Listening to Our Tree Neighbours

Miranda Bellamy & Amanda Fauteux
Series of 12 HD video loops, varying lengths, 2020

Listening to Our Tree Neighbours was originally created during Aotearoa New Zealand's strict 'level 4' Covid 19 lockdown as part of the 2020 Artspace Aotearoa digital residency programme. Each video was disseminated daily through Artspace's own social platforms. Reworked components of this series have since screened as part of TIME is Love at the Blue Oyster Project Space and featured as part of the POST mail art project, also at Blue Oyster.  

Agathis australis


Only having a loose indication of where this stand of Kauri is located in Ōtepoti’s town belt, we spend some time peering into the dense roadside bush. Eventually we find them within a small pocket of trees in a large clearing, not where we expect. They’re undergoing a transformation, shedding their young bark in papery sheets. They grow with vigour and confidence, foreshadowing their eventual role as forest giants. 

Kauri are endemic to the northern parts of Aotearoa’s North Island. Kauri forests appear in fossils as far back as the Jurassic period. They are known as a foundation species for their ability to modify the soil and create space for unique plant communities around them. Kauri lose their lower lateral branches as they mature, preventing vines from climbing. Heavy deforestation had considerably decreased the number of Kauri trees by the early 1900s.

Kauri dieback ‘Phytophthora agathidicida’ is a significant threat to the species. This microscopic fungus-like organism infects the roots and damages the plant tissues. It is distributed through soil movement caused by humans and animals but disturbingly can also ‘swim’ through the soil towards root systems. There is no established treatment for infected trees. This disease could represent an existential threat to this sacred species. 

In 2018 the Dunedin City Council purchased 35 kauri and planted them at Walton Park and on Signal Hill. These trees are outside of the usual range of ‘Phytophthora agathidicida’ and it is hoped that the trees will act as a lifeboat for the species, assisting in safeguarding their survival. 

Araucaria bidwillii

Banza-tunza, banua-tunya, boonya, bunyi, bahnua, bon-yi, banya bunya, bunnia, bunya-bunya, bonyi-bonyi, bunya pine

Distinct from the deciduous giants that surround it, the Araucaria bidwillii is easy to find within Ōtepoti’s botanic gardens. Spiny defenses announce its hardiness to herbivorous passersby. Huge gravity-defying limbs are clustered with lustrous, waxy leaves. The textures within this tree resemble plastic or other synthetic materials. This quality is heightened by the tacked on plaque communicating the tree’s botanical name. This tree looks both out of place and quite at home. 

Araucaria bidwillii were distributed almost worldwide during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and are now only found in the wild in two distinct geographic regions: a large area in the south-east of Queensland Australia and two smaller areas in the far north of the province. It is thought that extinct large animals, perhaps dinosaurs, may have helped to disperse the seeds and extend the bunya’s ancient range. 

The trees have been significant to Aboriginal Peoples since time immemorial. The tree produces nutritious kernels from cones the size of footballs that weigh up to ten kilograms. While the tree produces cones every year, it has a bumper crop of cones every two to seven years. 

Vast forests were felled by colonial settlers, reducing the tree’s natural habitat. The tree’s wild population is now considered stable and they are protected within the boundaries of the Bunya Mountains National Park. 

Castanea sativa

Sweet chestnut, Spanish chestnut, chestnut

Our previous work with Castanea dentata makes us notice chestnut trees everywhere. Most often they are Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnuts. With their waxy, alien-like burrs, horse chestnuts are magnificent, though poisonous. We are always excited when we find a sweet chestnut, with their edible seeds encased in a dense, sharply spined burr. Golden leaves reach right out over the pavers and an urban fence. Vehicles pass this tree all day long, as it is set alongside the main state highway. The sweet hay-like aroma is rich and abundant. Split-open burrs carpet the ground, tossed through the crispy saw-toothed leaves. We roll the soles of our shoes over the fallen burrs and pick up the smooth brown seeds as they fall out.

Castanea sativa is part of the Fagaceae family, endemic to Southern Europe and Asia Minor, and widely cultivated throughout the temperate world. The chestnut seed has been used in cooking since ancient times. Sativa means ‘cultivated by humans’ in Latin. The tree is old, it may have survived the last Ice Age.

Cryphonectria parasitica (chestnut blight) and Phytophthora cinnamomi (ink disease) are two fungal pathogens that threaten Castanea sativa. In North America, Cryphonectria parasitica destroyed most of the endemic chestnuts, Castanea dentata, rendering the species functionally extinct. Castanea dentata continue to spring up in the wild on the East Coast of North America, but fail to reach maturity due to the ongoing presence of the blight. 

Cedrus atlantica

Atlantic blue cedar, atlas cedar

We meet this tree neighbour at the site of the former Arthur Street Cemetery, sharing space with the same Sequoiadendron giganteum that we’ve visited before. Its fanned-out bunches of short needles are cast in a blue haze. A metal plaque that once read “Notable Tree” is partly obscured by the tree’s trunk, which now grows over top of it. The tree is host to small ferns and vines, which find homes in its hollows, nooks, and crevices. 

Cedrus atlantica is a species of tree in the Pinaceae family and is endemic to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the Rif, and the Tell Atlas in Algeria. As an evergreen, it keeps its distinct foliage year round. It is known to grow slowly, at a rate of only 30 centimetres a year. This tree was once regarded as one of the largest and most prominent trees in Ōtepoti, and the largest Cedrus atlantica in Aotearoa. New rules now categorise this tree as a multi-stem and therefore it no longer qualifies for what is referred to as ‘champion tree status’.

It is said that there is a Cedrus atlantica planted on the White House’s south lawn in Washington, DC, USA, large enough to hold a tree-house built for former president Jimmy Carter’s children. We reflect on that particular tree’s prominent location, witness to the millions of voices calling for the end of white supremacy, the end of systemic racism, and the end of police brutality. We stand in solidarity with those voices who demand justice. Black lives matter.

Cupressus macrocarpa

Macrocarpa, Monterey cypress

This enormous, looming character tree waits for us in a hollowed valley within Ōtepoti’s Northern Cemetery. This cemetery is the final resting place for many of the figureheads of early colonial Dunedin. Old timeworn graves flank the tree on all sides, its elongated limbs reaching out over them. It’s cold in this valley, but the tree clearly thrives, its hardiness not put to the test owing to its generous shelter.

Endemic to the West Coast of North America, what is now defined as the central coast of California. They are younger than they look; because of their large size many assume the trees grow to be possibly thousands of years old, but the oldest recorded tree was only 284 years old. They were introduced to New Zealand in the late 1800s by European settlers. It grows much larger in New Zealand than in its endemic range due to the climate and the absence of certain pathogens. 

It has been said that this tree overlooks the unmarked graves where three of the four people executed by the state at the Dunedin gaol are buried. The three were initially buried on the grounds of the gaol but were moved to the Northern Cemetery during the building of the Law Courts. 

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo, gingko, maidenhair tree

Three Ginkgo biloba conspicuously front Otepoti’s Lan Yuan, Dunedin Chinese Garden. It is peak autumn, and the yellow looks painted on, especially set against the monochromatic entranceway to the gardens. The fan-like leaves vibrate in the breeze, we don’t really need special equipment to listen to these trees. The buzz and whirr blends with the hum of the nearby highway. As if cast from plaster, or carved from stone, the bark wrapping these young trees is a silken-smooth marble texture.  

Ginkgo biloba is the only living species of Ginkgophyta. Its distinctive leaf shape is found in fossils dating back 270 million years. The tree is endemic to China and is widely regarded as a traditional medicine and food. Like Metasequoia glyptostroboides, this tree is a living fossil and was thought to be extinct in the wild until it was found in a small area in China’s Zhejiang province. Upon further investigation, some argue that this small population of wild trees were not naturally occurring and were possibly planted and cared for by humans over a period of 1000 years. 

Lan Yuan, Dunedin’s Chinese Garden, commemorates the significant contribution of Chinese people to the history and culture of Ōtepoti, who began settling in the area as early as the 1860s during the Central Otago gold rush. These Chinese immigrants faced economic hardship and intense racism from European settlers. Their stories and contributions have been largely under-represented. In 2002 former Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised for the discriminatory laws imposed on Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

The garden is Aotearoa’s only authentic Chinese Garden and one of very few outside of China. Most of the garden was made in Shanghai, then brought to Ōtepoti and reassembled by Shanghai artisans. Nearly 1000 tonnes of rock from China’s Lake Tai was used. This lake's ecosystem is facing damage from quarrying of the lake floor. 

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Dawn redwood

Set in a small car park surrounded by ordinary-looking student accommodation, a small grouping of trees shine like gold. Their tiny leaves sieve the occasional gust of warm autumn wind, they hiss and shake. Dappled light flicks liquid shadows onto the damp pavement. They appear brimming with energy: strong, resilient, vigorous trees. 

The Metasequoia glyptostroboides species has been in ‘morphological stasis’ for 65 million years: the trees we see today are identical to their ancient ancestors. This tree is an example of a ‘living fossil’. In 1941, paleobotanist Shigeru Miki reported Metasequoia as a widely distributed extinct genus based on fossil evidence. A few years later a small grouping of mature trees were discovered alive in central China, exciting botanists and tree enthusiasts worldwide.

Despite its endurance, Metasequoia glyptostroboides is an endangered tree species due to deforestation. They survive only in a small area between Hubei and Hunan provinces, and in the Chongqing municipality in south-central China. The species, with its golden foliage, is a desirable ornamental plant and will continue to live in yards, parks, and roadsides in China and globally, but the M. glyptostroboides forest ecosystem could disappear when its mature trees lose their habitat.

Metrosideros umbellata

Southern rātā

A significant tree for many people, and a beloved member of the North Dunedin community since forever ago. The grass underneath its huge gravity defying limbs is worn short from constant picnics, dates, or covert drinking sessions. Next to Knox Church’s imposing spire, the rātā’s scale is distorted, belying its true proportions. 

Metrosideros umbellata is endemic to Aotearoa and is part of the myrtle family along with mānuka, kānuka, swamp maire, and pōhutukawa. It is best known for its bright red flowers. Its abundant nectar is a source of honey and an important resource for kākā, tūī, and kōmako (bellbirds), who all benefit from visits to the blooming rātā. 

The rātā is under threat from the growing possum population, who show a strong preference for their leaves. The rātā has a low tolerance for this sort of browsing and even a mature tree can be killed from possums regularly munching on their glossy dark leaves. It has been observed that possums will prefer one particular rātā, browsing until the tree is destroyed, while ignoring other rātā nearby. 

Rātā and all of Aotearoa’s myrtle trees are now facing a new danger. Uredo rangelii, myrtle rust, is a fungal pathogen that was first detected here in 2017. Myrtle rust is likely to have blown across the Tasman Sea from Australia. Efforts to stop the spread of the rust have so far been unsuccessful. 

Nestegis apetala

Coastal maire, broad-leaved maire, ironwood

To meet a species for the first time makes us realise how much the other trees we’ve been collaborating with are part of the fabric of our lives: friends we see often, know by name. Coastal maire’s robust, waxy leaves are less familiar. Its textured, pitted bark the same. It looks like a hybrid of a tī kōuka (cabbage tree) and a kapuka broadleaf. This tree is identified by a plaque and boxed in by a huge building and a highway. It is in close competition with many eye-catching endemic species in a carefully planted garden.

Nestegis apetala is endemic to Aotearoa and is considered a rare and at risk species. It is found on Norfolk Island and in coastal areas of the North Island. It is very rare to find coastal maire on the South Island, even in cultivated gardens. 

The tree is threatened by kiore (Pacific rats) who eat the seeds. It is very rare on the mainland and research suggests that prior to the introduction of kiore it would have been more plentiful. It is abundant on islands that do not have kiore populations. 

We learned of this particular Nestegis apetala when reading about the work of Professor Geoff Baylis of the University of Otago’s department of Botany, who discovered what was purported to be the last living kaikomako tree, Pennantia baylisiana, on Three Kings Island, brought the species back, and through cultivation saved it from extinction. This Nestegis apetala outside of the Otago museum was added by Professor Baylis and likely came from Three Kings Island along with the nearly extinct kaikomako. 

Quercus canariensis

Algerian oak, Mirbeck's oak

In an urban forest of mature trees, the shape and character of this tree neighbour beckons us down a narrow, unformed path. The depth of its shell-like bark causes it to suck the light from its environment. Its characteristics set it apart from the other nearby oaks, but it resists immediate identification. Its vast, spreading crown casts its rounded sawtooth leaves a considerable distance.

Quercus canariensis is endemic to southern Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Records of some notable Quercus canariensis trees were planted in colonial gardens in Australia in the late eighteen hundreds. We found this tree in Ōtepoti’s Town Belt. 

The history of Ōtepoti’s Town Belt reflects its history of colonisation. It was once part of the vast ngahere of Ōtepoti, with a range of plant species endemic to Aotearoa. Much of the forest was cleared during the colonial settlement of Dunedin. The Town Belt was established and many exotic species were planted in order to make the urban environment appear more home-like and familiar to colonial settlers.

Quercus robur

Common oak, German oak, English oak

This imposing stand of oaks is recognisable from a long approach, enjoying a prominent hilltop location. The undergrowth is void of any kind of competition or companion, bar small carpeted sections of fragrant Asphodelus fistulosus (onion weed). Small, shiny acorns are scattered around the short tended-to grassy area below. Pale lichen grows slowly on the trees’ rough bark. 

The hills above Ōtepoti have been called ‘te au’ (mist, fog). Toitū stream follows what is now Serpentine Avenue. The stream has a tributary called ‘wai moi’ (sour water) that runs through the northern portion of what is now known as Jubilee Park and under Māori Road. 

The oak trees in today's Jubilee Park were planted to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee on 20 June 1887, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's accession. The anniversary took place at a time of economic hardship for colonial settlers and was widely recognised as a light-hearted and celebratory event to lift the spirits. The planting of these trees can also be interpreted as a political activity, a way of entrenching the presence, visibility, and influence of the monarchy within this new colony. 

Sequoiadendron giganteum

Giant sequoia, giant redwood, Sierra redwood, Sierran redwood, Wellingtonia, big tree

This tree towers over the apartment block and school it neighbours and has the appearance of growing in height as you approach. Despite its monumental scale, it hides in plain sight. What seems to be one trunk splits into three, growing in perfect symmetry. A distinct pine fragrance radiates. Its needles drop and form a tidy circle over the earth underneath, mirroring the tree’s great diameter. Its vibrant umber bark compresses when touched. Translucent golden sap oozes from its pores.

Sequoiadendron giganteum are endemic to the West Coast of North America and are among the world’s largest and oldest trees. It is thought that the tree could be named after Sequoyah, a member of the Cherokee Nation who completed the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. This gave written form to the Cherokee language and inspired the development of syllabaries for Cree and many more languages globally. Sequoyah was part of a delegation to negotiate a treaty for land in the planned ‘Indian Territory’, which was part of the US federal government's eighteenth  and nineteenth century policy referred to as ‘Indian removal’. 

Indigenous Peoples worldwide have been displaced from their ancestral homelands through colonial violence. This tree stands on the site of the former Arthur Street Cemetery, the first cemetery in colonial Dunedin. We reflect on Sequoyah, and on this tree standing at a site commemorating the early colonisation of Ōtepoti.

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