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Journal — Dirt

Xanthe White
18th July 2021

The problem with trees

Every morning when my husband and I wake the first thing we do is open our curtains into the canopy of the trees that fill the small wedge of land that connects our garden to the maunga behind. In the middle of winter the tuis swarm between feasting on the berries of the Houpara (pseudopanax) and the branches of the magnolia, flirting and fighting and expressing it all in a cacophony of competitive song. It is my favourite time of the day and the mood of the trees is in constant flux with the seasons and the weather. When I wake in the night to the sound of the rain I know in the morning I will be entertained by the water dumps of the fully weighted puka leaves leaving the performance of Cuba streets famous bucket water feature for pale as the leaves cast off the unwanted weight of the rain in a ceremonious bass line of giant sploshes.

There are certain sunrises which transform the verdant greens into oranges and some to pinks just for an hour of the day when the bird song is orchestrated at a volume that assures us that it is not only us who have noticed this miracle and ensure we don’t doze long enough to miss its fullness.
The misty mornings in winter when the forest of trees disappears into a sky thick with fine hanging water. The heaving hot summer days when they pull the clean breeze down to cool the earth beneath.

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Most people I meet have a love for trees, each intimate and personal, tied to memories of childhood family and place. The truth is before most people decide to remove a tree they normally start with expressing their love for trees and then the reason for the need to remove the tree in front of them.

The reasons are mostly always valid and carry common themes. The inappropriateness of the trees position, the blocking of views or sunlight, the constant mess of leaves and dropping of seeds, poor fruiting, general unattractiveness, safety and poor health, the need for housing or access for cars. Roots that wander into water pipes or sewerage looking for sustenance or lift carefully paved paths and concreted driveways. In each situation the reasoning is sound and in a city such as Auckland where housing is in real demand room must be made. The issue is that through the recent decade over 60% of our tree canopy has been removed from the urban environment and this is not relative to a 60% or relative equitable area in increased productive housing. Trees are also reluctantly replaced as perceptions of them as potential future trouble makers see's them pushed further out of the perimeter of our cities.

When we pull out and see the big picture, at a distance trees are valued by most as very important. It is when they encroach on our personal borders the perspective shifts and the reality is that quietly one by one they fall. The neighbours at a distance cry foul while those closer secretly sigh with relief for the light sky which is returned.
I have spent many years listening to and digesting the many perspectives that I have come across in my regular visits through the urban and suburban backyard and sought to find a way of shifting the balance.

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I've watched the pendulum swing from strong protections to barely none and I've tried to think through ways where we can sustain a less reactive way to integrate trees permanently into our cityscape. One of the solutions lies in the early and continued management of the trees in our gardens and is one that will be only saved by creating a healthy culture of tree management. In the most beautiful cities in the world trees are integral to their liveability factor and should be integrated elements of the design of our spaces. The management of their form also needs to become a tradition for trees to endure for generations. The advantage we have with trees as they are malleable to both the environment and to our pruning and manipulation.

While some may cry torture trees themselves are used to bending to the prevailing winds or twisting towards the light. They are also responsive to having limbs removed as an essential response to storms and floods.

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With care and thoughtfulness especially when managed from a young age trees can be guided into a form of desire and rather than blocking views or wanted sun they can be nurtured to frame and add needed shelter. Many cultures have long standing traditions of the manipulation of trees. The Asiatic art of bonsai being an example of the extreme to which we can reform even naturally immense trees into any form a place may require.

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We can look to the natural growth patterns of trees in the forest environment to see that even in narrow situations trees are comfortable to be limited by vertical space. Just like in these Tawhai forests in Te Waka a Māui where saplings move together from the mossy earth of forest floor till they can reach the light at the fringe of the canopy and stretch out. This natural growth pattern can be utilised to green the space between buildings as the canopy of our cities also begin to climb.

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