peter Boyle and cellist Christina Christensen. Curated by Luke Fischer, an honarary associate of the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney.

Register for the Talking Trees series of talks by heading to the Museum of Contemporary Art AustraliaJanet Laurence: After Nature runs from March 1 until June 10, 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

Lab Sydney Policy

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