Tree Sense: Ways of Thinking About Trees
Edited by Susette Goldsmith
(Massey University Press, $37)
I once spoke to a European tourist who had spent some months in New Zealand. He was shocked, he quietly confided, to discover how much New Zealanders seemed to hate trees. He put it down to settlers arriving in a country covered by forest and having to clear the land. I couldn't argue.
As an instance, new owners had taken over a big property which was the green lungs of our neighbourhood. The previous owners had been of an academic bent and their plantings reflected an interest in native New Zealand shrubs and trees, some rare. The new neighbours promptly clear-felled the section including an 80-year-old rimu and others of similar age.
They then planted a plastic-looking monoculture border of orange exotic clivia plants - nothing else - in their place. Changes in law promoted by the National Government in 2016 now mean that it is extremely easy to remove a tree from a property, no matter its age or value to the neighbourhood.
Tree Sense: Ways of Thinking About Trees is an anthology of writing which directly addresses the human relationship of New Zealanders to their arboreal world. It is a much-needed book, as both an appreciation and a snap-shot of contemporary life and opinion. It is also a fine object, illustrated by Nancy Adams with an eight-page fold-out artwork by Anne Noble.
The stand-out essay is Philip Simpson's A Walk in the Bush. Simpson is the author of key works on the pōhutukawa, totara, rātā, and the tī kōuka or cabbage tree. Taking his reader on a walk from Tōtaranui to Goat Bay in the Abel Tasman National Park, Simpson provides an expert guide and is anecdotal in the finest way. Always writing engagingly without the appearance of effort, he imparts a huge range of information about the trees and shrubs themselves, their histories, their uses, and their abuses at the hands of pākehā settlers.
Our Lost Trees, by Mels Barton, approaches the matter differently. She focuses on urban trees. She relates the consequences of the National Party's legislation and demonstrates how in Auckland it resulted in an all-out war on tree cover. The statistics are alarming. On the other hand, overseas studies have shown that street trees can increase property values by 10 per cent, while simultaneously they filter air, sequester carbon and provide many cultural and recreational benefits.
Among other contributors, the book includes work by the poet Elizabeth Smither, writer and editor Kennedy Warne (who considers remnant bush on Auckland's North Shore) "embedded artist" Huhana Smith, and the book's editor, Susette Goldsmith (who examines New Zealand's "official" relationship with trees as observed in government publications and events). Glyn Church explains the unique and particular qualities of the trees of Aotearoa, while Colin Meurk takes the very long history of the coniferous matai as the subject for a productive meditation.
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Tree Sense is a well-designed, visually engaging book that fits easily and snugly in the hand. The multitude of viewpoints is always informative and the essays it contains are, now more than ever, of social, cultural and political necessity and importance.
Reviewed by David Herkt