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The loneliest tree

For a plant on Campbell Island, keeping your head down and out of the wind is a good thing.

Wind is amazing stuff. It's one of those things you can't see, and history mostly ignores it, yet it shapes our world with a silent hand.

Growing up in a small country town on the Canterbury Plains, my earliest memories are of the wind, especially the great nor'west storm of '75, which whistled out of the Southern Ocean and beat the plains to a pulp. Afterwards, nearly every pine and macrocarpa around our isolated house was horizontal. Except for the lonely little Sitka spruce that by a minor miracle survived upright.

I had never noticed this tree before the storm, despite its unusual colour and staunch form, which seemed to hug the earth more than other trees. The sappy pines and twisted macrocarpas had always been the best sites for tree huts, but the storm had laid waste to all that fun.

I grew to love that Sitka spruce. Even when the landscape had restored itself to open paddocks and shelter belts, I would return to climb the tree, sometimes with rough mates, sometimes alone. From a cradle of branches near the top you could see across the plains to the edge of forever and the promise of adventure in a world beyond our backwater. For a small boy prone to daydreaming it was the perfect escape. High up in the spruce lookout it seemed nothing would change.

Much later in life, long after I left the Canterbury Plains, I came across another Sitka spruce. This one was located on remote Campbell Island deep in the sub-Antarctic. Situated 700km south of Bluff, this tiny tough island is New Zealand's southern-most territory. With the automation of the weather station in '95 the island has become uninhabited, except for occasional visits by research scientists and expedition ships. The lonely wind-buffeted outpost remains a testament to attempts at progress.

Campbell Island is one of those places few people can point to on a map but it is notable for many things. Perhaps the most visible of these is the lack of trees. Technically speaking, the Sitka spruce is the only tree on the island; all else has evolved into wind-tolerant low-lying shrubs and grasses. For a plant on Campbell Island, keeping your head down and out of the wind is a good thing.

Luckily for us, "how" the tree got to Campbell Island is no mystery. In 1901, eccentric New Zealand Governor General Lord Ranfurly visited Campbell Island in the steamer Hinemoa on his tour of the outlying reaches of the Dominion, and to collect bird specimens for the British Museum. By his own admission, the bird-bagging was not a complete success, but Lord Ranfurly was impressed with all that he saw of the place and, as was typical of a man of his time, he lamented the fact that the island was not in productive use.

The records are slim, but the Hinemoa's visit to Campbell Island must have coincided with a rare calm spell in the Southern Ocean weather. A nice day on Campbell Island has a special charm, and perhaps this fuelled Lord Ranfurly's idea that the island be clothed in productive forestry. It was a case of a grand vision versus the might of the west wind.

In the great New Zealand tradition of celebrating a good idea, a tree was planted. A Sitka spruce. On the next scheduled visit of the Hinemoa to Campbell Island a site was selected at the head of Camp Cove. In time, this hardy sapling became known as the Ranfurly tree, a symbol of progress and development, which endured despite the constant westerly gales and the meteorological station staff's desire for a Christmas tree. Over time, the Ranfurly tree showed the kind of grit that gets a tree noticed.

Fame is a quirky thing. The passing of years can produce curious and unexpected results. Ranfurly's tree became famous for reasons far more abstract than its original purpose. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Ranfurly's tree is the "remotest tree in the world"; that is, the tree furthest from its nearest neighbour. How anyone worked that out, or what that actually means, is a mystery.

Perhaps the thought of the loneliest tree opened some buried childhood memory. When I returned from my adventures to Campbell Island, I took a journey back to that Canterbury Plains town in the vain hope that I would find my own Sitka.

Returning to childhood haunts can leave you with a feeling of devastation; a sense that what was good and pure has been sullied with change. Under the guise of "progress", developers had surrounded our old home with subdivisions of cul-de-sacs and houses the size of sections. Gone were the paddocks and shelter belts and the endless stretch to the Southern Alps. Gone too was the Sitka spruce, felled to make way for some stranger's garage, trading a view of forever for a timber fence and a rotary washing line.

Sometimes progress just passes a place by. On Campbell Island, Ranfurly's grand vision of production was bought to a halt despite decades of determined effort by farmers and sealers. It was foiled neither by words nor conscience, but by isolation, bad soil and the power of wind. Only Ranfurly's lonely tree was left to stand for the dreams of improvement.

Late in the summer I returned to Campbell Island. Leaning into a southwesterly gale as our group waited for a boat to pick us up from Camp Cove, I staggered over to the loneliest tree. Too adult to contemplate climbing it, I sat down beside the tree and considered its stunted, windswept form. From that point it did indeed seemed progress had stopped - no cul-de-sacs, no rotary washing lines and no legions of soil-sapping forestry. All that remained was the wind and a great view of somewhere near forever.