Saving the trees in a ladylike way

By Michele Hewitson

Lesley Max, who is now destined to be known as the Save the Trees lady, says "I'm damned if I'll hug a tree." This is in response to a tease about what we might like her to do for a picture.

Later I'll tease a bit more by asking if she didn't want that particular image circulated in case she was taken to be a greenie.

"Ha, I didn't want a stupid old female hugging a tree."

And despite insisting that she really would have chained herself to one of the threatened Queen St trees, it is quite hard to imagine.

"Look, I would have interposed myself between the tree and the attacker."

This is a more refined way of putting it.

"Well, look, I'm not really one for very flamboyant gestures." Perhaps not - I'll remain not quite convinced - but the really important question is: What on earth would she have worn?

"God only knows. I hadn't thought about the practicalities of it."

She does know she wouldn't have headed off to any chainings or interposings without making sure she had her lipstick.

"Never would I be anywhere without my lippy. You can't have an ugly harridan in the cause of aesthetics, can you?"

What she had really worried about, or so she claims, was finding a chain large enough to go around her and a tree. This is all nonsense. At 60, Max looks in better nick than those trees, although she ticks me off mildly for saying "is that you?" about a picture of a much younger her.

She is giving me the tour of the family photographs because she wants to show me one of her mother when she was 90 and who looks incredibly elegant and rather formidable.

Before going to see Max I had formed an impression of her as being both of those things. She insists she is certainly not as elegant as her mother. She is probably right, but only because her mother was impossibly manicured, although Max scrubs up nicely, too. She also says neither of them were, or, in Max's case, are, particularly formidable.

Ha, tell that to the mayor.

She seems a very proper sort of lady. This is an old-fashioned description but I don't think she'd object to it. And the Save the Trees campaign is quite a proper sort of protest. Despite the threats of chaining oneself to a liquidambar, this is a very middle class action, as most such actions are. A courteous one, too.

"I try to maintain the kind of levels of courtesy that I would want other people to show to me."

She also does try to be like her mother who was "very, very ladylike. I mean my mother was not ladylike when she was eating a corn cob and neither am I".

She has a crisp sense of humour. The "harridan" comment was a joke, or mostly a joke. But I'd hazard that Max, and her mother before her, both reapplied the shade of red lipstick they favour fairly soon after eating their corncobs.

We are talking about her mother because Max says "my mother, in a way, has been my model for challenging things when necessary." The mother, like the daughter, picked her fights. "Interestingly enough, my mother did campaign for the beautification of the city of Takapuna and was desperately miserable by the fact that an intrusive, fairly ugly municipal swimming pool was put on the shore at Lake Pupuke."

Which is a nice enough connection, but Max is supposed to be an advocate for children, not a few straggly trees. She is the chief executive of the Pacific Foundation; she runs parenting programmes for disadvantaged families. "Mmm, well, I don't think that there is no connection. What we say in my foundation is that we're helping children, young people and families flourish. We often use the term nurture. There is not a thousand miles between the nurturing of our natural environment and the nurturing of the human aspect of it."

I wondered whether she simply enjoyed taking causes on but she says she didn't want this one at all. She was supposed to be on holiday: "I didn't remotely want this thing."

She says she hates conflict, too. She's a child of the compliant 50s: "Basically very obedient." Still, a school report at the age of 10 said she "always has to know the whys and wherefores of everything", which suggests that one particular teacher had an early measure of her. In her sixth form year she led a "little delegation" to the headmaster of Takapuna Grammar with a request that the senior pupils be allowed to go to the beach for a swim at lunchtime.

"That was extremely badly received. And we were so polite! I think that was my first public action."

She says although tree-hugging is out of the question, she's more than happy to look "fondly at some" for the photograph. Which is good because I want to have a good nosy around her garden. On the way in I note that there are no nikau or cabbage trees.

Almost the first thing Max shows me when I arrive is a print of a nikau palm. This is to prove that she does like them. In the back garden she shows off a rimu she's very fond of. I ask her later if she's sensitive to accusations that she's anti-native trees, which is supposed to be some sort of crime.

"No, I'm actually not because, I mean, anyone who knows me at all knows that cannot be the case. I just think lone cabbage trees in an expanse of concrete conjure up a Footrot Flats landscape ... "

She lives in a street in Remuera where each berm is planted with white standard roses and where the residents paid to have the powerlines laid underground and the road re-surfaced. We look at the roses and she says "aren't they lovely?"

"Very Remmers," I say and she laughs and says "I knew you'd say that."

So that is all very nice but Max's garden isn't as chi-chi as those roses might imply. She has a gardener who mistakenly put the cannas in the front alongside the heliotrope and California poppies, so it's nicely hectic. I tick her off for having Mexican daisy, which is a crime, and tell her she'd better rip it up or I'll send the council round.

"Oh, you mean those little pinky ones? Are they a pest? Look, I'm not claiming omniscience. I'm woefully ignorant about a huge number of things but I have enough brains to know that slashing such green trees as Auckland possesses is not clever."

I really was just having another tease about the scraggly trees, because good on her. She is what used to be called a do-gooder - she hates this because "that currency has been very much devalued. It's got a connotation of busybody. I am not a busybody".

So, not a busybody, not flamboyant perhaps, but there is more than one way of being formidable. In a courteous, ladylike sort of way, for example, which is possibly the most effective way of dealing with chainsaws.

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