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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

Books I am reading

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer

Reading this book made me feel good about being a human. It rattled the door of cynicism within and offered an entirely new perspective on humanity and our relationship with those 'more-than-human' beings. It is a timely, precious and soothing offering given the current tragedies unfolding in Ukraine and imminent global climate concerns.

Robin Kimmerer is an American Indian scientist whose attitude toward nature is one of deep respect and gratitude informed by her indigenous beliefs. Her people's creation story, Skywoman Falling, is the antithesis to Christianity's creation story and made me wonder how differently I, and other westerners, might feel about our place in the world if this tale had been a part of our childhood storytelling.

Skywoman falls from her home above into this physical world; settling here with the help of other creatures who 'understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need' (p4).

Kimmerer continues …'Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home. Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. The bundle was still clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches—fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green' (p4).

Kimmerer discusses the unique 'feeling-bond' between a foraging community and its natural environment, an environment that feeds and sustains its people. She references scholar and writer Lewis Hyde who states, 'It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift creates a feeling-bond between two people', where 'the currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity' (Kimmerer p26-28).

Through his extensive studies of gift-economies Hyde surmises 'objects...will remain plentiful because they are treated as gifts (...) a formal give-and-take that acknowledges our participation in, and dependence upon, natural increase. We tend to respond to nature as a part of ourselves, not a stranger or an alien available for exploitation. Gift exchange is the commerce of choice, for it is commerce that harmonizes with, or participates in, the process of [nature's] increase' (Kimmerer p30).

Kimmerer's final words in the book are salient -

'The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all that we have been given, for all that we have taken. It's our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a give-away for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defense of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it up and dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breathe' (Kimmerer p384).


Trees by Bruce Albert, Hervé Chandès and Isabelle Gaudefroy

Craig Cherry, Massey's librarian suggested above all other books this was one to read. I've only been able to read the first chapter as the book is on hold but it certainly stirs up an emotional sense of embodiment between us and the trees - an embodiment informed by the realisation that the trees have formed the world in which we live.

Albert's book was published in conjunction with the exhibition Trees, presented at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris from July 12 to November 10, 2019 -

(I now feel inadequate!!)


Tree Sense: ways of thinking about trees edited by Susette Goldsmith

One of Craig's selection again, this time a homegrown book of essays collected from kiwi botanists, artists, tangata whenua, ecologists, poets, and eco activists. There is something wonderful about revisiting something on your own doorstep, something you know so well that is revealed anew from another's perspective. The gem for me so far is Philip Simpson's A Walk in the Bush. His writing invites me to journey alongside him through Abel Tasman park and see the forest more keenly thanks to his observations and botanical knowledge. His recount of how Maori and European settlers were nourished by the forest was eye-opening as I have never looked at the forest as a food and medical source, rather a nice place to walk through. Simpson lists websites to research further -

  • Elsdon Best's Forest Lore of Maori

  • Murdoch RiIley's Maori Healing and Herbal

  • Stanley Brooker, Conrad Cambie and Robert Cooper's New Zealand Medicinal Plants

  • Andrew Crowe's A Field Guide to the edible Plants of New Zealand

  • Robert Vennel's The Meaning of Trees

  • Nga Tipu Whakaoranga - Maori Plant Use Database

Simpson's summary is -

'When they first encountered them [trees, herbs and shrubs], people from Polynesia would have immediately applied what they already knew and recognised, and they would have embarked on a journey of experimentation. Either the plant looked like one from home, or they gave it a new name based on its key features. Every plant would have been tested for its use as food, fibre and medicine, applying well-known methods to improve and maintain the harvest and the quality. Pākehā acted in exactly the same way, except they had Māori to teach them directly. For example, what was tītoki became known to Pākehā as New Zealand ash because the leaves looked similar to those of the European ash and the wood had similar uses.

Both cultures had a severe impact on the local ecology. Māori exploited the fauna and caused many extinctions, and they burnt a significant part of the bush. Pākehā cleared bush for farming, logged trees for timber, and introduced many weedy plants and pest animals. Bothe cultures emerged from early exploitive phases with a conservation ethic, and both have recorded much of the knowledge as mātauranga and as science. Today, it is important that we keep this knowledge alive, and value nature in the Abel Tasman National Park both for itself and as a treasure trove for the future' (p42-43).

Two Massey alumni contributed to the book also - Anne Noble's A Line Between Two Trees and Huhana Smith's E Tata Tope e Roa Whakatipu.


About Trees edited by Peter Fischer & Brigitt Bürgi

Hmmmm.... this book and associated exhibition are a little challenging for me. I think it is because the place of human-tree relationships is so much an anthropomorphic interpretation of the trees rather than their own voice. The blurb did state 'the exhibition About Trees is interested in trees as a symbol and embodiment of the principles in the contemporary world...the artists allow them to "speak" through their works', so maybe I should be more open, but I feel a sense of weariness of humans continuously placing themselves at the centre of life processes.

There is an insightful discussion by editor Peter Fisher in the first chapter 'Thinking about Trees: Finding trees easy and also quite complex' which I loved as it led me to Richard Feynman... !!!!

Fisher summarises: 'Due to his well-known, simplified explanations of complex scientific processes for the wider public, the American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was given the nickname the 'Great Explainer'....Feynman in his usual laconic way explained the complex, even cosmic physical correlations of a tree in just five minutes (BBC series Fun to Imagine). A tree does not grow out of the ground, as we commonly assume, but draws its substance entirely from the air. It devours the carbon dioxide present in the air and separates it with the aid of sunlight into oxygen (which is 'spat' back into air) and carbon. Along with water, carbon forms biomass, in other words the substance of the tree (...) trees are energy storage systems (...) they consume the awesome power of solar energy - named 'stored sun' by Feynman - and they are the essential materializations of a great infinite cycle' (p15).

Feynman's own words -

  • where does the tree's substance (carbon) come from? ...the air, trees come out of the air - carbon is in the air, water in the ground but from the air (there's a little from the ground minerals and so forth)

  • how are the trees so smart to undo CO2 so easily when carbon and oxygen stick so tight?... ah Life!! the sun is shining (the light and heat of the sun) and its the sunlight that comes down and knocks the oxygen away from the carbon... the sunlight is always doing the work to separate carbon from oxygen and leaving the carbon to make the substance of the tree

  • lots of jiggling


Exhibition curated by Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland (17.10.15 - 24.01.2016)

Artists' works I liked -

(i) Ana Mendieta, Tree of Life, 1976 'My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy' (p 110).

(ii) Rosemary Laing, Austrialian Artist

Eddie (from the series leak), 2010 - 'Somewhere between pasts of a pastoral idyllic and present day urban leakage, there is elastic gravity, between sky and ground, and their connected conditions' (p92).

Groundspeed (red piazza) 2001 - 'The painter John Glover, after his arrival in Australia from England, planted a garden of his former homeland's flora. In this new place he created a comfort zone between him and the new landscape he aspired to belong to. In 1840 he painted this situation' (p92).

(iii) Paul Klee Tree Culture ,1924 - 'The sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the roots of the tree. From the roots the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. Thus he stands at the trunk of the tree. Battered and stirred by the strength of flow, he moulds his vision into his work. As, in full view or the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work. Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different elements must produce vital divergences. [...] And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, [the artist] does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither servers nor rules - he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel' (p87) [from Paul Klee in Jena 1924, Paul Klee, On Modern Art, with an introduction and notes by Herbert Read, London 1948].


Two articles from Anthropocene Psychology, Being Human in a More-Than-Human World edited by Matthew Adams. Both examine the nature of embodiment.

1. Between the Whale & the Kauri Tree by Matthew Adams

Between the Whale & the Kauri Tree: (Re)scaling the Anthropocene across multi-species encounters

These are some quotes from reading about 'the more-than-human-world' that may be useful for exegesis -

'to reframe our relations to the more-than-human world'. (Head, 2016, p. 55) on multi-species encounter ....'Going further, as a situated, mutually embodied encounter, it is a tangible example of Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than human world, [and in] which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’. It makes it difficult to pose nature as mere background […] for the exploits of the human since ‘nature’ is always as close as one’s own skin– perhaps even closer. Indeed, thinking across bodies may catalyze the recognition that the environment, which is too often imagined as inert, empty space or as a resource for human use, is, in fact, a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims, and actions (2012, p. 2)' 'the narrative deepens our sense of the interrelatedness between nature and society. (Lidskog and Waterton, 2018 p. 9) 'Despite enormous variety, Indigenous knowledge (IK) shares an understanding of human life as being an embodiment of, and embedded in, the natural world, shaped by generations of connection with place (Kawagley, 1995). 'Meaning and ethics are derived from the ways in which ‘contemporary Indigenous (more-thanhuman) relations continue to draw on ancient cosmologies and sustain understandings of reciprocity and responsibility’ (Panelli, 2010, p. 84). 'Todd offers three ‘practical tools for employing indigenous ontologies…with care and respect’ (2016a), crafted with the assistance of Vanessa Watts (2013) and Juanita Sundberg (2014). These are: accounting for location (Sundberg 2014), for Indigenous Place-Thought (Watts, 2013) and consideration of ‘the ongoing colonial imperatives of the academy’ (Todd, 2016a, p. 9).'

'Place-Thought is here recognised, and approached, as an articulation of Māori recognition of our embeddedness in place – tangata whenua (‘people of the land’) – ‘biocentric relationality’ as expressed through knowledge and practices described in what follows (Ritchie, 2013). Multiple and varied Māori values are expressed through and in connections with the physical environment – ‘in tangible geographical locations and in plants, animals, and associated habitats’ (Awatere, Harmsworth and Robb, 2017 P. 152; see p. 152 for detailed examples). Todd’s third practical tool, at its simplest, is about reading and citi

Planting the Anthropocene [ nature/culture tensions around our relationship to trees - see chap 1 for a summary?] '

'let us move beyond exhorting the value of adopting a more-thanhuman perspective and start exploring ‘the complexity that exists within the situated and the specific’ (Lorimer, 2019)

'I have attempted to approach the phenomena of mass whale strandings with curiosity and attentiveness, as a strange encounter, and Between the whale and the kāuri tree in doing so picked up the threads of not one but (van Doreen & Rose, 2016). In particular, a Māori perspective has been approached as a specific and situated form of Indigenous thinking ‘seen as not just a well of ideas to draw from but a body of thinking that is living and practiced by peoples with whom we all share reciprocal duties as citizens of shared territories (be they physical or the ephemeral)’ (Todd, 2016a, p. 17). Anthropocene psychology is developed by hearing and telling stories of a landscape and its inhabitants, all active players in ‘shifting assemblages of human and nonhumans: the very stuff of collaborative survival’ (Tsing, 2015, p. 20).

'As Anna Tsing asserts in following the trail of matsutake mushrooms: I am not limited to tracking human relations with their favored allies, as in most animal studies. Organisms don’t have to show their human equivalence (as conscious agents, intentional communicators, or ethical subjects) to count. If we are interested in livability, impermanence, and emergence, we should be watching the action of landscape assemblages. Assemblages coalesce, change, and dissolve: this is the story (2015, p. 158; emphasis in original)

2. The Gender politics of Trees edited by Yvonne Liebermann, Judith Rahn, Bettina Burger

These are some quotes from reading about embodiment that may be useful for exegesis -

  • Cooper's Ash before Oak...'The tree is not a symbol for his own life; rather, by observing it he can place himself in a shared world.'

  • 'Cooper suggests that any account of the self emerges from an engagement with the lived environment, resonating with Tim Ingold’s claim that “it is only because we live in an environment that we can think at all” (2000, 60). The narrator’s path over the novel is both from seeing individual trees in relation to himself to seeing them in relation to the world, and from seeing himself in isolation to seeing himself in the world.

  • 'The applicability of the rhyme is irrelevant; rather, Cooper, or his narrator, is placing the text within the particular lineage of men’s nature writing, and tree writing, exemplified by Mabey, as well as Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. In a famous review of Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, Kathleen Jamie admits her own prejudice against the genre: “[w]hat’s that coming over the hill? A white, middleclass Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male!” (2008, n.p.). Such texts, Jamie claims, are often beautifully written, “like an enchantment on the land” (n.p.), yet they emphasise twinned ideas of natural wildness, perceived in isolation, and the importance of the observer. What the reader learns is not how the natural environment is perceived by the community of those who live there, but by a single mediating self. Jamie’s concern is mirrored in Mabey’s own Nature Cure (2005), where he concludes a similar narrative to Cooper’s with the claim that “[t]ruly wild places should be for the wild creatures that live there, and only secondarily to give us revelatory experiences” (2006, 212).

  • 'trees and humans exist in a shared world'

  • The multiple focalisers of Harrison’s novel, with a variety of class and gender identities, illustrate the extent to which any such realisation cannot be limited to one human, and the way engaging with trees requires a different understanding of both time and gender'.

  • 'The trees are seen both in comparison to human lives and as exceeding them; as multiple characters reflect throughout the novel, the lifespan of trees puts human concerns into a new perspective, although trees themselves are also fragile and subject to forgetting. The trees’ present is longer than a human present, but not eternal. Just as importantly, however, the trees’ androgyny is positioned as central to their survival. In Harrison’s novel the signifcance of trees is that they refuse both gender and chronological binaries: they cannot be reduced to male or female, or past or present. Likewise, although the trees are appreciated in different ways by each of the characters, they must be engaged with: they are not an undifferentiated background mass, but active participants in the environment.'

  • 'The focus on trees in fiction may seem too late and may reflect only a vanishing world. Likewise, the historical gendered perspectives on nature with which each author wrestles may be difficult to overcome. Yet each of these authors suggests that what remains is the possibility of gathering fragments; what remains is the chance to redefine what it means to be human in a more-than-human, still arboreal world.'


Yet to read ...

McBride, Jane. “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.” Christian Century, vol. 138, no. 24, Dec. 2021, pp. 40–41. EBSCOhost,

Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life : How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. Random House, 2020. EBSCOhost,

Trees in Art

* Among the Trees

* Abbott. Approaching Nonhuman Ontologies/ Trees, Communication, and Qualitative Inquiry

Jones. Sylvan Rhetorics: Roots and Branches of More-than-Human Publics

And... [Craig's comments] 'Presuming you're aware of Richard Powers Overstorey novel?... fictional treatment of some of the issues.'


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