Felling a forest giant, Janet Hunt

Keith Stewart
Viking, $60.00,
ISBN 9780670045525

Keith Stewart’s Kauri is the latest in a succession of publications about this iconic tree, following books by esteemed natural history writers A H Reed, J G Erne Adams, Gordon Ell and others who have been inspired by the forest giant, one of the “largest and longest-living” trees in the world. The subject isn’t therefore new, but the recent discovery that kauri are under threat no longer from chainsaws but from a soil-borne pathogen with no known cure, makes it timely that the tree is kept in the public eye.

And what better way to do it than a publication such as this? Kauri is attractive, with interesting, well-reproduced illustrations including contemporary and historical photographs and many lovely drawings and paintings. The layout is open, and the book is well printed on good paper. It would make a welcome gift. It belongs to a class of non-fiction that has grown in popularity in recent years, an in-depth exposition on a single subject, which simultaneously invokes a greater social and historical landscape.

Philip Simpson led the way with his award-winning Dancing Leaves: The Story of New Zealand’s Cabbage Tree (2000), Ti Kouka and Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees (2005). These, and Kauri, are for enthusiasts and for generalists, for readers who want the full picture and for those who enjoy browsing related byways.

Stewart tells the story through a running narrative, and caters for the browsing by including substantial asides or “sidebars” – often over many pages. Where these digressions fall logically they complement the flow, but they are also at times a mild irritation: magazines have trained us in a more fragmented, discursive reading style, but the size and frequency of the breaks in Kauri require either an annoying disruption or skipping the aside and backtracking to catch it later.

Stewart examines kauri through many lenses: he is above all scrupulous in acknowledging the tree’s importance to Maori, not only as a mythical and sacred entity, but also as a resource for more mundane purposes. The tree was one of the many wonders encountered when they first arrived and its immense size rapidly earned it great mana. When felled, it was utilised with care: the timber made fine carvings and was used for containers such as waka huia; its resin was chewed and burned as an insecticide; the soot was used as ink for moko, and the tapu nature of the crowns, where turehu (spirit beings) were rumoured to dwell, made them secure repositories for bones of the dead. Above all, the huge boles made excellent waka taua – war canoes. Coincidentally, it was kauri’s use in warfare that made it attractive to Europeans, who fashioned kauri into spars and planking for their fighting ships.

The book begins by detailing the tree’s whakapapa and its origins. Along with that of the tuatara, that other extraordinary survivor from Gondwana, kauri’s genealogy can be traced back 235 million years. Stewart describes the tree’s botany as well as its place in the greater forest community, with detours to focus on selected fellow forest dwellers or expand points of interest. A mature tree is an ecosystem in itself, home to an array of creatures from the smallest invertebrates to the snails, lizards, bats and birds that find shelter and food in its branches.

The second, relatively brief, period in the tree’s history forms the major part of the book – the time of human occupation. Those millions of years of evolution were as naught once Europeans clapped eyes on the tree – the forests were effectively wiped out within a century of settlement. Stewart introduces us to the men whose decisions sealed the kauri’s destiny, and describes the processes and logistics of tree-felling and log extraction as well as the drudgery of the final despoliation, the plundering of the gumfields. It’s fascinating to consider the myriad uses of the timber and to see how the tree was instrumental in the shaping of early New Zealand.

In the final chapters, Stewart writes passionately of the decline of the milling town of Kaikohe after the trees were gone. In particular, he paints a picture of what might have been: if a succession of advisers, commissions and reports had been heeded, the wholesale destruction of the bush and the loss of the intricate web of life within might have been averted, not only in the interests of conservation but also, ironically, to meet the needs of forestry. Kauri was eminently suitable for sustainable management for high-value activities such as tourism, crafts, musical instrument- and boat-building. Instead, we have depressing swathes of Pinus radiata across our northern hills and not a tree but a cut-out of one beside the road north to represent the kauri coast.

Aspects of Kauri are disappointing. Stewart is an experienced author whose family worked the Northland bush for 140 years; he has wanted to write this book for some time, and my expectations were high. However, it is a complex and many-stranded narrative, and his writing is often not up to it, the multiple threads and overlapping chronologies becoming convoluted and confusing. More stringent editing might have helped. The book overall is handsome, but there were also some unusual design decisions, including those that appear to be sheer padding, such as the violin that appears on consecutive pages and the inconsistent use of an enlarged font in a couple of the later sidebars. On the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, there were times when a map or diagram would have been worthwhile – to show the tree’s range, for instance.

Nevertheless, that is small beer. It is what endures once the covers are closed that matters. That is, a much-increased understanding and appreciation of this magnificent tree, this taonga, as well as considerable apprehension for its future. For both, I’m grateful.


Janet Hunt’s Wetlands of New Zealand: A Bitter-sweet Story was a category winner in the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.


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