Sunday, April 5, 2009

Prix Pictet Statement

The Kahikatea Series is a suite of photographs taken over a two-year period that focuses on land-use issues in the Waikato and environs, and specifically in relation to the depletion of the kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides). Key themes include landscape as a history of ecological disruption; the loss of biological complexity and of habitats; and landscape as primarily marked by absence.

As a species Dacrycarpus dacrydioides is older than the hills; it has been discovered in the fossil record to date from Gondwanan times. In the words of New Zealand 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. (1)

The kahikatea was formally one of New Zealand’s commonest native trees, but timber milling, land clearance, and swamp draining have greatly reduced its habitats. The tree was one of the most revered in the Maori landscape. They were 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.

Intensive dairy farming is now the primary industry of the Waikato’s Hauraki Plains, and the negligence of sustainable agricultural practices has caused run-off and mineral exhaustion, causing degradation of the soil, once enviably rich due to the presence of the immense trees.

My photographs cannot necessarily be read or understood at one glance, but they are intended to reveal themselves slowly and possibly in contradictory ways. These landscapes I am portraying are familiar and may appear banal to many New Zealanders: in photographing sites that have been destroyed by clearance, settlement and intensive agricultural practices, I hope to raise awareness of these issues and help contribute to forestalling future losses.

(1) Park, Geoff. Nga Uruora: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape. Wellington: Victoria University Press. p. 36

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