Oh, Christmas tree: Now is the time to fix our love-hate relationship with trees

by The Listener / 20 December, 2017
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Aucklanders have chopped down a third of their trees in the past five years – and 90% of what’s left remains vulnerable to the chainsaw.

The traditional German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum pays warm tribute to the evergreen fir tree as a symbol of constancy. In New Zealand, of course, fir trees can be a little too constant: we might instead sing, “O nuisance wilding pine!”

But this is the one time of year when our arboreal curse becomes a temporary joy. The menacingly vigorous Pinus radiata and douglas fir decorate and scent our homes wonderfully. Even though, sadly, pretty pines are not just for Christmas but seemingly forever, Santa doesn’t need us demonising his choice of flora. Although they may despoil the natural environment, just for now, let’s celebrate the glamour of the trimmed fir, along with the outdoor marvel of our self-decorating pohutukawa.

But let’s also reflect with honesty on our love-hate relationship with trees. Most of us profess to love them. We revere our magnificent totara, indestructible cabbage trees and tui-studded kowhai, as well as treasuring elegant oaks, graceful willows, useful conifers and vibrant rhododendrons. All trees are beautiful, all foster precious bird and insect life, and all are saviours of the planet.

Until they get in our way. Astoundingly, Aucklanders have chopped down a third of their trees in the past five years – and 90% of what’s left remains vulnerable to the chainsaw. Even the 10% of trees deemed as heritage specimens could slip through the “protection” of inaccurate records and a rickety compliance system. The Auckland Council has new planting plans, but at nothing like the rate necessary to replace the felled trees, even with saplings, let alone the mature trees that do such vital work as net oxygen producers.

To put it bluntly, we are felling our own well-being. “Forest-bathing”, which the Japanese, great tree lovers, call shinrin-yoku, is of such calming and stress-reducing benefit it’s now included as an Auckland festival event. The council’s own data shows a clear correlation between “leafy” suburbs and better social and economic welfare. In poorer suburbs, only 10% of land is treed; in wealthier suburbs, trees take 20-25% of the space.

Cause or effect? A British survey has found a clear correlation between antidepressant prescription and greenery. The more trees are growing, the fewer scripts are filled.

Trees help make humans happy. Now we have to help them back. Venerable plane trees in Auckland’s Grey Lynn are the latest suspected of covert poisoning, either by cyclists resenting the space they take up or extremists who would eradicate all non-natives. New Zealanders routinely surreptitiously poison trees that are blocking their views or light, and the struggle between tree lovers and developers is perennially fractious.

Not helping matters are the widely varying local authority tree rules, which are often applied arbitrarily and inconsistently. This hotchpotch causes frustration and resentment, leading to such chronic disrespect for the rules that a moonlight massacre by drill hole and herbicide is as likely to be applauded as deplored.

It’s time to replace the disparate local regimes with a national tree policy. It could encompass the coalition Government’s proposed billion-tree programme, which may or may not eventuate, and provide robust protection for existing trees. It could also include fair dispute resolution for those who want to get rid of what is sometimes quite genuinely the wrong tree in the wrong place.

If disputed trees can’t be transplanted, why not require developers to provide compensatory new plantings of reasonably advanced specimens? If there’s an over-shading, over-shedding norfolk pine in your garden, why can’t you be allowed to replace it with a proportionally appropriate tree or trees that will delight rather than divide you and your neighbours?

As myrtle rust threatens pohutukawa, manuka and related flora, we must be on a war footing against its spread (Santa will have to decontaminate that sleigh and reindeer hooves). We all must start supporting our trees. Legendary conservationist Don Merton once described our flora and fauna as “our national monuments ….  our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have ancient architecture … but what we do have is something far, far older.”

Let’s start repaying the massive contribution to our happiness of our arboreal friends. Even if it’s a Pinus artificialis decorated with lights and tinsel glowing in your lounge, it is the most wonderful time of the year to love a tree.

This editorial was first published in the December 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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