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A history of the mighty totara tree

These totara trees in Karamea, shaped by wind and salt, are characteristic of the New Zealand coast. Photo/Phillip Simpson

A new tome is full of the science behind the ancient totara, its conservation and its role in Maori culture.

I always look forward to Philip Simpson’s carefully researched, beautifully illustrated and written social and natural histories of our most charismatic native flora. Totara: A Natural and Cultural History follows a familiar formula established with Simpson’s Dancing Leaves: The Story of New Zealand’s Cabbage Tree, Ti Kouka (Canterbury University Press, 2000) and Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees (Te Papa Press, 2005). Both won Montana Book Awards, and despite the less poetic subtitle, there’s no reason to suppose this volume won’t be just as successful.

Simpson is a botanist, and as you would expect, Totara is heavily weighted towards the science – perhaps more so than the earlier books. The totara, Podocarpus totara, is one of the ancient giants of the primordial New Zealand rainforest – one of our largest trees, the totara Pouakani in Taupo is about a thousand years old – and is the preferred carving wood for Maori and thus at the heart of Maori culture. The fence posts supporting the No 8 wire strung out across the country’s farms were made of totara, and conservationists climbed totara in the Pureora protests in the late 1970s, which resulted in the establishment of Pureora Forest Park in 1978.

The latter forms the end-point of one of the significant narrative arcs in the book – the tragic, apparently near-pathological obsession Pakeha seemed to have for felling totara, first to clear land for farms and then to clear land to plant pine plantations.

The strongest sections are the science (botany, life cycle and the antioxidant totarol found in its wood), conservation and the role of the totara in Maori culture in whakairo, waka building (totarol being an excellent preservative), mythology, waiata and whakatauki.

Maori culture is curiously ring-fenced. For example, although there is a brief discussion of the popular valediction “a totara has fallen in the forest of Tane”, there is no explanation of how this filtered into generic usage to the point of cliché. But Simpson does nail the irony of the properties that made the totara ideal for whakairo – the soft wood, the straight grain, the natural preservative – also made it ideal for the Pakeha’s survey pegs.

Unlike his previous two books, this entry in the series is a lot lighter on modern artistic and literary responses to the totara. There are fence posts, boatbuilding, a thorough overview of settler construction and an altogether lamentably insufficient smattering on cabinetry, but aside from a luridly chocolate-box 1947 Austen Deans watercolour, visual arts don’t get much of a look in, despite no shortage in the oeuvres of Charles Heaphy, Augustus Earle, William Mein Smith and William Mathew Hodgkins (Frances’s father).

Simpson’s narrative places the high point of Pakeha interest in totara at around 1880, and then mainly as timber. This gets a brief redress in a tiny section – illustrated with a naïf, somewhat dire 2009 painting by RJ Lyne – on environmental protest art in the contemporary era.

Simpson addresses this absence directly: “A surprising conclusion about totara and art, whether literature, painting or photography, is that totara imagery is scarce! There seems never to have been the totara-centric equivalent of a Colin McCahon living among the kauri of Titirangi.

“Few totara metaphors have entered the lives of the poets, in contrast to the cabbage trees. Even the photographers appear to have been preoccupied with size … Perhaps the answer to this enigma is that by the time art in New Zealand had achieved its popular force, the totara had gone.”

One must suppress an eye roll there. Simpson includes a lovely quote from David Eggleton’s poem The Burnt Text of Banks Peninsula (2010) and a less lovely one from Hone Tuwhare’s Warawara, Pureora, Okarito (1978) and a hat tip to Roderick Finlayson’s 1940 short story The Totara Tree. But if one needs literary relevance, it’s necessary to go no further than the story of the totara planted hard against Auckland’s Central City Library in 1975 in memory of poet RAK Mason.

James K Baxter used the totara log as a symbol of New Zealand politics several times in the 1960s. What looks like a dead totara was a popular painting subject in the 1930s and 40s with Christopher Perkins, Eric Lee-Johnson, Paul Nash, Gordon Walters, E Mervyn Taylor and Rita Angus. A minor quibble. I look forward in hopeful anticipation of Simpson’s next tree tome.

TOTARA: A NATURAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY by Philip Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75)

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.