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June 2021 Issue
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Making sense of our trees

Susette Goldsmith explores our connection with trees in her book Tree Sense.
With the help of several prominent New Zealand writers, artists, poets and ecologists, editor Susette Goldsmith attempts to make sense of the complicated relationship humans share with trees in her book Tree Sense. 

What inspired you to collate a book about the human relationship with trees?

My research interest is natural heritage and – of course – trees are part of that. As part of my research, I keep a running media file of ‘tree issues’ that concern New Zealanders. Very frequently the concerns are centred on the felling of trees and most often the people involved have very different views on the value of the trees. I wanted to produce a book that represented a wide selection of perspectives on trees and discussed a variety of ways in which we can value trees – hence the title.

Why did you reach out to other authors, instead of writing the book on your own?

The topic required considerable knowledge and expertise. I’m not a scientist or a landscape architect or an artist or a poet or an expert on plants – but the contributors to the book are all of those. What we have in common is a deep respect for trees and a desire to encourage others to feel the same way.

Do you think people lack a connection with trees?

That’s an interesting question. Have we ever really had one? Research has shown that prior to the arrival of Pākehā settlers in this country, Māori had been involved in the loss of a significant percentage of the original forest, then the settlers began to ‘slash and burn’ much of what remained. We’re still removing trees that are in our way. But these are big generalisations and are also a little unfair as much of this forest removal was necessary for survival.

There have always been, and always will be, New Zealanders with very strong connections with trees. The 1970s protests against the logging of native forests along with widespread discussions, within and without the corridors of power, appealed to New Zealanders’ growing national conservation conscience and changed the course of our environmental history. We showed that we really cared about our forests. We need to keep showing we care by discussing how we can accommodate the trees we are very fortunate to inherit.

How is our future intertwined with trees?

Elizabeth Smither’s poem that introduces the first section of the book really sums this up. She describes our close association with trees as “their breath and ours commingling into needful dependencies”. We’ve always known this. We’ve all learnt about photosynthesis at school but we seem to have forgotten how important this botanical service is. Until now. Climate change is proving that our future is very much intertwined with trees.

What can Pākehā learn from the Māori perspective on flora?

Two aspects spring to mind immediately: rakau rongoā and the inclusion of native flora in contemporary cuisine. There are many ethnobotanical books devoted to both topics and a comprehensive web site compiled by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.