A walk in a Jurassic forest

I went for a walk the other day in a patch of podocarp forest – New Zealand’s classic bush, a temperate jungle that is little changed since the Jurassic.

Podocarp forest near Puketitiri, inland Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Podocarp forest near Puketitiri, inland Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

The forest is filled with huge trees – especially rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), the undergrowth lush with silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata). These days the undergrowth is less than it was, thanks to possums – introduced in 1837 for their fur, but swiftly turning into a pest that, today, the Department of Conservation and National Possum Control Agencies often struggle to control. Possums (Didelphimorphia) have destroyed the tangle of undergrowth that once filled such forests and can do huge damage even to canopy trees. They are also known to eat native birds such as Kea.

Moss-covered tree trunk, in Ball's Clearing, near Puketitiri.
Moss-covered tree trunk, in Ball’s Clearing, near Puketitiri.

The bush is less than it was too. Upon a time it covered New Zealand, its nature and flora gauged by the temperature. After humans arrived around 1280 AD it began to disappear – largely, my old Forest Service boss explained to me, because nobody had fire engines.

By the time Europeans began arriving in any number towards the end of the eighteenth century, the South Island was largely clear of bush. The North Island was partially clear, although tracts remained – notably in the central districts.

Much of that was then destroyed by the settlers. New Zealand’s first colonists delighted in transforming the landscape – ‘improving’ it, as they thought. But that was secondary to the politics. During the New Zealand Wars, Maori had used the bush as a refuge and battlefield, and it was virtually impossible to fight in – as the colonists discovered. By the late 1860s, Treasurer Julius Vogel and Native Minister Sir Donald McLean had plans to change all that.

Silver fern in the Ball's Clearing reserve.
Silver fern in the Ball’s Clearing reserve.

The scheme involved bringing in colonists – legend has it that most were Scandinavian but in truth the majority by number were Scots and English – and settling them in the bushland, which they would fell to make way for their farms.

There was a call to preserve it, not because of the destruction of the bush, but because of the loss of potential milling timber. But the settlement went ahead from the early 1870s, and that decade and the next brought bush destruction on a grand scale to the North Island. Rollo Arnold’s book on it – New Zealand’s Burning – is available online these days.

The upshot was that by the 1890s just a few patches were left – coveted by millers for a burgeoning timber industry. Native woods were in huge demand for everything from furniture-making to house-building – for which totara (Podocarpus totara) was particularly suited. Such trees take centuries to grow; and the result, inevitably, was that by the 1940s all but a few residual patches of bush had been cut out. It’s worth remembering that while all this is seen today with horror, times were different in the early-mid twentieth century; attitudes were not those of today, and at the time the bush was seen as a useful resource.

Sawmilling near Puketitiri, Hawke's Bay, mid-1920s.
Sawmilling near Puketitiri, Hawke’s Bay, mid-1920s – this is a steam hauler in action amidst cut-over bush. Photo by my grandmother.

The bush I visited the other day is near Puketitiri, a locality northwest of Napier where my mother’s family lived in the 1930s. A patch was preserved from the saws, Ball’s Clearing. Today it’s a lush reserve, protected and available for people to enjoy. It’s got a good deal of meaning for my family – my grandfather knew Tom Ball, who the bush is named after. And back in the early 1980s, some of my earliest professional work involved digging into data that might help reveal the temperature history of the bush area, particularly Ball’s Clearing – in support of a project designed to discover historic and pre-historic temperatures, and with that, identify longer warming and cooling cycles in New Zealand (it did – just in case anybody’s thinking that studies of climate change are recent things).

Since my last visit Ball’s Clearing has gained a new information board at the entrance, featuring a photograph of 1930s Puketitiri taken by my grandmother, which was kind of cool.

Inside it is another world; a world of ferns, mosses, conifers – a world little changed in over 130 million years. Which is kind of cool. Technically, today’s New Zealand was sea bed back then; the flora and fauna migrated as the old land eroded and the new rose. But you can still imagine turning a corner and finding a small herd of dinosaurs browsing on the foliage. And, of course, the avian dinosaurs are still there – native birds, including many Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), which serenaded us in the parking area outside.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016



6 thoughts on “A walk in a Jurassic forest

    1. Too true on both counts! To me these surviving patches of natural forest land underscores the way attitudes have changed so dramatically in the last two or three generations – partly driven, I guess, by the way irreplaceable natural beauty was destroyed. Here in NZ, as in so many places, a lot of it is unique – and gone.

  1. It’s tragic, but you’re right that we can’t dwell on judging those in the past by present day attitudes and knowledge. On the other hand, we can judge and hold accountable those in the present, which is, of course, us. One necessary step is to not judge the past, but step back and learn by their mistakes.

    1. I agree – a concept that is true in so many walks of life! Insofar as NZ forests go, the biggest single past mistake, bringing the possum into a benign environment with no natural predators – has been virtually impossible to undo. But our conservation department keeps working on it!

  2. Absolutely gorgeous! I recently moved out to the East Coast of Canada and have been enjoying some beautiful coastal nature, but nothing beats a lush green forest in my opinion 🙂

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