Man of the heart­wood

Our na­tive trees are some of the most unique in the world, and so is the man who has ded­i­cated his life to study­ing them and telling their sto­ries, in­clud­ing his lat­est on the king of them all.


Philip Simp­son has ded­i­cated eight years of his life to writ­ing a book on what he con­sid­ers to be the most mag­nif­i­cent of New Zealand’s na­tive trees, but the botanist and au­thor has just one on his Takaka block which is mostly cov­ered in re­gen­er­at­ing bush. It’s barely 30cm high, and that it is so young and on its own, and that so much tō­tara in NZ is now at this stage is one of the rea­sons he felt com­pelled to tell its story.

Gi­ant tō­tara, more than 1000 years old, used to cover a lot of NZ’S land­scape, but not to­day. Renowned con­ser­va­tor Stephen King and others had to set up a protest in the canopy of tō­tara in the Pure­ora For­est back in the late 1970s to suc­cess­fully save the an­cient for­est home of the most fa­mous of tō­tara, Pouakani (see box at 12).

Philip is one of the few peo­ple to have seen Pouakani and most of the other aged tō­tara trees still left. There aren’t many.

“For me to go and see a ma­ture tō­tara tree that is say 500 years old, I per­son­ally only have to travel 20 min­utes be­cause I know where one is – but only one. For some peo­ple in some ar­eas they would have to travel hun­dreds of miles to find such a thing.”

That’s be­cause tō­tara was the star of Euro­pean set­tle­ment in NZ. All the things that made it the most valu­able of trees to Māori – it’s a light, rot and wa­ter-re­sis­tant, straight-grained, easy-to-split, easy-to-carve wood – were also of enor­mous value to set­tlers, who cut down forests at a time to build houses, bridges, rail­way sleep­ers, wharves, fur­ni­ture and art.

You can still see the re­mains of these trees if you are trav­el­ling through ru­ral parts of NZ. Keep an eye out for old tele­graph poles in pad­docks with a tell-tale wider base and nar­rower top, or old, slightly un­evenly cut, mossy fence bat­tens and posts. You’re prob­a­bly look­ing at the re­mains of our old­est tō­tara.

“Tō­tara was highly val­ued,” says Philip. “Wher­ever it grew it was har­vested. We’re just left with a few scraps now, one or two are mar­vel­lous such as Pure­ora (north of Taupo), Whiri­naki (near Ro­torua) and Po­hang­ina (north of Palmer­ston North).

He and wife Wendy Parr, a wine sci­en­tist, live on a rugged lime­stone hill­side along a dead-end gravel road, min­utes from where he was born and from the large val­leys of tō­tara and other na­tives he be­gan ex­plor­ing from a young age. There aren’t many chil­dren who would head out into the bush to take sam­ples and make notes about na­tive trees. But in the fore­word to Tō­tara, child­hood friend John Mitchell de­scribes how Philip – aged just five – was al­ready on the job. It seems a pas­sion for plants runs in the fam­ily, as Philip ex­plains.

“My mother’s grand­fa­ther was a fern col­lec­tor. Ferns in Vic­to­rian New Zealand were pretty mar­vel­lous, pretty fa­mous, and I’ve got his fern col­lec­tions in my of­fice now, they’re dried spec­i­mens, they’re now 150 years old.

“My par­ents had a nurs­ery as well as a farm, so I grew up prop­a­gat­ing plants, tak­ing cut­tings, help­ing with the graft­ing and so on. I started

right from the day I can ever re­mem­ber, col­lect­ing herbar­ium spec­i­mens, dry­ing them in news­pa­per, plac­ing them on a sheet with notes about them. I started learn­ing the name of na­tive plants and col­lect­ing them and so on and that’s ba­si­cally been my en­tire life.”

Telling the per­sonal sto­ries of trees and bring­ing them to life to peo­ple to­day is Philip’s gift, and it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary. He al­ready has two award-win­ning books as his legacy. Danc­ing Leaves is about the cab­bage tree. When large num­bers of cab­bage trees started dy­ing off in the 1980s, Philip got the job as Doc’s ex­pert and one was of the lead­ers of the con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.

His other is Pōhutukawa & Rātā: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees. So it won’t sur­prise you to know that both Philip was a found­ing mem­ber of Project Crim­son, a group born from re­search which showed back in the late 1980s that more than 90% of coastal po­hutukawa stands in NZ had been elim­i­nated. To­day, Project Crim­son has or­gan­ised the re­plant­ing of more than 330,000 trees.

When he was granted $100,000 by the Michael King Writ­ers’ Fel­low­ship and re­ceived other fund­ing by var­i­ous groups back in 2009, Philip was orig­i­nally think­ing of writ­ing about the Joshua tree (he did his PHD on it back in the 1970s). But he de­cided to com­plete his tril­ogy on NZ na­tives and chose what he de­scribes as the most chiefly of all the trees.

“It’s not writ­ten only for sci­en­tists by any means, I want peo­ple to un­der­stand what tō­tara is, what it’s meant to peo­ple through­out the ages.

“We don’t live in the for­est but we are ba­si­cally a for­est species as hu­mans. Trees are very im­por­tant to peo­ple. They live for such a long time and their beau­ti­ful form, highly use­ful in terms of their prod­ucts like tim­ber and food and so on.

“Trees are ba­si­cally my busi­ness. I’ve al­ways been in­volved with grow­ing trees and ap­pre­ci­at­ing them. It’s not dif­fi­cult for me to see hu­man his­tory through trees, es­pe­cially in New Zealand where we are sur­rounded by the most mag­nif­i­cent and in­ter­est­ing trees, like tō­tara but the others I’ve worked in, like cab­bage trees, they’re quirky and idio­syn­cratic, but they are very much part of the New Zealand land­scape and the way New Zealan­ders see them­selves.”

The tō­tara may be miss­ing from his block, but Philip can ap­pre­ci­ate the

nat­u­ral won­ders that are pop­ping up amongst the very rocky, wild land he lives on. It is the site of a for­mer ce­ment works and used to be quite a mis­er­able place, cov­ered in a thick layer of spewed lime­stone dust. It closed in the 1980s and when the rain washed the dust away, it left be­hind a gem.

“We’re in the rare po­si­tion of hav­ing a piece of land that’s ac­tu­ally got some nice flat pad­docks, so it’s perched up look­ing down onto Golden Bay it­self, 100m above the sea, and there’s beau­ti­ful pad­docks for our hand­ful of sheep and our lit­tle vine­yard.”

The rest of it is re­gen­er­at­ing bush, and Philip can point out some of the more un­usual lo­cal beau­ties that any­one else would prob­a­bly over­look.

“We’ve got a lot of tree ferns and kanuka and whitey­wood and so on. But this is north-west Nel­son which botan­i­cally is a very spe­cial part of New Zealand. It’s got greater di­ver­sity in terms of species than most parts of New Zealand, and we’re on lime­stone and that means you of­ten get species of plant that are re­stricted to lime­stone. Our bush has got quite a few species that are lo­cal en­demics… that sort of thing is rather in­ter­est­ing.”

There’s a species of ma­hoe (whitey­wood) called Mel­i­cy­tus obo­va­tus, and one of five fin­ger which are found only on lime­stone in this area. But the flashiest is a species of kowhai.

“It’s a kowhai called Sophora longi­car­i­nata and it’s char­ac­terised by hav­ing very long, tiny leaves, so that’s found only here. It flow­ers up be­hind the house on the lime­stone, the tui spend a lot of time feed­ing on the nec­tar.”

There are also fruit, olive and nut trees and a large vege gar­den grow­ing around the house, and it’s im­por­tant food for him says the 71-year-old.

“I do have to try to look af­ter my health. Hav­ing a good diet is im­por­tant. I have a nice vege gar­den. It’s a bit of wreck at the mo­ment but it’s pro­duc­tive. Just yes­ter­day I har­vested some jerusalem ar­ti­chokes, that was a great thrill – I haven’t grown them in a long time so we’re look­ing for­ward to them.”

Philip works from his of­fice at home, oc­ca­sion­ally trav­el­ling to get in­for­ma­tion

“When you grow up as a botanist in New Zealand, you can’t help but have strong feel­ings about podocarps, and to­tara– is one of the great­est podocarps in ex­is­tence and one of the great trees of the world.” Source: Philip Simp­son, Nel­son Mail (2009)

he needs. He got to visit many forests of old tō­tara, and he’s hope­ful New Zealan­ders will re­alise what an as­set new plan­ta­tions of tō­tara could be.

“It’s very po­tent, quite ca­pa­ble, but it does need to have the space to do so. The soils that it likes are the soils that we like and so there’s a bit of a clash there.

“We use pine trees for build­ings and it’s mar­vel­lous. How­ever it’s not a very good tim­ber in terms of strength or dura­bil­ity or ap­pear­ance. I would love to think in the dis­tant fu­ture, generations of New Zealan­ders will be able to har­vest pur­pose­fully-grown woods of tō­tara and ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty and value of one of the world’s most won­der­ful and beau­ti­ful timbers.

“That’s my view: pro­tect the old trees that we’ve got, and man­age the weedy ones and plant wood­lots for fu­ture tim­ber sup­ply.”

Philip’s next project will be on Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park which is a handy five minute trip down the road.

“It’s a huge topic. Ev­ery topic is enor­mous. Right now for in­stance I’m look­ing at mosses of Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park and it would take a life­time to ac­tu­ally come to grips with it and I have to come to grips with a sub­ject in a few days. It means it’s very ex­cit­ing be­cause I’m dis­cov­er­ing new stuff all the time as far as I‘m con­cerned but it puts pres­sure on me to be able to com­mu­ni­cate about a topic when I don’t know a huge amount about it. But I need to try to stim­u­late others to get some­thing out of what I say about it.”

He may not be run­ning around the bush like he did when he was five, but his pas­sion for trees is as strong as ever.

“Be­ing over 70 and to­wards the end of things is a prob­lem on the one hand in terms of one’s phys­i­cal abil­ity to rough it. But on the other hand, it gives you the wis­dom. The amaz­ing thing about life is it’s a jour­ney, you can’t go back and do it again, so ev­ery­thing you do is a one-off and it all con­trib­utes to one’s story.

“I’m re­ally pleased to have been able to have a healthy, cre­ative life and be­ing able to ben­e­fit from the joys of this so­ci­ety. I feel priv­i­leged.”

“Even go­ing back to tō­tara, it’s not in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion by any means, but it’s still very vul­ner­a­ble to pre­da­tion and disease as var­i­ous fun­gus dis­eases that have been in­tro­duced into the coun­try.

“It’s a spe­cial part of New Zealand.”

“Liv­ing in the coun­try it’s a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence – I can’t imag­ine liv­ing in a town, I just love hav­ing land and trees and an­i­mals around me, con­stantly.”

Who: Philip Simp­son, botanist and writer Land: 6ha (15 acres) Where: Takaka, 100km north-west of Nel­son What: orig­i­nal and re­gen­er­at­ing bush, vine­yard (pinot noir and chardon­nay), rare breed sheep, bees

A tiny to­tara seedling. Seedlings can stay this size for a year or two, fight­ing to sur­vive the el­e­ments.

Philip and Wendy’s block is 100m above sea level and has a panoramic view of Golden Bay.

One of the more rare na­tives grow­ing around Golden Bay is a species of ma­hoe (whitey­wood, Mel­i­cy­tus obo­va­tus), only found on lime­stone in this area.

Above: Tō­tara may be the sub­ject of this book, but Philip says these days he’s in awe of all na­tives. He has been out in the bush cat­a­logu­ing na­tive species since he was five years old.

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