Killing what we love, Garth Baker

Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees
Philip Simpson
Te Papa Press with the Project Crimson Trust, $99.99 (hb), $59.99 (pb),
ISBN 1877385131/0909010994

Philip Simpson’s Pohutukawa and Rata follows his earlier homage to cabbage trees. He wrote his popular Dancing Leaves when cabbage trees were under attack from something unknown, and we were suddenly shocked to find we were losing them. The hardy cabbage tree population has survived the little bugger infecting them with a virus, and once again their upside-down explanation marks are reassuringly marking out our territory. Pohutukawa and rata are also under attack but from a much bigger, nastier threat, and they too need a champion.

Using a proven mix, Simpson brings together scientific information, Maori tikanga, Pakeha social history and great photos to tell us everything we, as laypeople, will ever need to know about our very own Metrosideros. The first of the book’s three sections covers how pohutukawa and rata live. It traces their scientific whakapapa back through time and over continental drift to link with distant relations. This places them in the tangled branches of plant classification. There is also considerable information on the trees’ distribution, growth and structure, often supported by great photos. I found this section a dry soil to get my reading roots into. Once I got to the second section – “The values and uses of pohutukawa and rata” – there was much more nourishment. There are plenty of nutritious new ideas and the author’s creativity and style provide ample light.

A couple of years ago Telecom ran a television advert featuring a young Kiwi woman in a cold London flat. Her spirits improved as she downloaded and printed a photo sent to remind her of home. It was a giant image of her playing on a swing suspended from a pohutukawa above a New Zealand beach, the bright sun shimmering on the water. The dark sinuous trunks were unmistakable and the message of astute Telecom marketers was simple: “Aotearoa – home”. What Kiwi could resist being so warmed?

And there is the guy in a current Lotto advertisement who would build a bach “oh, right about here” when he wins the Big Wednesday draw. “Right about here” is under the sheltering boughs of large pohutukawa, overlooking a glorious beach. What Kiwi could resist having a beer on the deck, knowing you don’t ever have to go into work on Monday? But we wouldn’t get too big for our jandals, and the unmistakable dark curvaceous trunks framing the expensive view would remind us who we really are. It is our heaven – on a pohutukawa stick.

Both these advertisements make the obvious link between pohutukawa and the beach. With the simplicity of a good TV ad, we associate the beach with summer, summer with holiday, and holiday with the happy times only the golden weather brings. After our swim we need shade and where better to snooze than under nature’s funky umbrellas on a soft rug of spent flowers. Pohutukawa is a streak of crimson colour in the Kiwi identity pastiche: no wonder we write books about them, send picture postcards of them, and our troubadour Dave Dobbyn sings of “blooming pohutukawa”.

Pohutukawa were originally more widely spread than just the coastline, and  commonly found on all lowland areas from Taranaki and Gisborne north. Unfortunately they shared this geography with another low life, I mean lowland dweller – Homo Sapiens Kiwianii. Human colonisation, initially by Maori but more significantly by Pakeha, has led to the loss of more than 90 per cent of natural pohutukawa forest. This isn’t immediately obvious, as we’ve spread pohutukawa further south and brought them into town. Naturally occurring pohutukawa has literally been pushed to the edges, so we associate them with the sea shore. From once being a daily domestic pleasure, they’re now crammed into a tiny bach for a short break over New Year.

Our lowlands are now dense with agrarian diversification. And in this spirit of value-added economic survival, we’ve turned carefree summers into the free-market as baches become holiday homes and beaches become “location, location, location”. Coastal development is destroying pohutukawa with as much speed and as little taste as a TV make-over. Just last week the radio reported that the Whangarei County Council didn’t have any conservation plan for trees, and pohutukawa were frequently felled. This is an area that uses picturesque pohutukawa clinging to the craggy cliffs to draw visitors. But while the trees make a romantic photo, they also paint a picture of vulnerable survival.

This contradiction – we romanticise them but kill them – is the real story of the middle section of this book. The pohutukawa’s fate applies equally to southern and northern rata. From widespread distribution over most of the country, they too have been marginalised. They’re now typically found only in mountainous terrain where farming – and possum control – is impossible. This leaves our most intact pohutukawa and rata forests off on distant, unpopulated islands. The book’s pictures of Raoul Island, completely clothed in lush Metrosideros, and the dense rata forests of the Auckland Islands are a shocking reminder of what could have been on the mainland.

Industrious Victorian settlers weren’t just wanton destroyers and quickly learned from the Maori how useful the wood of pohutukawa and rata was. Amongst other things, pohutukawa proved to be a natural for boat building, and rata a great fuel when fire powered everything. Unfortunately no one considered replanting: what were they thinking? Despite its many known assets, there has been no study of the economic potential of pohutukawa forestry: what are we thinking? Pohutukawa are now only decoration for seaside holidays, streetscapes and Christmas cards. While certainly far preferable to Norfolk pines, they have much more value. In all senses.

This book ends, with no surprise, on efforts to conserve and preserve pohutukawa and rata. What we’ve lost and are still losing, and what we’re doing about it, is a familiar part of any story that incorporates our natural icons and national identity. Project Crimson has generously supported this book’s publication and its many good works deservedly get ample coverage. The title “te rata whakaruruhau” has the typical richness of Maori. It describes someone respected for using their strength, leadership and generosity to protect others. Much as a mighty rata does. This book calls for us, Homo Sapiens Kiwianii, to become as rooted in this place as an old rata and to be as expansive in the protection of this land’s other fine spirits.


Garth Baker is a cabbage-tree fanatic who only gardens with native plants. 


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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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