In A Path through the Trees, researcher Vivien Edwards pays tribute to English-born Mary Sutherland (1893-1955), the first female forestry graduate in the world. She frames the personal story in the context of the forestry situation in both New Zealand and Britain at the time. A plaque dedicated to Sutherland’s work, in Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua, piqued Edwards’ interest, and from here she delved into archives and conversations, to collate a biography of this woman’s life and her achievements.
Edwards is a long-time contributor to the New Zealand Forest Industries magazine, and so already had background knowledge. With these leads, she has collected written and visual evidence of an outstanding career which paved the way for other women to follow.
Sutherland graduated from Bangor University in Wales during WWI, in an industry entirely male-dominated. She soon gained respect through her hard work, sheer curiosity and commitment to the advancement of forestry practice. Also with a civic conscience, she became an inaugural and lifelong member of the New Zealand Institute of Foresters (NZIF) as well as serving on various boards.
When Sutherland journeyed to New Zealand in 1923, our forestry industry was still in its infancy. From the beginning, she concentrated on — among other areas — nursery plantations, forest health and protection. Frequent photographs from personal and historical collections give examples of the terrains in which people were experimenting as well as of Sutherland herself.
As one male associate remarked: “The advent of the lady forester caused no little stir in the camps”.
Edwards looks at the ways in which a female would have tried to thrive in this kind of environment. She also links it to trends of women taking over men’s jobs in the war years. A Path through the Trees is notable in its attention to an individual and their challenges and in this way, it avoids being a dry, reference book and instead is an empathetic and relatable story.
There is also much to be gained from discussions of the movement away from indigenous forest usage towards the replenishable in our country. Edwards writes of the crisis in forestry, profound in Britain, during these war years. In New Zealand too, there was an almost thoughtless use of native timber, especially the exploitation of rapidly diminishing kauri forests. Sutherland was instrumental in looking towards solutions, sustainability and a gathering “forest consciousness”. She promoted forestry education in schools and encouraged young people’s inquiry into and guardianship of their natural environment, with camp holidays and school nurseries. These are all forward-thinking initiatives where issues around sustainability for the next generations are ever more relevant and where Enviroschools are increasing in number.
Sutherland’s later focuses included botany, community work and advocacy for women in tertiary education. With a wealth of experiences and through pure grit, Sutherland remains a role model for women to broach a male-dominated industry, to learn alongside, gain respect and to lead. Edwards has drawn on reports, photographs and journals, as well as through interviews, to document this determined woman in an early era of forestry. The current Chair of the New Zealand Institute of Forestry Foundation provides the foreword. Edwards opts to refer to Sutherland in the text by her first name to bring us closer to the subject, and she also repeatedly emphasises her subject’s likeable personality. While this may seem a little irrelevant, it does make Sutherland a more empathetic figure.
Sutherland’s legacy continues in her bequests and scholarships, left to strengthen our connection to the land. So too does her contribution live on in her 1930-designed rimu sprig seal, still the basis of the NZIF emblem today.
Edwards clearly has a great knowledge of this industry and it is well-researched. While with its narrow subject matter the book may appeal to a niche audience, it is a comprehensive and valuable record particularly for those interested in local history, botany and, of course, forestry in New Zealand.