For The Love Of Trees: Kim Knight On Nurturing Forests & The Comfort Of Their Myths
An essay on the backdrops of childhood and the shades of green
In the black-ink drawing, the artist makes me more solid than I am. My sister, up the tree, appears as a hobgoblin. She is fey and other-worldly and I am nestled in the roots, back against the trunk, book in my lap. Grounded.
We moved all the time. Not as much as I have since I discovered other people moved, but enough to feel that whoosh in your stomach when the world splits and you worry about making different friends in a different school playground with your smile as fixed and open as a sideshow alley clown.
The artist lived halfway between one life and the next. We broke the journey at her house that used to be a roadside hotel. It had no electricity and the milk came from a live cow. She drew me reading a book and I used to think that was the most important thing about that picture.
At primary school, you learn that blue plus yellow makes green and one plus one equals two and that trees breathe in what we breathe out and we breathe in what trees breathe out. Even so, a tree almost kills my little sister.
We’re climbing spiky pines in our matching chunky knit jumpers with front pouch pockets and pointy hoods when she slips and, as she falls, the hood catches on a branch and the neck draws tight. We fall apart laughing at this dangling, wriggly predicament; a cicada emerging from a split shell. Nothing can hurt you when you are 7.
If you fill your gumboot with the water from the freezing creek that you fell into an hour upstream from home it will be ages before your sprained ankle hurts — and if you raise your arms and shimmy, you’ll plop from that tree like a newborn.
This is when we live with a vast forest on one side and a vast ocean on the other. We have dinner and watch television on the skinny strip of in-between, but the wilderness can’t pay property rates or create jobs and this is also when “submission” becomes a noun.
I lie on my stomach on the bottom bunk, chewing a pencil, listing all the reasons logging should not be allowed in the Paparoa Ranges: “To whom it may concern, without trees, how would we breathe?”
Years later, when the trees win and the forest does become a national park, I miss the party because I am living overseas. The snow on the ground where I am is a metre thick and we eat dumplings full of mashed potato and cheese, slathered in sour cream and butter-fried onions. I’ve forgotten how many shades of green there are back home.
In other countries, autumn is a kaleidoscope, winter is bare brown and spring is the bright, singular green of a fairytale frog. New Zealand’s green, by contrast, is a year-round nuance that we take for granted like wallpaper or the Briscoes lady.
It’s said that Papatuanuku and Ranginui were pushed apart by Tane Mahuta. That the space where the light got in — the gap where we live — was not made by a god of war or storm or any other usual rabble-rouser, but by the atua of the forest and the birds.
He lay against his earth mother and pushed his legs hard against his sky father. Some books list totara, kauri, supplejack, horopito and more among his offspring; others say he made us — the animals who connect through a family tree.
Maori had names for more than 300 types of plants; at least 190 are edible. The red coats of British soldiers did not blend into the bush. The country’s largest living kauri is called Tane Mahuta. It measures 13.77m around its middle and is estimated to be between 1200 and 2500 years old.
The country’s oldest English oak was planted in 1824. Thirty-eight per cent of Aotearoa is still covered in forests. These are the random facts.
One night, halfway through last year, the walls of our wooden house got too small. When people talk about how bad Auckland’s second lockdown was, I joke and say, “yeah, but did you have to phone a glazier?” The broken pane was an accident borne of frustration; of a lack of oxygen in the room and the foreseeable future. The next day, we drove to the Domain.
People gave each other a wide berth on the lawns, but we were headed for the trees anyway. In the cool thick of a deserted bush walk in winter, I exhaled, and I thought about a small island off the coast of Okinawa, itself an island at the furthest reach of Japan’s domain.
The trees in that place have tiny holes in their trunks and, for centuries every spring, people have pressed their foreheads against the bark and whispered away their worsts. This, by the way, is not a true story.
Originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Five