Thursday, June 12, 2008


When my brother and I were kids, most years our parents would take us on a summer camping trip somewhere on the Coromandel Peninsula. We had a blue Zephyr for quite a while and my father would laboriously pack all our camping gear onto a matching wooden trailer covered with a tarp. We had everything: tents and stretchers and gaslights, a meat safe that hung in the trees, a wooden shelving unit which dismantled, and even a chemical toilet with its own little tent. My parents hated to stay in the kind of camping ground with cookhouses and shops and television.

We would drive across the Hauraki Plains and I was always intrigued by the landscape, not being used to the flatness after Glenfield. But what really struck me were the trees that grew there. They were clustered in melancholy groves, and stood out from the poplars and willows, trees that were far more prevalent. (As a child I thought that poplars were not ‘real trees’, though I can’t remember why.) These groves were made up of cartoon trees, like the kind of trees I would draw myself, trees with a long straight trunk with a nice neat cone of green. These were the trees to go with head-on-a-stick people and Playschool houses.

These are kahikatea (1) , one of the most revered trees in the Maori landscape. They are valued for their wood and fruit, and used in rituals of conception and of death. When an auspicious child’s umbilical cord, iho, was buried in a sacred place, it was commonly beneath or on a kahikatea. The very tall canopies were used as places to safely secret the bones of the dead, hidden amongst the clumps of tangled epiphytic plants.

As a species, Dacrycarpus dacrydioides is older than the hills; it has been discovered in the fossil record to date from Gondwanan times. (2) In the words of ecologist and historian Geoff Park:

Kahikatea is the supreme survivor. The fruit basket of the forest, revered by Maori hunters and modern conservationists for its attractiveness to birds, connects us to a birdless, flowerless world in which huge ammonites stalked the sea-floor and pterodactyls the air. … Kahikatea persists from an old, swampy, worn-down archipelago, utterly different from the cool, young, mountainous New Zealand of today. You can’t find it in the hills, but it only prospers in the swamps, and it would vanish without them. (3)

Kahikatea became part of the botanical record the day Captain James Cook sailed up the Hauraki Plains on the Waihou River, with naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. (4) Cook’s three voyages between 1768 and 1779 took him further into unmapped territory than anyone before him, but of all his landings, the unplanned night he spent on the Waihou was the longest and the furthest he ever penetrated inland. (5) To Cook the Waihou was ‘The New Thames’, and it was here, on the Hauraki Plains, that Banks envisaged:

…the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a Colony; a ship as large as Ours might be carried several miles up the river, where she would be moored to the trees as safe as alongside a wharf in London river… (6)

The burial kahikatea of Ngati Muru lined the banks of the tidal Waihou, but Cook and his shore party were no more aware of this fact than the settlers that followed sixty years later. There was an assumption that the forests were not used or wanted by Maori, because there were only small, scattered areas under cultivation.

By 1900 all of New Zealand’s best land had been privatised, as these coastal plains of the mighty kahikatea forests were the terrain most suitable for settlement and farming. (7) The fertility of the soil was guessed at from Cook’s description of ‘imence trees’, and it was assumed that this richness was independent of the ecosystem that had created it.(8) Farming, however, is an extractive industry, and soil continues to be eroded due to lack of ground cover, which means the soils have been rapidly depleted.

1. ‘Mature trees may reach heights greater than fifty meters. They were very tall by European standards…with boles that are massive by any standards, further pushed out by plank buttresses at the base, as is typical of swamp trees.’
Seddon, George. “O Brave New World.” Ockham’s Razor. January I998. Retrieved 6 Sep., 2007
2. ‘Swamp forest is the nearest replica today of the type of primeval forest landscape that would have existed at the time of separation from Australia, 80 million years ago. According to the fossil record, ancestral kahikatea was a major part of the vegetation throughout Zealandia. Landscapes were relatively gentle, lacking high mountains.’
Gibbs, George. Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2007. p. 78
3. Park, Geoff. Nga Uruora: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003. p. 36
4. But Solander died suddenly and his description was never published. The first valid publication was not until 1832.
Park, Nga Uruora p. 28
5. Beaglehole, J. C., ed. The ‘Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771. Sydney: Public Library of NSW and Angus & Robertson, 1962.
6. Kahikatea dominate two main landforms: the fertile, silty, free-draining floodplains and low terraces of rivers, and the wet margins of lowland swamps and bogs.
Earle, Christopher J., (ed). Gymnosperm Database. 24 April 2007. Retrieved 4 Sep., 2007
7. ‘Once, before the hooves of the dairy economy, you could have plunged your hand into the loose, rich, pliant humus. Now my feet are quickly clogged with the gouged, clay ground of a meagre soil.’
Park, Nga Uruora p. 23