One of NZ’s most celebrated poets has a unique favourite seat


When Selina Tusitala Marsh wants to still her mind, she escapes into the arms of an ancient pōhutukawa.

Words: Claire Finlayson

Most seats are content to quietly prostrate themselves before their humans and live a life of meek, bottom-buttressing service. Not so the preferred possie of poet and professor Selina Tusitala Marsh. Her favourite perch — the pōhutukawa tree at her Waiheke Island home — demands unwavering deference from its sitter.

REAL ESTATE DISRUPTOR 

Selina doesn’t mind kowtowing to a crimson giant. She thinks this pōhutukawa is so ancient that it deserves to call the shots: “An arborist did one of those needle tests into its spine and said it was 400 to 600 years old.”

When she bought the Waiheke property 15 years ago with her husband, the tree helped them jump the real estate queue. “Someone put an offer on the house before us, but when they found out they couldn’t enlarge its footprint because of the pōhutukawa, they withdrew it. We were next in line. The tree wanted us.”

It’s not the most effortless of companions. “It dictates how we live. When it blooms, the blossoms fall on the roof, wash into the water tank, and turn it toxic and smelly. So, we have to disconnect the downpipes from our water tank and buy water.

That’s when I start timing my sons in the shower and get grumpy when people flush for anything other than number twos. The tree also broke the corner of our roof during a storm and just missed my son’s bedroom.”

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So, it’s both bossy and delightful? “Yes — it’s bossy, and it loves us. Many people would see its presence as a restriction, but the way I see it, we are the kaitiaki of this pōhutukawa.”

Seven steps from the kitchen door and with a circumference of 32 Selina paces, its proximity and girth have impacted its looks.

UGLY BEAUTIFUL 

“It’s not pretty like the other trees. The previous owners had to chop off limbs because it’s so close to the house. It invades the neighbour’s property, and when it grew over our driveway, we had to get council approval to snip it back because we couldn’t get our truck under it. So, one part is dying, and the other is rebelliously living on.”

COURTING THE MUSE 

Unruly behaviour aside, this tree offers a premium seat. “There’s a flat part in the middle that’s like a nest, and it’s just perfect. I sometimes think of it as a giant hand and I’m sitting in its palm. I pull out my journal and write when I’m up there. The tree is quite noisy when the wind is rustling the leaves — but it’s the kind of noise that calls me to quiet thinking.”

It’s not unusual for writers to leave their desks to conjure the muse. John le Carré wrote best while on trains, Maya Angelou liked to go to a hotel and rent a “tiny, mean room” to work in, and Edith Sitwell was reportedly partial to a wee lie-down in an open coffin before picking up the pen. Selina’s rebellious, gnarled tree seems positively luxurious in comparison.

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Chasing words is both an occupational hazard and a joy for Selina. She wears many writing hats: professor (of Pacific literature and creative writing at the University of Auckland); poet (she was Commonwealth Poet in 2016 and New Zealand Poet Laureate 2017-19); and children’s author (she’ll be talking about her most recent book Wot Knot You Got: Mophead’s Guide to Life at the Auckland Writer’s Festival, 14-19 May).

WORD-HERDING 

The tree seat helps her with that word-herding load. “When I feel really dry or bored with my surroundings, I go to the pōhutukawa.” She’s not there for the lofty Waiheke views, mind. It’s the Selina view she’s after: “When I’m in the tree, I don’t sit there to look out, I sit there to look in.”

Once she’s climbed up to her nest, she’ll often kick off with an exercise borrowed from American author Natalie Goldberg: write down everything you hear and everything you don’t hear. “That routine works well up the tree. That’s when the stories come. Some of my best writing happens when I’m cocooned like that — away from the fridge and the phone.”

GREEN WISDOM 

Selina owes the inspiration for her tree-sitting to a distraught six-year-old boy. She recalls when one of her sons was so upset he ran away. “I found him in the arms of a pōhutukawa tree next door. By the time he climbed down, he was feeling quite good, thank you very much. Something about sitting in a tree or being surrounded by nature absorbs all your bad energy and replaces it with green.

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“I thought, ‘Man, there’s a wisdom in that.’ I will do what my son’s doing — when I get upset, I’ll go to the tree.”

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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