Can’t See the Forest Because of the Trees

Between Ahipara, where we live, and Kaitaia, where the hospital is located, is the Herekino Forest. The track through the forest is part of Te Araroa (New Zealand’s Trail), stretching fom the top of the country to the bottom, spanning both island masses. For the past few weeks, I have been on a search for the entrance to this trail as the Herekino is home to Kauri trees, the largest tree species in New Zealand. Kauri trees are not necessarily the tallest tree, but are an ancient species, dating back to the Jurassic Age, and their width is immense. As they develop, they shed not only lower branches but also bark, preventing forest vines and parasitic plants from clinging to them. They develop an enormous crown, apppearing to watch over the entire forest.

Early in September, John and I drove south to the Waipua Forest to see Tane Mahuta, a Giant Kauri tree, estimated to be over 2000 years old. It was just a small seedling when Jesus was born. In order to enter the walkway to the tree, we had to first scrape our boots on a boot cleaner, then walk over a sprayer that washed the bottom of our soles, and finally walk through a padded disinfecting area to eliminate contamination. To Americans, the measures may seem extreme; after all , it’s a tree. However, the DOC is battling Kauri die-back disease. The disease is spread from forest to forest by footwear of hikers, and the roots of the Kauri, which grow close to the surface, are easily susceptible and die. Sadly, I discovered last week that the Herekino Forest is closed to tramping until further notice. Many of the remaining tracts of trees are suffering from the die-back disease and limiting human contact may give the trees time to recover.

Beginning in the 1820s, Kauri trees were logged in excess by the British. (Didn’t this happen in Ireland?!) Some trees were used for local building, but much of the logging was shipped back to England or Australia. By the 1840s, large sections of Kauri forest were being destroyed. Additionally, ancient swamp Kauri were discovered, and their resin was harvested by “gumdiggers” for manufacturing varnish. Today, approximately 4% of the original forest land remains, most of it in the Northland where we live. And now, having survived the logging onslaught, the remaining trees are at risk from the die-back disease.

This information would be completely depressing except that Kiwis do seem rather keen on protecting what is left. One could argue that so much has been destroyed and then just as easily argue that much is being preserved and protected. I was bummed the forest was closed, but I found hope in a strange place. This week the Waitapu (Sacred Waters) Winery down the road opened for the season, and Eric, the owner, gave us a quick tour, a wine tasting and shared some stories. He and his wife, Sondra, built their house with walls so thick they don’t need a furnace. They use rainwater and have a self-contained sewage system. When his work day is done, Eric sits out on his deck, looks past the valley filled with cows and bamboo trees, pours a glass of wine and watches the sun set over the Tasman Sea.

The hope-filled part? Over the past 25 years, Eric and his wife have planted more than 100,000 native trees on their property, including Kauri trees. Over 4000 trees a year! Perhaps it was the wine, but I felt so inspired by his determination.

Maybe there’s a vineyard in Michigan.

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