10 Questions with Susette Goldsmith


Q1: Had editing this sort of book, one that argues for trees, been on your mind for quite some time?

Yes. My research interest is natural heritage, and trees are part of that. Aotearoa has traditionally concentrated on conserving our built heritage, maintaining its old trees simply to create an impression of deep time at historic places, and we have preserved scenic trees on unproductive land to accommodate tourism. Various lists of trees have been compiled too that various agencies consider worth keeping for various reasons. All this is set against a history of transformation of the country from a densely forested landscape to one dominated by pasture. More recently we’ve backtracked, realising that we need more trees. For some time now I’ve wanted to present a case for the trees themselves. It’s a subject that deserves a wide range of views and voices. I couldn’t do that by myself.   


Q2: What prompted you to begin the project?

As part of my research, I keep a running file of media reports on arboreal matters and predominantly these are reports of protests against tree felling. There’s much sadness and real anger contained in my file. There’s also a strong sense of ‘them’ against ‘us’ and very little middle ground. It’s a tough time for trees right now. I believe we can find our way through this confusion by growing and maintaining a robust ‘tree sense’ but we need encouragement to do so. This is the work of the book.


Q3: You’ve assembled an impressive band of co-writers. How did you find them all?

In order to present its readers with different ways of thinking about trees the book needed a sweep of contributors from diverse disciplines and interests. So, I worked out a list of potential people, contacted them and they enthusiastically agreed to take part. It was as simple as that. Many of them were already colleagues of mine, others were people I had never met, but all of them had work I knew and admired. Each of the contributors has devoted time and energy to produce an informative and eloquent chapter for the book and I’m very grateful.  


Q4: Our settler society turned this country from bush to farm by cutting down vast swathes of trees. Is it time to atone, or would you not put it that way?

No, I wouldn’t put it that way. Both Māori and Pākehā felled large parts of the indigenous forest, but I don’t believe their actions necessitate atonement today. They lived in very different times, had needs unlike ours today and held vastly different views on the value of trees. They saw the clearing of forest as ‘improvement’ of the land for hunting, gardening, building and farming. Rather than a time for atonement I think it’s time for our own better understanding of trees and more informed discussion about their contemporary value.


Q5: What is the solution to the tension that exists, in Auckland in particular, between the need for urban intensification and the concomitant loss of tree cover?

I’m not a planning expert but I believe urban development and trees are not necessarily incompatible. What is lacking, I suggest, is opportunity at the beginning of projects to consider the benefits of trees and incentives to encourage their protection. The ecological effects of trees are well proven and the economic benefits of these can easily be calculated using readily available software. But these advantages need to be discussed early because it’s often too late to prevent the removal of trees once a development is drawn up and approved, apartments are sold off the plans and chainsaws are on the site. Yes, there will always be some tension and yes, there will always be some trees that are lost. However, intelligent and informed discussion following public notification — so that the affected communities are not blindsided — and before plans are finalised could benefit everyone involved — including the trees.  


Q6:  What legislation might we require to halt tree loss?

When the Resource Management Act was introduced in 1991 local authorities were required to maintain registers of items of local amenity and cultural importance and, in response, councils drew up lists of trees according to criteria they considered important. Over time the act has been amended and so have the lists. People are often incensed when listed trees are cut down and infuriated that some threatened trees haven’t been listed, but tree registration does not necessarily equate to protection. Inventories are not sanctuaries. Australian philosopher Val Plumwood argued that a methodology of exclusion not inclusion should be applied when addressing the natural world. What that means in arboreal terms is that, rather than listing trees that are protected, we would assume that all trees are potentially protected unless a convincing case could be put for them to be excluded and, therefore, available for removal. The effect of such a paradigm shift would be profound. Development would no longer automatically take precedence over trees. Instead, they would work together, and any removal of trees would only follow after careful consideration of what else would be lost. Revision of the RMA is now on the books. Rather than requiring further legislation to halt tree loss, we may need a new philosophical approach.


Q7: Laws are one thing, but on a more emotional, empathetic level, how do we get people to understand how important trees are?

It’s a challenge and I have to admit that a book about trees is most likely to preach to the converted. But it’s one means that has some longevity and works along with other actions that are more immediate but may have a shorter life. Protests are effective in alerting people to issues and I heartily applaud protesters for their courage and commitment to the cause. The 1970’s 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 now face alarming challenges with climate change and we know that both planting and conserving trees are effective tools. We need more protests and formal and informal discussions, more books like this one and dialogue that resolves how people can accommodate the trees they are very fortunate to inherit.     


Q8: As you worked on this book, what’s one new thing you learnt about trees along the way?

This might sound trite and it’s something of a confirmation rather than a discovery. When I invited the contributors to join the book project, I wasn’t absolutely sure what they would come up with. They provided abstracts which gave some indication of where they were heading but it was only when the first drafts arrived that it became clear that each contributor was thinking about trees in a significantly different way. It was then that the book began to take on its own life and I knew the title was the right one.


Q9: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Tree Sense?

Because each chapter of Tree Sense tackles the topic of trees from a different viewpoint some chapters may appeal more than others to individual readers. It’s not a book that needs to be read cover to cover and readers can turn first to the chapters that attract them most. I hope, though, that they will read the other chapters too and reflect further on their own relationships with the trees of Aotearoa.


Q10: Best loved native tree?

Hmmm … almost impossible because I have deep respect for all our native trees. I’ll nominate karaka partly because I know it fairly well. It’s handsome with large leaves glossy enough to be navigational markers and big, bright orange fruit that feeds kererū — the only remaining native bird capable of swallowing something that size. Some consider it to be endemic to Aotearoa and others say it was introduced from Hawaiki. It’s used in rongoā to seal wounds and treat cuts and grazes. Its fruit is poisonous but edible when extensively processed, and was an invaluable winter source of carbohydrates and protein for Māori when other food was scarce. It’s been the subject of ethnobotanical research, botanical research and agricultural research, the latter as a possible ‘coffee’ crop. Perhaps I admire it most because it’s audacious. It’s classified as a weed by domestic gardeners, agriculturists and scientists alike because it dares to colonise areas already stripped of indigenous forest. All in all, that’s plenty for one tree to offer.