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The story of the totara tree is also the story of New Zealand, writes Shane Gilchrist.
To borrow from Dr Seuss, Philip Simpson speaks for the trees. Specifically, the totara tree.
When Simpson thinks of an old totara — and by old he means one at least 500 years old — he imagines what it has lived through: eagles in its massive boughs; moa eating its seeds beneath; storms, droughts and earthquakes; the arrival of humans; possums browsing its foliage; fire and logging. Impossible to dismiss as just a tree, an old totara commands the bush like a leader, he believes. So his book, Totara: A Natural and Cultural History, is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
The totara is one of our most extraordinary trees, among the biggest and oldest in the New Zealand forest. The totara "Pouakani", within the Pureora Forest Park near Lake Taupo, is thought to be about 1000 years old, similar to the celebrated Northland kauri "Tane Mahuta". Both might be youngsters compared with some other conifers, such as the bristlecone pine and giant redwood of California, the Huon pine of Tasmania and the alerce cedar of Chile, all of which can reach over 3000 years old. Yet Simpson wants future generations to know about our ancient trees.
Why? Because the story of the totara is also the story of New Zealand.
Totara became the most important tree in Maori culture, encompassing legend, transport, the preparation and storage of food, household items and, indeed, houses themselves. Tribal whakapapa (genealogy) is recorded in a style of carving that totara facilitated, bringing Maori art into mainstream New Zealand life and to wider, global, appreciation. Europeans embraced totara, too. With an axe, a settler could build and furnish a house, fence in stock, bridge a stream. Later, totara timber was used for telegraph poles, lighthouses, wharves, railway and road networks, and government buildings. For some time many a New Zealand house was roofed with totara shingles and supported by totara piles. Yet the story of totara also involves loss, says Simpson, who lives near Takaka, in Golden Bay.
He grew up there and recalls a place where totara trees were dotted through the paddocks, lined river banks and ascended the slopes of some hills. As a child, he would climb them, hunting for bird’s nests. Sometimes, his father and brothers would fell a tree, splitting its trunk and using the wood for fence posts and battens. He can still recall "the deep groan" as it yielded to the wedges.
"We were farmers in the 1950s, when I was a child," Simpson explains over the phone."I was born over here and totara was a major feature of the Takaka Valley, where the Takaka River has formed a nice alluvial, quite fertile area. It is ideal for totara. It used to be original totara forest here, quite dense.
"There are reports of early settlers having cleared a place for a dwelling and a track through the forest to their neighbours. All the landscape between was forest, but that eventually was cleared. In its place has grown secondary totara, and that’s what I’ve grown up in."
A long-held ambition, Totara: A Natural and Cultural History follows 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 of which won Montana Book Awards (environment category); Pohutukawa and Rata also won a Montana Medal (best non-fiction book).
Totara was written with the assistance of a Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer’s Fellowship.
Simpson studied botany at Canterbury University and UC Santa Barbara and worked in soil conservation, environmental education, and ecology in the public service before becoming a botanical consultant and author.
"I developed the idea in previous books in exploring the natural aspects of a tree — its evolution and ecology and so on — but also asking the question, what the tree means to people, including Maori and European relationships, both past and present.
"Totara has been exceptionally important to New Zealand both in terms of ecology and human use. It is one of the big conifers, along with kauri, matai and rimu, although the latter doesn’t grow quite so big or live so long."
Among the families of conifer (defined as having cones), the totara is a podocarp genus, of which there are subgenera divided further into sections. Totara sits in the subgenera Podocarpus and the section Australis.
New Zealand, which has four recognised species of totara (lowland, Hall’s, needle-leaved, snow) and one distinctive variety (South Westland), is not the only country to have the tree, Simpson notes.
"There are totara in the mountains of southeast Australia and Tasmania that look like snow totara, the smallest of the totara. There is also a totara in a rainforest in Victoria which has a trunk that’s about a metre in diameter and looks like the Hall’s totara in New Zealand, but it is called a ‘plum pine’ "There is a small species that grows in the nickel-rich soils of New Caledonia which, like New Zealand, is an island remnant of the continent Zealandia. And in Chile, which has a close botanical connection to New Zealand, there is a tree thought to be related to the totara.
"In New Zealand, the big one is the lowland totara that grows in alluvial valleys, while the smallest ones, snow totara, grow among the alpine rocks."
Simpson focuses much of his attention on the lowland totara, for it is this species that has contributed so much to our culture.
The wood of totara is typical to all conifers in that the cells that conduct water are long and narrow and have thin points in their walls, allowing water to diffuse from one cell to another. These long, fibrous cells form a very uniform wood, which is easily split and worked.
In Maori mythology, following the separation of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother, their son Tane placed life in the space between, where knowledge and light were present. Having first created the small trees, insects and birds, elements of the forest needed to ensure that the big trees that followed were able to reproduce and thrive, Tane then mated with the forest goddess Mumuwhanga. The result: the giant totaranui, or lowland totara.
Simpson says such high mythological status reflected more practical applications. For example, totara was the preferred tree from which waka were made.
"And Maori were a waka people. Polynesians didn’t walk here."
There are three reasons why totara made good boats: firstly, lowland totara was readily available and of a good size; secondly, its wood is quite soft and easy to work; thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, totara wood contains a resin that is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. In other words, it is durable in water (more so than kauri, matai and kahikatea).
Given its mythological importance, its mana, totara was used for the most sacred places and objects. Yet its durability was also a factor. As Simpson points out, there’s not much point building a meeting house or the main poles of a defensive palisade out of a wood that is going to rot in the ground.
The bark of the lowland totara was extremely important, too.
Maori relied greatly on birds for food in a seasonal climate that meant they had to harvest food when it was available, meaning they also needed to preserve it. Totara bark — specifically, the parchment-like inner bark — was perfect for bird-preserving baskets.
"It was strong and could be made into long sheets. It was pliable and could be heated and worked into a shape; it was durable and impervious and protected the preserved birds."
During the earliest era of human settlement, beginning about 700 years ago, the removal of totara for use in making waka, pa and houses accounted for some loss of totara, but this would have been minor overall.
There is, however, evidence that large areas of New Zealand forest were cleared by fire. At least one-third of the whole country, probably more, was burnt off in the space of a few hundred years (most of the loss appears to have taken place in the first century of settlement). About 14 million hectares, it represents one of the most rapid and complete landscape conversions recorded anywhere in the world. Scholars propose several reasons for the Maori burning. Fire may have been a tool for hunting moa, albeit a very poor one, causing more loss than gain. It may have offered protection against enemies who might otherwise hide under forest cover; although in the South Island, this suggests an unrealistically extreme strategy given the sparse population and the vast landscape. Fire was probably used to maintain trails, being especially good at removing spiny plants such as matagouri and speargrass. It was also likely used to create a habitat for crops at latitudes where cultivation was otherwise not widely possible: bracken fern and cabbage trees were aided by deforestation.
Given the scale of the burning and the relatively small human population, intentional burning accounts for only a minor portion, the rest almost certainly done by accident, the result of small fires made larger by drought and wind.
Totara Point, Totaranui, Totara Glen, Totara Bluffs, Totara Downs ... throughout the land, there are places that reflect totara’s place in our history. Yet although totara was widespread, it wasn’t a case of continuous forest for miles and miles.
"The forests were isolated blocks, found on the warmest, most fertile land," Simpson says, pointing to the fact that fertile land attracts humans, too.
For the first few decades of European settlement, totara was used extensively for construction. Having arrived by sailing ship, a family could use an axe to begin building a new life. Houses, churches, grave markers, and even cobbles and kerbs were made of totara; strips of the bark were used as a roofing material.
Sometimes, early European houses comprised slabs of bark. And before corrugated iron arrived in the late 19th century, many of the roofs of houses were made of wooden shingles, nearly always totara. An 1873 article in the Otago Daily Times reported 50,000 shingles being cut from one totara in Wellington.
From the earliest European settlements in New Zealand, totara found its way into towns, rural houses, farms and household items. And with the Vogel Government of 1870 came a national drive to foster large-scale public works: ports, lighthouses, bridges, a telegraph system, and national road and rail networks all required wood.
"There was a place near Balclutha, on the Clutha River, called Totara Island," Simpson reflects.
"It was reported to be the most beautiful totara forest in the country. That forest no longer exists.
"It was logged for a range of reasons; for mining equipment, railway sleepers, house and so on, all of which is perfectly understandable.
"The original totara forests are virtually nonexistent. There are one or two patches in the central North Island — at Pureora and Whirinaki — but the rest have been harvested."
"It is a fundamentally useful form of timber. But had we previously regarded totara as a sustainable source of timber — as we do the pine tree — we would still have totara forests."
Simpson suggests all is not lost. We might ponder a future that involves totara timber.
"At present, it has been used up in houses and fenceposts and so on, but totara is really capable of regenerating. We could put some silvercultural techniques into the equation; for instance selecting high-quality, fast-growing trees."
Humans are not the only consumers of totara either.
The smaller Hall’s totara, which grows in the low mountains of Central Otago and the Southern Alps as well as the North Island’s Ruahine Ranges, has been decimated by possums.
"We will always need to be diligent about possums. But weeds such as old man’s beard and passionfruit vine can have impacts, too.
"There is a need to identify interesting places that have old trees. National parks and scenic reserves offer protection, but totara are also common on private land and there has always been an issue about how to protect nature on private land."
Mechanisms include QEII National Trust covenants and Maori land concepts such as the Nga Whenua Rahui, which offers two funding streams: one provides protection for Maori landowners through the use of 25-year renewable covenants; the other seeks to preserve the customs, history and stories associated with Maori land and tikanga.
"This tree has been such an integral part of New Zealand’s history.
"Any old totara needs to be protected so we, as a culture, can look back and say, ‘thank you’."
• Totara: A Natural and Cultural History, by Philip Simpson, is published by Auckland University Press.