A home in high places
For generations, club fields have provided access to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular backcountry.
For generations, club fields have provided access to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular backcountry.
Phytophthora Taxon Agathis (PTA) is a microbe that attacks kauri, damaging the tissues that are the pathways of nutrients through the trees. It passes through the soil from tree to tree at the rate of a few metres a year, or is moved in soil borne on boots, tyres and equipment. There is no known cure and nearly all affected trees die as a result. The disease is now widespread in Northland, Auckland and on Great Barrier Island, but news in March that it had been found in two trees in Whangapoua Forest on the Coromandel Peninsula sparked alarm among ecologists. The slow-moving pathogen had travelled nearly 200 kilometres into a little-frequented forest that hosts one of the largest areas of kauri still unaffected by the disease. The Ministry for Primary Industries and Department of Conservation closed the 319-hectare forest, and in May the government announced a $25 million budget to fight Phytophthora. But the disease may be more widely distributed than anyone appreciates. On a weekend in June I travelled to a friend’s 40th birthday at a house tucked into the bush overlooking Pauanui. The property borders a conservation reserve, so we went for a ramble with the kids in the evening up a narrow four-wheel-drive track. The bush there is a mix of established natives with wilding pines blown in from neighbouring tracts of plantation forests. In many respects, the Pauanui Conservation Area is typical of mixed-use, public-access estates in the North Island and too well trafficked to avoid the invasion of weeds, and disease. The first kauri I saw, a little ricker barely four metres high, oozed a plume of sap from a bulging lesion on its trunk. The resin was coagulated in thick ribbons that ran down to the soil like a limestone formation, and beneath the wound, the bark had sloughed away in sheets. Am I looking at Phytophthora taxon Agathis? It hadn’t been reported as far south as Pauanui, nor within 50 kilometres of here, and only two trees in Coromandel had so far tested positive. Yet the notion that this quiet killer can reach kauri forests anywhere makes the spectre of sap disconcerting. (I deferred to MPI to investigate.) Directly across the track was a larger specimen, too wide in girth to stretch my arms around, and perhaps 30 metres high. The track bent about it in deprecating fashion. It may have been here for a hundred years or more, avoiding both fire and axe, but the quiet malevolence of PTA is creeping toward it even now if it hasn’t already hitched a ride on a tyre of a passing 4x4, or upon the boots of this editor, who stood at its base to admire the undulating surface of the trunk, rippled like sand at low tide. It is astonishing that an organism just microns in dimension can lay low a forest giant. It’s a cautionary tale. Like the social and industrial ideology that set two-thirds of New Zealand’s forests to fire and axe, Phytophthora flows through the land like a destructive idea through a population it’s ubiquitous, and once started, it’s not easily stopped. Have we already come too far to turn back? It may be too early to tell. The bacterium that caused the death of about a quarter of the cabbage trees in the north at the turn of this century seems to be less severe now. In that case, our understanding of the disease grew as the pathogen spread it affected different sized tree in different ways; trees in rural settings were more susceptible than those in forests; and those growing in cooler climates were less affected than those in the north. Kauri dieback may yet be averted by good management or good fortune, but it is certain that as international trade grows and domestic traffic increases, the forests of our future will face more of these insidious threats, and need greater protection.
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Two of the most emotional moments at Tuhoe’s settlement day on Friday August 22 involved the return of treasures to the iwi.
“We must talk again with trees,” wrote West Coast poet Peter Hooper. We must talk with them because we are apt to forget they are living beings. We think of them as timber sources and landscape features. Or as obstructions that stand in the way of a subdivision or block the kilometre-wide sweep of a centre-pivot irrigator... if we think of them at all. Despite this having been once a country of forests, there is no tree on the New Zealand coat of arms. There are a couple of fern fronds, but a cartoon Maori warrior and Pakeha woman are standing on them, like a mat (which is not a bad metaphor for how native vegetation has been treated in the past 150 years). Aotearoa was a land of giant trees as much as it was of giant birds. In both cases kauri and moa they were among the largest ever known. In the north, there is a story that the kauri tree has an oceanic twin, the sperm whale. It is an intriguing link, drawing on the fact that both produce resin ambergris in the sperm whale and the skin of both flakes off in thick slabs. And the size, of course. Imagine you’d stepped off a waka after crossing the Pacific, serenaded by singing whales, and were confronted with a six- or seven-metre-diameter kauri trunk. What would come to mind? Kauri are the rangatira tree of the north, but south of their natural range (which cuts off around the latitude of Raglan), that chiefly role is taken up by totara. During my travels for the forests story in this issue, I visited one of the rakau rangatira of Pureora State Forest. It has a name the Pouakani totara signposted on the main road. I parked and took the 20-minute walk to the tree, on a track that weaved through agreeably dense bush. Halfway along, I paused beside a fallen totara log to inspect a pile of wine-red shavings, the work of chewing insects and other agents of decay, rendering the trunk into nurture for life underground. About the time I thought I must be close, I glanced to the right of the track and thought for a moment I was seeing an outcrop of rock. Then my knees went weak and something buckled within me. According to Greek history, the Persian king Xerxes the Great once saw a majestic plane tree during the course of a military march. He halted his army and ordered that they set up camp around the tree so that he could admire it. The historian Aelian recorded that Xerxes “attached to it expensive ornaments, paying homage to the branches with necklaces and bracelets. He left a caretaker for it, like a guard to provide security, as if it were a woman he loved.” That is how you respond to a chiefly tree! I walked around a fence that had been erected to protect the totara and looked up into its plant-drenched canopy. This tree began its life 1800 years ago, around the time that Taupo erupted and flattened the central North Island. This tree precedes all human life in Aotearoa. Yet totara is the timber that Europeans dignified by turning it into window sashes, doorstops, foundation piles and fenceposts. From today’s perspective, it seems as lamentable as using Chateau Lafite in a stir-fry. How the Pouakani totara escaped the chainsaw, I do not know. But had protesters not taken to the Pureora treetops in 1978, all this would surely be gone. The illustrious ornithologist Charles Fleming said New Zealand’s podocarp remnants are this nation’s Gothic cathedrals, and standing in the presence of a tree like the Pouakani totara is an inescapably numinous experience. The ancients understood this. Pliny the Elder wrote: “As much as we adore the statues of the gods, with their brilliant gold and ivory, we revere the forests, and the silences within them.” In Maori understanding, trees are part of the human family tree: they are our elder siblings. Tane, they say, made trees before making humans a story not dissimilar to the first chapter of Genesis, or to the unravelling of the human genome, which shows we share a third of our genes with oak trees. It is said you can’t know who you are until you know where you are. Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry wrote: “Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding...we have to re-enter the woods.” We must talk again with trees.
Native forest once covered most of Aotearoa in a great green swathe, heaving with biodiversity. Two-thirds fell to fire, axe and bulldozer during a botanical Blitzkrieg the like of which the world has never seen. Today’s forest remnants are confined largely to areas of conservation land, but legislation can’t protect against pathogens, pests and invasive weeds that do not respect park boundaries. What does the future hold for our forests?
The Puhoi Track isn’t particularly intrepid but is a wonderful experience of New Zealand native bush and birdlife, less than 45 minutes north of Auckland an ideal ‘first time out’ on Te Araroa for those living in the big smoke. Enter the track opposite Remiger Road and after crossing the swingbridge the route begins with a steady uphill trek then steps up onto the ridge, where you’ll encounter the first sighting of the splendid kauri tree. More than likely, a couple of friendly fantails/piwakawaka will also say hello as the track continues to climb to its highest point. From there, meander downhill through clear native bush with mature puriri and totara commanding the forest. Reaching a small footbridge if you’ve approached quietly look up to see if you get a glimpse of the resident morepork/ruru that keeps watch. The track continues through pine forest with occasional glimpses out into the valley. You reach another climb up steps, but hang in there, this will be your last climb for the day. At the top you again head through native bush and soon reach another close encounter with a number of kauri trees as well as stunning young forest. Exiting the forest the track crosses farmland, with Puhoi in all its Bohemian glory standing out below. Another short bush section leads the track to join the Puhoi Lookout Loop Walk where there is a choice head left/ east for a gentler descent through the trees, or right/southwest to come down past the Arthur Dunn Memorial Lookout (though this is fairly steep and can be slippery at times). The historic Puhoi Pub is a great spot to ‘debrief’ your walk, otherwise the Puhoi General Store, Puhoi Cottage Tearooms and Puhoi Valley Cheese Factory Café all have coffee and treats for all tastes. A reasonable fitness is required to tackle the two uphills, and although the track is well formed underfoot, do wear good shoes and take care as it’s a little slippery when wet. You’ll find plenty of parking in the Puhoi Domain turn right opposite the Puhoi Pub. A bit of organising may be needed to get to the far end of the track in time it is hoped a local shuttle service will grow.
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Just over a week after Britain declared war on Germany, now 100 years ago, New Zealand entered the fray also, despatching troopships to take Samoa. It would be a benign introduction to the horror that would unfold in Europe and Africa, but the first step in New Zealand’s involvement in the Pacific, and the coming of age of a country.
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