Monday, October 17, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TREES OF NEW ZEALAND – Stories of Beauty and Character” by Peter Janssen and Mike Hollman (Hodder-Moa; distributed by Hachette, $69:99)

God made the country, and man made the town” says a famous line by the 18th century poet William Cowper.
It’s a favourite quotation among old-time farmers and country-people when they want to assert their moral superiority over townies. It is also a piece of arrant nonsense. God didn’t make the country to any greater extent than He made the town. The country that we know, and in which the more unreflective nature poets used to luxuriate, has been shaped as much by human effort and impact as the towns have.
Those bare and rolling Otago hills? They were covered in forest before the arrival of the Maori. Those flat and productive Waikato or Manawatu dairylands? They were dense and tangled bush before Pakeha fought their way in and grabbed them. Sweet harmonious nature really means nature flattened, smoothed, cleared and made liveable for human beings. The bits that have been preserved in their “natural” state (national parks etc.) are there on sufferance. We love them for their wild beauty, but also for the fact that we now control them and we don’t have to live there. We can return to the conveniences of modern, unnatural life when we choose.

Some thoughts along these lines popped into my mind as I was reading and enjoying Peter Janssen and Mike Hollman’s very beautiful Trees of New Zealand. I must admit that I got this book from the publishers under a slight misapprehension. I thought it would, literally, be a field guide, with illustrations, to all the native varieties of New Zealand tree. This I looked forward to as I have more than once been confounded by my own ignorance when I go on bush-walks and attempt to identify by name the native flora.

In fact, this is not the purpose or achievement of Trees of New Zealand.

It is, quite literally, a celebration in text and photography of individual trees that are growing in New Zealand, whether they are indigenous or exotic. The trees are treated as individuals, so that the notes accompanying each photograph amount to arboreal “biographies”. The notes do not follow a rigid format, but most often we are told how old each individual tree is, where exactly it is situated, who probably planted it (if this fact is known) and what local and cultural associations have gathered around it.

Naturally, along the way, the book does achieve much that a field guide to New Zealand trees would achieve. By looking at the photo of the majestic kahikatea on page 51, I am reminded never again to confuse it with the mighty totara which is depicted on page 87. I learn my lesson about numerous other varieties, too.

But along with the natives, the book revels in the exotics that are now just as much a part of the Kiwi landscape. The Chilean Wine Palms which Sir George Grey planted next to Mansion House on Kawau Island. The row of Phoenix Palms (caught fetchingly in the fading twilight) that march down the middle of Raglan’s main drag. A dazzling shot (maybe the best in the book) looking up through the canopy of the California Redwoods in a Rotorua forest. Moreton Bay Figs with their huge, creeping, above-ground roots. Cedars of Lebanon in the Geraldine domain. All of them exotics, and many of them reminding me that some trees thought to be indigenous are also really exotics. After all, some pre-European foliage was introduced here by Maori coming from other parts of the Pacific. It’s a bit like what people now think of as the very English rose – which didn’t exist in England until the later Middle Ages, when it was imported from Persia. As I began by saying, the landscape we inhabit, the nature with which we think we are communing, is a product of much human modification.

Because the text gives the exact location of each tree, the book is handy for tourists or visitors, and inevitably some “celebrities” are featured. Tane Mahuta, the tallest surviving kauri in the country in the Waipoua forest. The spindly pohutukawa that hangs off the rock at Cape Reinga, being the jumping-off point for departing spirits of the dead. The huge Norfolk pine that towers over James Busby’s residency at Waitangi.
But there is a quirkiness to some of Peter Janssen’s and Mike Hollman’s choices and some of them are off the most beaten tracks. The Italian cypresses bracketing the little Anglican church near Waimea. And the fossilised trees at Curio Bay, 90 kilometres east of Invercargill, which  appear in the photograph more tree-like than they did when I visited them five years ago. Trees are as mortal as we are, and these fossils come in a final section of Trees of New Zealand which reminds us that some trees are dead-and-gone, or are so rare as to be near extinction.

Looking at pictures of venerable old trees can be an elegiac business.

This book drew my attention to some things I had never considered. For example, apart from some berry-bearing specimens, fruit trees were unknown to Maori before Europeans arrived. In the early nineteenth century, Maori so delighted in the fruit trees Pakeha were introducing, that some of the oldest apple groves in the country survive next to what were once major Maori settlements. Pear trees have particular longevity, and Trees of New Zealand features some aged and bearded examples.

While I was enjoying this book, my son drew my attention to the work of the Cambridge don Oliver Rackham, England’s acknowledged expert on trees, woodlands, pasture and how these things have been shaped by culture and social attitudes. His best known book is History of the Countryside. I also thought of Simon Schama’s more populist history book on the same general theme, Landscape and Memory.

Trees of New Zealand is essentially a picture book and is not Rackham’s or Schama’s sort of history book. But it does walk on the boundary between nature and human perception of it and in, for example, its story of the Cromwell area’s “Wooing Tree”, it does remind us of how easily “traditions” about the countryside can be manufactured.

For most readers such ideas will, of course, be strictly secondary to the gallery of first-rate images it provides.

Semi-relevant footnote – In case you were wondering (which is highly unlikely), I was first prompted to the type of thoughts expressed in the opening paragraphs of the foregoing by Aldous Huxley’s famous 1929 essay Wordsworth in the Tropics ; but I have often confirmed his central argument by my own observations. I have read William Cowper’s The Task, whence derives his famous line “God made the country, and man made the town”. But I was first acquainted with the line when it was quoted by the puritanical Scots crofter (played by John Laurie), who hates the corruptions of the town, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps.

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