If the trees could talk . . .

GIVING TREES A VOICE: Anne Rush and poet Cliff Fell under the canopy of the cork oak in Bridge St.
GIVING TREES A VOICE: Anne Rush and poet Cliff Fell under the canopy of the cork oak in Bridge St.

If you ever fancied talking with trees, Light Nelson may be your big opportunity, although it might be a bit of a one-sided conversation.

That's because the trees will be talking to you via smart phone app information set up especially for the occasion.

Fourteen large heritage trees in Queen's Gardens and Albion Square will be lit up for a walking trail that combines storytelling - in the form of short, quirky poems written in the first person, as if the trees are telling their own stories - and smartphone technology, in the form of an application called STQRY.

The Talking Trees trail is a multidisciplinary project, combining the expertise of Nelson-based lighting designer Wendy Clease and associated technicians, local arborists, and a creative writing tutor and students from Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

The idea for the innovative project came from Nelson installation artist and Light Nelson trustee Anne Rush after last year's successful event, when she noticed how many people were enamoured of the huge phoenix palm lit up "like a peacock" at Queen's Gardens.

She decided to expand the idea into not only lighting more of the park's trees, but also to let the trees "talk" for themselves through smartphone app technology.

During Light Nelson, people can download the app and then, as they walk the trail, listen to the illuminated trees "tell" their stories through poems written by the NMIT students.

Creative writing tutor Cliff Fell said that while the students were a little bemused at first by the idea of writing in the first person as the trees, they soon embraced the concept of giving the trees a chance to "have their say".

After initial discussions and time walking around the gardens, each student adopted one of the trees as their subject, researching it with assistance from heritage tree advocate and arborist Brad Cadwallader, to understand its botanical and heritage stories.

While student Erika Isaksen wrote her poem as a linden or lime (Tilia) tree, Fell wrote his for the old cork oak, C1866, outside what is now the Nelson Courthouse in Albion Square.

It was the story of the cork oak and its associations with Portugal - where Fell has spent a lot of time, and where most of the world's cork supply comes from - that captivated him, as expressed in some of the lines of his poem, Fado of the Cork oak tree:

My leaves will guide

The shapes of light you make,

Or play host to

Shadows that flee into the sky.

Don't cry. It is only I.

And this is

My fate: I will bear witness

To the passage of Justice.

And yield none of my skin

To the cork-cutter's

Blade, who would undo me

Like an overcoat

The cork we know and use for, among other things, bottle stoppers and floor tiles, is harvested from the astonishingly thick and resilient bark of the evergreen Quercus suber, and peeled by the cork-cutter every few years to produce the characteristically soft, spongy material.

While the cork oak outside the courthouse in Bridge St has never had its bark harvested, the corky character is immediately apparent to anyone standing under the "skirt", as Fell describes the huge, weeping canopy.

An acclaimed poet, published writer and regular broadcaster on Radio New Zealand, Fell brings his own arboricultural heritage to the Talking Trees project as the great-great-great-grandson of Henry Seymour, the man who planted one of Nelson's most notable trees, the Seymour Oak in Seymour Ave, near the Brook stream.

Reputed to be one of the first English oaks in the Nelson region, it was planted in 1842-43, and subsequently became renowned for being rescued from a flood and then replanted in Seymour St by Henry's son Alfred, Fell's great-grandfather.

Other trees on the Talking Trees trail include the four giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum (Sequoia), at the Hardy St entrance to Albion Square, which are thought to commemorate the laying of the foundation stone for the Nelson Provincial Chambers in 1857.

The trail also includes another sequoia nearby, planted in 1890 and referred to as the "murder tree", because it presided over the morgue where the victims of the infamous Mangatapu Murders were laid out after the tragic and shocking killings that occurred during the hunt for gold in early Nelson.

Still other trees that will "talk" on the walk are those at the Bridge St entrance to Queen's Gardens, where two monumental phoenix palms will start the trail as if having a conversation in the form of a poem.

Cadwallader, who is a New Zealand Notable Tree Trust advocate, said the project was ideal for raising the profile of some of Nelson's special trees.

"Every tree has a story to tell. People come from all over the world to see our trees - our indigenous ones for obvious reasons, but also the exotics that grow here because they have done so well.

"Because of New Zealand's cool-temperate climate, early exotic tree plantings have thrived, with many species growing to sizes far greater than they would otherwise do in their natural ranges."

Some are now outstanding specimens, providing considerable interest for their size, history or rarity.

He said the importance of the project for the profiles of the trees was why he and consultants Treescape Ltd were donating their time for Light Nelson, climbing the trees to install the complex and carefully positioned lighting.

Similarly, others have embraced the project and put in a huge effort, says Rush. That's why she's hoping Light Nelson will attract similar crowds to last year's 16,000 who put on parkas and went out in the dark of winter to see the magic of the park lit up.

But rather than just midwinter entertainment, Rush sees the project as having greater spinoffs, where the trail and app technology can be adopted by the Nelson City Council for ongoing interpretative use and applied elsewhere around the city.

But Light Nelson is also about more than that. "It's also about reclaiming Queen's Gardens at night, when most people wouldn't want to walk through there."

Bravo to that.

Light Nelson starts when the darkness falls early in the evening, around 5.30pm, from July 11-13.

The Talking Trees app STQRY, with snippets of botanical and arboricultural information, and the poems, will work during the day as well as at night and will remain live for a month afterwards.

The Nelson Mail