Monday, December 7, 2009

This Kiwi Christmas, think of the environment; kill a tree

These days the whole Christmas thing seems to be a bit past its used-by date. It’s had a good run: the festival that started out in the spirit of charity and camaraderie has been kicking on for nearly two millennia, well and truly outliving its Pagan creators.

Unfortunately, true to the laws of entropy, over the years the feel-good fest has decayed to a point where it’s now really just about absolving your guilt for neglecting friends and family by buying them crap they don’t need and you can’t afford. Bah humbug!

However, if you pick over the carcass of Christmas, moving carefully past the poisonous bits – the consumer fads, the nauseating carols, and inevitable family squabbles – you can still find some delicious titbits, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.

Take for instance the whole Christmas tree thing; the custom of chopping down a small evergreen tree, bringing it inside and festooning it with so much tinsel and fairy lights that the boughs creak under the strain.

There are a lot of theories floating around for why it’s become a tradition, the most logical being that in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, having a bit of greenery inside during the cold and dark of the winter solstice was a comforting reminder that spring is on its way – pretty irrelevant for forty-five degrees south, where Christmas falls in the heat of summer. Or is it?

You see, New Zealand’s South Island is faced with a bit of a thorny (or should that be needly) problem. Forestry is one of our biggest industries, earning us about 3.5 billion export dollars and directly employing over 20,000 people in 2007. In my limited understanding, as far as large scale agriculture goes, forestry is one of the good guys - turning atmospheric carbon into houses, books and stuff. But, from a local point of view, the industry has a big downside.

The average eight-year-old radiata pine, (the species of which 90% of our plantations are composed) will produce thousands of wind dispersed seeds each year – and spread them over a ten kilometre radius given the right conditions. The resulting seedlings, known as "wilding pines" out-compete our native plants, eventually turning iconic kiwi landscapes like Central Otago's alpine tussock meadows into very North American looking pine forests. It’s a phenomenon that, according to the Department of Conservation, threatens over 210,000 hectares of public land.

The good news is; the average seven-year-old radiata makes a particularly handsome Christmas tree, and if every household in the South Island had one decorated and dying in their house this year, we’d be well on the way to getting the problem under control.

So, this Christmas, rather than erecting a petrochemical plastic monstrosity in your living room, why not pick up a saw, head into the highcountry and chop yourself down a tree. You'll be doing the environment a favour.