Jacinda Ardern: The forest
Like a lot of people who live in rural parts of New Zealand, I grew up next to a small forest. It was at the end of our neighbour’s farm. It didn’t have a name, it was just a small patch of trees that my sister and I called The Forest.
I would spend hours playing in the small creek and amongst the bush. That tiny patch of trees and undergrowth and the small bit of water kept me entertained through endless school holidays. As I grew older and went back home, I realised just how small it actually was: that sensation we all have of discovering something that seemed enormous as a child appears modest as an adult.
The forest was more than a playground, it also found me my first job. My sister and I found a bunch of pamphlets dumped down there one day. And then another lot. And then another. In a quest to find out what was going on, my mum made a few phone calls – one of the locals was dumping their leaflet round and next thing we knew, we had a new job.
That small forest doesn’t exist any more. It’s been felled to make way for houses as my old home town grows. It reminds me, though, that our forests, our trees, provide us with so many things. Protection against erosion, mitigation in the face of climate change, a habitat, or, sometimes, just a simple child’s playground.
Jacinda Ardern is the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Simon Bridges: The Waitākeres on my doorstep
For me, the Waitākere Ranges was a case of love at first sight. I grew up on the West Auckland beaches, with the Waitākeres on my doorstep. They were the jewel in the Auckland regional park network. With more than 200km of tracks exploring beautiful kauri forests and majestic waterfalls, the 17,000ha Waitākeres had something for everyone – whether it be a short walk or a multi-day tramp. Not to mention their role as the collection point for Auckland’s water supply.
Like many families, ours spent what felt like weeks exploring the ranges. It was where we bonded, where we enjoyed each other’s company and where we interacted with nature. I don’t spend nearly enough time there today, and actually I miss it.
When you return to New Zealand from overseas, and you see the Waitākeres, you know you’re home – a welcome sight. Sadly, many of the tracks are now closed to prevent the spread of kauri dieback, which is devastating one of our most iconic tree species. I want my children to live in a pristine New Zealand, where they can take their children to swim at Piha or tramp in the Waitākeres. I want my grandchildren, and yours, to know that our generation has done all it can to protect the environment.
The Waitākeres are under threat; we must do everything we can to protect them.
Simon Bridges is the leader of the National Party.
Dick Frizzell: Walking through trees
I have a special memory of walking through trees … getting lost, getting found, being entranced. I must have been about 14. I was staying with an “uncle” and “aunty” in a shack – possums on the roof, possums in the roof – at Waimarama, in Hawke’s Bay.
I have no idea why I was there … summer fun for Richard or something … and I remember being very alone in this dark hut, hunkered down in the middle of a large stand of storm-ravaged poplar trees.
One day, a young girl magically manifested at the edge of our yard, grandly announced that her name was Margot, and challenged me to follow her back into this mad tangle of grey and silver trunks.
Which I did, without a thought – and I’ll never forget it: the silver light overhead, the heady scent of poplar pollen, the sense of being totally enveloped by a complete world. And there’s lithe young Margot leaping ahead of me, into and over healthy and rotting undergrowth. It was like following Audrey Hepburn into the Florida Everglades.
Fast forward 50 years and Jude and I were living at Waimarama while we built our Haumoana house, and we found ourselves threatening to lie down in front of a huge machine about to fell a pretty copse of these very same poplars.
The local busybody said the trees posed a constant threat to his wife, who had to walk through this hail of falling limbs every time she went to clean the public toilets by the beach.
Of course, this bombastic fool had talked the regional council into giving him a substantial contract to take out this danger to life and limb, and he declared we “Auckland hippies” weren’t going to stand in his way.
We didn’t win, but the scent given off by the mangled stumps did remind me, suddenly, of Margot.
Dick Frizzell is a celebrated artist.
Tina Makereti: Tōtaranui /Queen Charlotte Sound
We lived all over the North Island, and we moved around a lot. I spent many hours atop a mattress in the back of a station wagon, or lying on the backseat of a Hillman Hunter, breathing second-hand smoke, the windows down. Outside, I saw treeless hills, sheep and cattle and fence posts. What trees I saw were lined up along fencelines, macrocarpa or pine or some English relative of these. In my memories, the landscape of my childhood is a physical wasteland, as well as a cultural one. I don’t know how much of this is true; I only know that this is what I remember. I had no heart for it.
Sometimes we lived on farms and I walked the hills looking for adventure. The ground seemed parched, denuded of trees. It was all stubby grass until torrential rain turned everything to mud. I don’t remember ever seeing a pūkeko or a kererū. Even tūī were rare. We had a black-and-white cat.
I was 17 the first time I went to the South Island. Coming into the Sounds on the ferry, I was astonished. This is where they’d been keeping the trees! All of them, it seemed. I understood something, then, about our country and what we’d done to it. It wasn’t until that moment that I realised what exactly had been missing. It would be many years before I learnt how significant my ancestors had been in this area, and how this was the home of my bones long before I understood it to be mine. But Tōtaranui sang to me, on that first trip, and it still holds me in awe each time I am there. The cultural wasteland is long since gone now that I know how to go home.
Tina Makereti is a novelist, essayist and short story writer.
Sir Stephen Tindall: Tāne Mahuta
The most significant experience for me was seeing Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest for the first time. I was about 18 on that first visit, and then a few years later I saw this mighty kauri at night. It was quite eerie being in the forest in the dark, and seeing this enormous tree silhouetted against the forest was an amazing spiritual experience.
Since that first visit with Tāne, native trees have stuck with me and have been a part of my life in one way or another.
The first house my wife and I bought together was in Glenfield, right on a native reserve. We had kahikatea, rimu and kauri growing all around us that our kids would play in, and even a 110-year-old massive kānuka that grew up through the deck with a canopy that covered our house.
We started The Tindall Foundation in 1994 and Tāne Mahuta was still with me as the visual symbol of the foundation and a part of our vision for what we could give back to New Zealand. I truly can’t imagine a New Zealand without our kauri trees; they’re part of who we are.
Along with the protection of native trees, I became interested in how we could help Kiwis to simply plant more. It’s something most people can do – plant a native tree in your backyard, gift a native tree to celebrate something, or get involved with a community tree-planting day.
As part of that thinking, we asked Project Crimson to start Trees That Count and became founding partners with a charity whose sole focus is on helping to plant millions more native trees for our future.
It’s amazing to watch this idea take flight and see New Zealanders support and show how much they love native trees, too. Our native trees are part of our DNA and I think they bring the best out of us as people.
Stephen Tindall is patron of Trees That Count.
Geoff Chapple: In and of the forest
I was nine when we shifted from Henderson to our new Waitākere house. The house embodied a revolutionary 1950s-vernacular credo: to be in the forest and of the forest; to be open-plan, with polished rātā floors and exposed rimu beams; to feature, on each interior wall, the differing grain of native wood – kauri, mātai, red beech. My bedroom was lined with pale kahikatea. Outside, cave wetas hung upside down under the water-tank lid, and the house’s low gables extended at that same rear side within the drip line of the māhoe. On the three sunnier sides, the wide verandahs were sometimes level with the tree-fern canopy.
I was living inside Group Architects’ bold new manifesto and didn’t know it, but absorbed the bush knowledge and competence anyway. The angle of the rātā behind the house was so oblique against the hill, even my two dogs could climb to where the epiphytes made a comfortable rest. Then, hour upon hour, we crossed a Waitākere wilderness. I collected wood ear fungus to sell to the Chinese, or stumbled into adventure, one hand anchored on the harakeke, the other holding my dog’s tail as he fought a possum on the edge of a vertical volcanic plug. Or we ran for our lives through the trees after disturbing a virulent German wasp nest. Once, after my dog came home bleeding from shotgun pellets in its hindquarters, my sister and I and another mate stood on an exposed section of track, heaping insults on the suspected gunman as he toddled round his house below. Then we vanished back into the bush.
As an adult, every time I re-enter that pungent smell of growth and decay, it’s a return to the same soft, green light of childhood. The boundary-less bush, alive and cognisant, reaching deep into itself.
Geoff Chapple is the founder of Te Araroa, the New Zealand-long tramping trail.
Marnie Anstis: Taketakerau, perhaps our oldest tree
In the beginning, dense rainforest smothered the slopes; a lush, verdant tapestry, a green velvet cloak.
Trees, shrubs and ferns, along with birds and insects, all lived in balance or died from what nature threw at them – storms, droughts, volcanoes – or became victims in the natural order of things.
Then humans arrived. The vast tapestry was slashed; the protective cloak removed.
Man, and accompanying mammals, made their mark in Aotearoa. But within this slash and burn, kill and devour, some forest remnants remained. One such example of natural bush is in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
One hundred years ago, a small reserve, the Hukutaia Domain near Opotiki, was preserved to protect an enormous, ancient pūriri; tapu because it once had been a burial tree for the bones of distinguished Māori. Standing at centre-stage, Taketakerau is estimated to be 2000, perhaps even 2500, years old.
It is a commanding sight. For nearly 45 years, I have known and stood in awe of this ancient, living icon and imagined it as a seedling. And wonder, why does this tree still live? How has it survived storms, droughts, volcanoes? Why has it not become a victim of the natural order of things?
Further north in kauri forests, Tāne Mahuta is estimated to be within the same age range. But Tāne Mahuta is not alone. Several other brothers in that forest are of similar age. Yet, I know of no other pūriri tree that is as ancient, gnarled and groaning with history as Taketakerau.
One day, Taketakerau, too, will succumb, and only then, once it has been analysed, will we learn its true history; what secrets it still holds and the stories it can tell. Come see it while you can.
Marnie Anstis is the author of Taketakerau: The Millennium Tree
Clive Fugill: A bushman’s son
For me, it will have to be the tōtara. I don’t do any of the bigger carving now because my hands are not as good as they used to be, but I do a lot of smaller works, such as paddles and waka huia (feather boxes), and I use mostly tōtara. We have kauri, but tōtara is better to carve. It is soft and durable; it has an oily texture, which helps when you are cutting through it with a chisel, and it polishes well.
I learnt about timber very early. My dad was a bushman – he’d been practically brought up in the forest. He would bring native timber home for firewood and I would sit in the woodshed with a pocket knife and start carving.
When I was about 11, my parents gave me a set of carving chisels and some books. There was a spare section close to where we lived and I would walk through on my way home from school and pick up old fence posts lying there, tōtara ones. I’d cut the ends off with a handsaw, then cut them into rough blocks using Dad’s old axe head and strip the timber and start carving.
I used to make souvenirs for Paradise Valley Springs – it was good pocket money. At high school, I wasn’t very academic, but I was always good at art – if there were any art prizes around, I would usually get them. In 1967, I was in the first intake of carvers at the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. I was 18. I learnt very quickly it wasn’t just about carving – you needed to know about the culture. I took te reo at school and I was passionate about Māori history and then archaeology.
My father was supportive, being an old bushman. When he finished in forestry, he went into other jobs, but we’d take him out to the bush every now and again – he got a bit homesick for the forest. Before he passed away, I used to sit down with him and talk about the different trees. He had a lot of knowledge – I recorded some of it. Those old bushmen – after they came out of the forest, they always had this huge affection for it.
Master carver Clive Fugill is Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Rangiwewehi.
Owen Marshall: The Lovelock oak
Every school lays claim to its famous ex-students, and the golden boy of Timaru Boys’ High School is Jack Lovelock. Dux, head boy, athletics and boxing champion while a pupil from 1924 to 1928; later Rhodes Scholar, physician and international athletics star. Sadly, he died at 39, falling under a New York subway train in mysterious circumstances. He is best known for winning the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, New Zealand’s first Olympic athletics gold medal.
The school’s memorial library holds the world’s largest collection of Lovelock memorabilia, but it is the Lovelock Oak that is the living tribute. It was presented by Dr Theodor Lewald, president of the Reich’s Olympics organising committee, and now, more than 80 years later, it is in splendid new summer leaf. A girth of 3.4m and a high, ramifying trunk; a well-tended tree on its own lawn.
This involuntary immigrant, a seedling from northern Germany, has prospered and is now the progenitor of hundreds of trees planted from acorns taken home by students, especially boarders. Oaks can live for hundreds of years and this one looks to be thriving. An augury perhaps, to signify the well-being of the school as well as being a reminder of a significant New Zealander. Lovelock’s name has similarly only grown in stature and in 2002 an impressive statue of him at full pace was added in the grounds not far from the oak.
Owen Marshall is an award-winning novelist and short story writer.
Philip Simpson: Pouakani, the largest tōtara tree of all
The central North Island volcanic soil isn’t very good for pasture because it lacks some trace elements, but it is great for podocarps, which have fungi in their roots to help out. The greatest podocarp forest in the world grew there, established after the Taupō eruption about 1800 years ago. Pureora and Minginui are the remnants, possibly the nuclei of a potential “Tōtara National Park”. The area not only has the greatest expanse of mature tōtara forest left standing, but also the largest tōtara tree of all – Pouakani.
Pouakani is estimated to be at least 1000 years old, with a trunk 3.9m in diameter.
Several features of tōtara enable trees such as Pouakani to survive for hundreds of years. The most important is the resin in the wood and bark, which is strongly antifungal and antibacterial, so when an old tōtara gets damaged in a storm, the open wounds heal without infection.
Another important factor in longevity is the ability of the tree to regrow the canopy from branches. Currently Pouakani has several of these “reiterations” arising from the storm-shattered remains of the former trunk. They are fed by new wood below them creating a fluted trunk, a feature of old trees.
The anchor roots of an old tree can snake across the ground far beyond the edge of the canopy above. They continually form feeding roots from the underside so the soil is saturated with roots and other trees are discouraged.
As Pouakani has aged, it has built up a thick bark, a coat of light, strong, waterproof, warm and disease-resistant armour that protects the vital living cylinder of growing tissue beneath. It also protects the tree from kākā, which otherwise could rip the bark off to expose the resinous food beneath. And it protects the tree from drought, which is always a potential threat in the free-draining volcanic (or elsewhere, alluvial) soil.
For all these reasons, Pouakani is a sacred shrine to New Zealand’s greatest tree, the tōtara. When I stand beneath it, I marvel that this creature has stood in this one place for 1000 years, with moa and eagle, huge storms and long droughts, enduring, healing its wounds, spreading its seeds, a reflection of ancient Gondwana. I listen with reverence to the wind in the branches, an endless tale of acceptance and identity.
Philip Simpson is an ecologist and writer.
Eliza McCartney: My Spaceship
In the house I grew up in we had a wonderful backyard with many native trees. As siblings do, we decided we would each have our own tree; one brother chose the karaka, the other the tōtara, and I chose the tītoki. I knew this tree inside out, the shape of each branch, each lump and bump, nook and cranny. And even better, I knew that it was secretly a spaceship. There was the perfect arrangement of branches to create a seat with a steering wheel and pedals; everything needed to fly a spaceship.
Anybody who knew me as a child knows how much I loved to climb trees. The jungle gym that a strong mature tree provides was the best playground I ever found. Some days all I wanted was to be alone and climb as high as possible till the whole world was below me. Other times I wanted nothing more than the pure excitement of climbing through a tree with others, playing all sorts of games, and embarking on imaginary adventures.
I’ve never forgotten the fun we had in our native trees, and how lucky we were to have them in our backyard. My love and appreciation for our native flora has only grown, to the point where studying environmental science at university now feels like a hobby. Native trees bring so much joy, whether it’s from the resident birds, the bright flowers or maybe just the laughter of children exploring them. Even though I’m too big to fit into my spaceship now, I’ll always have the memories of happiness my tītoki gave me.
Olympic athlete Eliza McCartney is a Trees That Count ambassador.
Cliff Curtis: My bro’s family tree
So, my bro’s first-born was a boy named Te Rangihau, followed by a girl named Wairingiringi, then another boy named Maaka, and his fourth, also a boy, Tumanako. My bro’s name is Gordon Toi. These days, he’s an acclaimed multi-discipline artist and founder of House of Natives.
I was 21 when I met Gordon as an actor on the set of The Piano, my first feature film. We worked on many others: Desperate Remedies, Rapanui and Kahu and Maia to name a few. Besides movies, we had many adventures together. During holidays we trained in Mau Rakau (Maori weaponry) with Mita Mohi, alongside his son, Pat Mohi, on Mokoia Island for at least a decade, and that work also took us into schools and prisons. We even travelled through Europe once to find mokomokai (preserved tattooed Māori heads) being sold as “artefacts” in Paris.
Over the years, I witnessed Gordon carve wharenui and fashion hei tiki out of stone, and adorn entire whānau with tā moko. We have seen each other’s relationships fail and flourish and supported one another through births and deaths of our most loved ones. When I say we’re bros, it runs deep – deep enough to challenge the notion of blood being thicker than water. As well that may be, but water has a purity to it.
Of all the adventures we had there is a ritual he shared with me after each of his children were born. We would travel north from his home in Mangere Bridge, taking with us the whenua (placenta) of each child to the whenua (land) of his Ngāpuhi bloodline, where his family name of Toi is renowned. Toi Te Huatahi. Toi Kai Rakau.
We would stay in Ōpononi with his grandmother, who was of another time and made of pure love, so she could ask us about our adventures. Then, after we ate and his kuia shared a few adventures of her own, we would continue our journey on foot, trekking inland from the homestead near the ocean.
Following a stream bordered with fruit trees and flush with watercress and tuna (eel), we would ascend the valley deep into the pristine native forest, Te Wao Nui O Tane. There, we had tūi as guides through nikau groves as piwakawaka flitted among the lush under-canopy of mamaku ferns. We arrived at a particular kauri tree where kererū perched as guardians.
There, we would bury each whenua (placenta) inside the whenua (land) at the base of this kauri. My bro would offer what karakia he had. Once, accompanied by a storm complete with rolling thunder and lightning, we gave our best haka in dedication to the atua. This ancient ritual connects life with life through the tree’s roots holding deep unto Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) with limbs pushing upward towards Ranginui (Sky Father). We did this to connect his children to his ancestors through this tree that stood there long ago and will remain for many future generations. This family tree.
Ka Tū Te Ngahere, Ka Tū Te Whānau Ora.
Actor and producer Cliff Curtis is currently filming the four sequels to Avatar.
Craig Potton: Behind the dunes
Behind the sand dunes where the bach sat with its lawns, gardens and trees, was a flat, hollow area protected from the summer’s sea winds by the dunes and high pines. It was a place of quiet heat, dry, where plants crackled in the noonday sun: a “rift valley” with a serene air, quite separate from the surrounding world. Rabbit bones sat in bleached piles besides fresh droppings while clumps of marram grass and scrawny plants stood forth as outposts in the dry sea of sand and rock reefs. My brother and I would often cross this wilderness to further pine forests with our ever present dog. Once, when one of those inordinately long summer days was simmering down to evening, I walked out alone across my desert. Pushing through some unfamiliar trees, suddenly I found myself in a seldom-visited neck of land beside another clearing. As I stood quietly, I began to feel myself drawn toward a particular tree – a tree very different from the surrounding pines with its fuller, softer leaves and drooping branches. I seemed gently invited into its presence, and somehow found myself sitting beneath its looping arms in a particular spot. It was as if the tree and I were breathing quietly together. I was overwhelmingly happy. Time and time again throughout that holiday I would return alone to my tree and sit under it.
Craig Potton is a photographer and publisher.
Robert Vennell: The deadliest of all
One of the trees I find most fascinating is tutu, Coriaria arborea, New Zealand’s deadliest native plant. Its seductive purple fruit are sweet and delicious, and dangle like clusters of grapes along walking tracks and waterways. Although the fruit is edible, every other part of the plant, including the tiny black seeds inside the fruit, contains a potent neurotoxin. Even a small amount will send someone into a foaming neuromuscular spasm; a secret early Europeans were unfortunate to discover. People have died after making tutu beer and tutu pies and failing to remove the seeds. Beekeepers need to watch out for the plant as well – if bees collect honeydew from the plant, it can poison an entire batch of honey.
The plant also affects animals – huge numbers of sheep and cattle have died after eating it. The very first sheep released into New Zealand by Captain Cook, in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1773, survived only a few days before being poisoned by tutu.
The plant has even claimed the lives of circus elephants allowed outside to graze on tutu leaves. And yet, despite the danger, tutu has been an important food resource. Māori carefully extracted a sweet juice from tutu berries, which was consumed in massive quantities or mixed with seaweed to make jelly. European missionaries were fond of the juice as well, and distilled it into a delicious red wine. Tutu also had an important role to play in rongoā – traditional Māori healing. The leaves and shoots were made into lotions to treat cuts, bruises and sores, and it is still used today as an ointment for treating sprains and broken bones.
Robert Vennell is an ecologist and the author of The Meaning of Trees: The history and use of New Zealand’s native trees.
Joanna Orwin: Kauri, king of kings
Grey light, softened by misty rain. No one else around. No wind, no sound, not even a bird calling. With an hour to spare, I had taken a detour on a gravel road off the main highway. Someone had said Trounson Kauri Park was worth a visit. The car park, grassy picnic area and the kiosk, with its information about a guided night walk to see kiwi, were ordinary. The start of the walk was also ordinary – scruffy secondary growth overhanging the path, mud underfoot, the slimy planks of a rickety bridge over a rivulet. It was chilly, and moisture was already seeping through the soles of my shoes. I fell prey to a growing sense of disgruntlement.
And then, ahead of me, looming out of the mist, my first ever glimpse of a kauri grove, mature trees in their prime. Five of them, all the same size, massive columns spaced 3-4m apart. Each kauri stood alone, nothing growing around its base. Four to five hundred years old, these stately trees were unbranched until they reached the vaulted roof of the forest at least 10 metres above me, their foliage obscured by the eddying mist. Uncluttered by fern, lichen or liane, each imposing trunk was scrolled and scalloped in rich browns and subtle greys, each with its own distinctive pattern that brought a chiefly tattoo to mind. Overawed, discomfort forgotten, I walked slowly on, passing through more groves of similar-sized kauri, every tree a dignified and individual presence.
Kauri, separator of earth from sky, bringer of light and life to the world, the magnificent tree that features in the creation myth told by northern Māori. Although 17 years have now passed by, my first surreal encounter with kauri, king of kings, te rākau rangatira, remains a vivid memory.
Ecologist Joanna Orwin is an award-winning author of books for children and adults, including Kauri: Witness to a Nation’s History.
Lawrence Patchett: Nīkau Valley
Down the road from the Paraparaumu shops, there’s a kind of cathedral. Not the sort of cathedral you see in European cities. It isn’t made of stone and stained glass; it’s made of trees. It’s a remnant stand of ancient nīkau palms, wedged into a patch of bush beside the old highway. We go there for runs and walks, and pop in for a quick green break from stress.
At the carpark, there’s a sign explaining this patch of bush. We call it Nīkau Valley, but officially it’s named after the farmer and politician who donated it. In the photo, he’s standing with a shepherd’s crook, looking over cleared paddocks. It’s the sort of picture that sparks lots of questions about the history of such places, and how they came to be in the hands of settlers, or locked up in conservation covenants like this. But it’s also a great photo of his two farm dogs, exhausted at his feet.
Going in, you never quite get away from the noise of dogs barking and the grumbling traffic. There’s a bit of litter here and there, and some tagging carved into the trunks. But there’s also a strange magic. In one place, the nīkau palms have out-competed other trees. Nīkau have an odd effect when they stand together like this. Their trunks are completely bare, so your eye is drawn up towards the spreading canopy of palms. Kererū sit fatly in random places, their vast tummies full of fruit. Fallen fronds from years before cover the forest floor, suppressing undergrowth. This creates a hushed and filtered light.
Standing there in the almost quiet, you feel as if you’ve stepped into some columned church. Certainly, it’s as close to going to church as I ever get, pausing on my run through this pillared place, looking up.
Lawrence Patchett is a novelist and short story writer.
This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.