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For the Love of Trees: The Journey of a Forestry Major

By McRae Smith

Carbon analysts in the forests of New Zealand

I have a religion class on technology to thank for why I now live in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It’s a complicated, ridiculous story that does not need to be told. But listen, if something is telling you to change directions— trust your gut, do not hesitate. Thanks to that class, and a few days alone in the woods with a hammock, I was standing in my college’s forestry department talking to the person that would be my academic advisor and an important brick on my path to Aotearoa. This abrupt choice to change my major and study forests was a wise one–a rarity for my rash decisions. I absolutely loved being introduced to all the beautiful local tree species, how they grow, the ecology of their communities and so on. I am particularly grateful for my professors who inspired us to recognize our responsibility as mindful stewards of the land; a responsibility I still carry with me here, and do my level best to inspire in those I meet. 

My academic advisor and professor had been coming to Aotearoa since the 1980s, and he loved talking about it, and on and on he would do so. I am half convinced I was subliminally nudged to wind up here. After graduation and several forestry and ecology jobs in the States, I was doing what I was programmed to do and got on a plane down here to the Land of the Long White Cloud. 

The mountains of New Zealand

I came here entirely directionless and alone. I hitchhiked awhile, the kind of wannabe-vagabond activities one gets up to when there’s not much else to do. Eventually, I ended up staying with someone from college for about a month. She studied geology back at Sewanee, and we had often enjoyed walking around the woods and looking at this tree here and that rock there. We figured, what better way to spend our time here, down in the deep south of Aotearoa than walking around the woods and marveling at this new, unique landscape, and how it differed from the place we once called home.

Mountains in New Zealand

It is very important to have people that inspire you to see the beauty and wonder in the small, seemingly insignificant things. Her curiosity is contagious and made me fully appreciate the value that inquisitiveness provides to those who want to learn about the world around us—whether in the US, Aotearoa or Timbuktu. It is not important that we know anything and everything right away, but rather that we are curious, and aspire to infect those around us with that earnest interest. Thank you, Ellie.

Carbon analyst

After sufficiently overstaying my welcome, I decided it was time to look for a job. It was at this moment I realized how different forest management is in Aotearoa compared to the way it is done back in the States. This is a subject I am prepared to speak at length on, but what is important is that the jobs I would normally look for are not nearly as common here. I needed to open my mind a bit. I found a job titled “Carbon Analyst,” which would be combining GIS (geospatial information systems, essentially computer mapping), with carbon data to keep track of how much carbon is in our client’s forests. With earnest interest and a bit of luck on my side, I ended up getting the job at Carbon Forest Services and relocating to the Big Smoke, the nation’s capital, Wellington. 

When I started, I knew a pitiful amount about carbon markets. The gist is, however, that there is a system here that keeps track of how much carbon business and industry here emit, and the government charges them money for it. On the flip side, there are forests all over the country that are sequestering carbon, or taking it out of the atmosphere. It is our job to determine and keep track of how much carbon our clients' forests are holding, and provide that information to the ministry so that they can get paid for their contribution. This is part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s effort to fight climate change, and it has been around since 2008. 

I was originally spending most of my days looking at spreadsheets and satellite imagery of forests, but as time has gone on, I have convinced my bosses to let me out in the field more and more; finally getting the opportunity to be on the ground in forests I had spent quite a bit of time looking at from above at my desk.

Carbon analysts exploring

Sheep on a mountain in New Zealand

Some of the forests need to be measured intermittently to ensure the money they are getting is commensurate to the carbon the trees are sequestering. That means that we need to head out into these forests, go find our fixed area plots, and get a standing volume estimate. This is fancy talk for saying we need to hug about 25 trees per plot to get their diameters, get their heights, as well as the species

composition of the area. These trips have taken me around the country, often to remote areas I would’ve been unlikely to end up in on my own accord. I am a huge supporter of afforestation, particularly as a means of fighting climate change. Though this carbon market in Aotearoa is far from perfect, it brings me satisfaction knowing I am doing something, however small, to make a difference. With carbon on my mind so frequently, I have been more conscious of my carbon footprint. Our global economy and our mind reeling access to information can make it difficult to know where to begin, but mindfulness is the first step. I am grateful for how my job has made me more considerate about the impact my habits and purchases have on our planet.

helicopter ride over new zealand

Over the past year and a half, I have learned so much about a place I knew so little about before. I will continue to marvel at plants and birds and rocks and mushrooms whether it’s the first or the hundredth time I am seeing them. Thanks to some particularly inquisitive people in my life, I am curious about why this tree is here and why that rock looks like that and how often this creek fills up with water. And so on. I encourage you to wonder and to go out and find something that makes you scratch your head.

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