When I landed in Auckland at 4:20 am, I had already studied maps, torn through my Frommer’s Guide and researched many of the recreational opportunities New Zealand had to offer. While I would soon find that neither book nor map could accurately cover the breadth of experience available on these 3 tiny islands in the deep Southern Pacific, at least I FELT well prepared. Since then, it has blown my mind that a millennium prior, Polynesian explorers found and colonized this foreign land with nothing but a bit of traditional ecological knowledge and a waka full of agricultural goods like dogs, rats, and kumara. While archaic theories of colonization suggested that Maori merely stumbled upon their mystical homeland, its now widely accepted that Polynesians were adept seafarers who could to use the stars, tides, whales, and clouds to navigate open water and recognize and the many islands that dot the blue ocean. This navigational prowess may seem far-fetched to those of us who can’t even traverse a city without our GPS apps. And yet, a small group of Polynesians were able to retrace such voyages, using traditional ships and techniques! It’s a mind-boggling but truly inspiring to think that while Europeans were circumnavigating Eurasia, too afraid to lose sight of land, Polynesians had made it to South America and brought back the sweet potato (Kumara) to their tropical islands.
Millennia earlier, on the other side of the Pacific, indigenous folks undertook a terrestrial, but equally perilous journey across Beringia and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest to settle my homeland. I doubt any Native Americans could conceive of the singular political unit we call California, but aside from its continental situation, Cali bears a striking resemblance to New Zealand. Located on the exact opposite end of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand spans the latitudinal equivalent of Santa Barbara, CA to Seattle, WA. Both lands, battered by oceanic currents, experience extreme amounts of rain in some places(up to 18 meters a year on parts on NZ’s west coast!!!) as well as arid climes, with Christchurch receiving about as much rain as San Francisco. The wet ecosystem, known as the temperate rain forest, is full of lush fern vegetation and colossal trees.
Those of us from California know of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantium) as the world’s two largest trees, but have probably never heard of the Kauri (Agathis australis), the southern hemisphere’s biggest. While not as tall as either Sequoias, Kauri are indeed massive, with trunks just as wide as the biggest of the redwoods. Moving polewise on either landmass, we find marginally smaller, but equally impressive species like Douglas Fir in the Pacific NW and the many Podocarp species (e.g. Totara) of the Pacific SE. All the species mentioned are gymnosperms (non-flowering trees most closely related to pines) and all hold significant cultural value to indigenous people, specifically in the production seafaring vessels. They have also seen similar fates in the hands of 20th Century logging practices and merely a fraction of the giant old-growth forests remain in either California or New Zealand. Luckily for a forester like me, I’ve had the great privilege to stand amongst the giants.
One unforgettable excursion into the Podocarps, tramping the Hump Ridge Track at the southern-most tip of New Zealand’s South Island, truly brought light to the natural resource history of New Zealand. While the Hump Ridge was one butt-kicker of a hike, it led me through the last stand of old-growth Podocarps in New Zealand. Though loggers decimated the surrounding forests, this stand remained untouched, protected by its rugged topography. Using viaducts and railcars to transport logs to ports along the coast, loggers soon ran out of timber and even constructed a 125 meter long bridge to access the rich forests still standing. In their greed to leave no swath of forest untouched, the projected bankrupted the company and thus financial ruin saved the Podocarps!
This is not to say that Maori did not harvest massive trees; they HAD to cut some down if they wanted to make their wakas. However, in stark contrast to the European settlers, the Maori’s strict code of environmental ethics kept forest harvests to a minimum through mythology. One such story tells of a man who forgot to appease Tane, demi-god of the forest, before chopping down a giant tree to carve. After spending an entire day cutting down the tree and working it, the man returned the next day to find the tree standing again. Several cycles of this had to occur before he realized that a ceremony and Karakia (incantation) were necessary before the forest would give up its prize. This is just one example of the sacredness of nature that Maori believed in, a belief that kept their population in relative harmony with nature and her resources. However a look at Maori history could reveal that this harmony was a learned one in the cycle of human ecology.