By Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).

My life is entangled with trees. I carry close the smell of Black Peppermint gums just before a thunderstorm; hear often the wish echo of White Gum leaves crackle underfoot; rehearse the high step over beech roots; and brace in my mind for the slip on wet Regnans debri by holding firm to a Blackwood.

This blog is personal. But my story is not the root of the thoughts to come, for trees teach us to be more than ourselves. The campus on which I work is home to just over 10,500 trees. And it’s fair to say that the community loves them: our gardens and grounds team have the well-deserved accolade of being the most appreciated group in staff satisfaction surveys. There’s even a database for our trees where you can look at them by size, species, and condition.

Generations of students have passed on the tree lore that you need to start studying for exams before our Cottonwoods unlease their ‘fluff’. But the Cottonwoods, for all their charms, do not have the most to teach us.

That honour belongs to the Yellow Box on the edge of my carpark. Think of a tree bigger than you can get your arms around, with rough loose bark that spirals up to a sky of scraggly branches. And now see the scar.

I didn’t notice the scar until a Ngunawal elder pointed it out. I went past it every day for five years without seeing it. So much for listening to Stanner’s Boyer Lectures on The Great Australian Silence (1968), or for reading Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfella’s Point (2004). I am supposed to know a thing or two about Australian history, and to appreciate the histories Indigenous peoples write upon trees when they make canoes or food containers, or harvest honey from hives. So much for supposition. When I was shown the scar, I told an Indigenous law academic about it with much excitement. With a wise smile, he told me that he had been teaching students about constitutional recognition under that tree for ages, and that students remembered that lesson probably more than anything else that he teaches.

I didn’t know, and I didn’t know. What will it take for us to see?

It took touching that tree to see it as telling the story of a raft or coolamon (ˈkuːləmən) for the creek habitat that bisects our campus, and of harvesting honey. We can touch a tree, craft a tree, and it will tell the story of our connection long after we are gone. Trees are not just connected to us in the past; they are important markers for the future.

I think of the trees as the centre piece of our campus redevelopment. Don’t get me wrong, I love the design of the new buildings. They are absolutely beautiful. But as their off-white facades age they will become yellow boxes to the glorious trees that will in many cases outlive them.

Landscape architecture is not just an afterthought, and trees are not just there for us to admire them. They carry cultural significance. Our campus axis line will be denoted with a row of alternating Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) and Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos) trees to acknowledge both Indigenous and European history. At planting they will be 400 litre specimens, which means that they will be over four and a half metres tall. We’ll also remediate the creek with a corridor of native eucalypts, casuarinas and acacias.

To get there, we will have to transplant and protect some trees and to remove some trees that are not faring well. Wherever possible, we’ll protect trees of heritage significance that are healthy.

The trees also play a key role in our approach to water sensitive urban design (WSUD), helping us to manage water runoff from paved surfaces in ways that will protect the newly remediated creek. Moreover, they will help to regulate surface and lower atmospheric temperature in the precinct. Anyone who thinks that temperature regulation in urban environments is just ‘groupthink’ needs to compare the comfort of being in Sydney on a 40C day with the increasingly moderated microclimate of an ever-greener Singapore. Singapore didn’t green itself, it took thought and commitment to recreate the state as a garden city.

Trees deserve a more prominent role in campus planning, including master planning. And I look forward to the day when they feature in philanthropic campaigns alongside people and buildings. Trees abide.

This blog’s shout out is for A/Prof Asmi Wood, Ngunawal elder Wally Bell, and for Amy Jarvis, who helped me to see the campus anew.