A while ago, I wrote a series of ‘ghost walks’, where I looked for the traces of features of Wellington that have largely disappeared. It occurred to me then that perhaps the most significant ghost in the Wellington landscape was the dense and luxuriant forest that covered much of the peninsula and was comprehensively cleared by the first European settlers within the space of a few decades, leaving behind a landscape of bare hills littered with tree stumps.
The hills of Wellington are no longer bare: native bush is returning, along with ‘exotic’ vegetation that has either been deliberately planted or has colonised empty spaces. But it would take hundreds of years, if ever, to return to the type of forest that was here when Europeans first arrived, where huge podocarp trees punctuated the forest canopy. It was these trees that caught the attention of early explorers and surveyors, such as Charles Heaphy the New Zealand Company’s surveyor:
‘The red pines are all of large growth. In the Karori and Porirua valleys, near Wellington, I have counted as many as fifty trees from one spot, that would each furnish a top-mast for the largest merchant-ship’
I wanted to see if there was anything left in Wellington that could give me a sense of what this bush had been like. Guided by a copy of Isobel Gabites’ book ‘Wellington’s Living Cloak’, I set off to explore two ‘bush remnants’, starting in the Botanic Gardens. Passing the tourists by the cable car, clustering for photographs in front of the harbour view, I turn off from the main path to follow the ‘Pukatea bush walk’ which zig-zags down a steep gully to the Pukatea Stream.
‘Remnant’ makes me think of forlorn scraps of leftover fabric, and this seems quite an apt analogy for the bush that is left in the Botanic Gardens. Although land was identified and set aside for a Botanic Garden in the earliest plans for the city, the Gardens were not fenced or managed until 1869, by which time the native bush had been depleted for firewood. The small size of the remaining bush made it difficult to sustain itself – vegetation that would have been sheltered inside the forest was exposed to wind, and as the land around the Gardens was developed, the gullies where the bush grew were eroded by stormwater run-off. Like a small piece of fabric, the complex strands in the forest ecosystem were easily unravelled, and many of the remaining large trees started to die off.
There are a few large trees left however along the banks of the stream, although I’m not very good at identifying them unless they are conveniently labelled. There’s a northern rata at least, and rewarewa, and further on, an information board points out the last black maire in the gardens. The path is pleasingly gloomy as it snakes through tree ferns. There are no tourists down here and it is very quiet, apart from the distant shouts of children in the playground. I stop to look at tui darting from bush to bush above the stream, and even they are uncharacteriscally silent, as if they are concentrating on something that I can’t see. I notice some graffiti carved into the trunks of a couple of trees and I wonder how old it is, thinking of courting couples wending their way along the secluded bush path. I don’t know how long tree graffiti lasts, or whether the bark ever grows back.
The story of bush clearance is not just a Wellington story of course. Significant parts of New Zealand’s bush, particularly in the North Island, were cleared in an astonishingly short space of time. Only a quarter of New Zealand’s original forest remains (a long way short of 100% pure). And New Zealand, despite being one of the latest places on earth to be settled by humans has one of the worst records of native plant loss, according to one of the information boards I pass.
Although early explorers and colonists such as Heaphy looked at the bush and saw the masts of sailing ships, in many areas including Wellington, the bush was simply incinerated in the rush to create pasture. The very size of the trees made milling them and transporting them out of the bush too difficult. It’s a depressing story of colonial destruction and waste, seemingly driven by greed and cultural arrogance.
And yet it had puzzled me, reading about the early history of Wellington, that some early settlers at least seem to have been enchanted by the bush. Edward Catchpool, who arrived in Wellingon in 1840 described: ‘the beauty of the bay, surrounded, or nearly so, on all sides by high hills down to the water’s edge, covered with perpetual verdure, the trees and shrubs growing so closely as to render it difficult to ascend, conspire to banish every feeling but that of pleasure from the mind,’ and James Taine, another an early settler, described a favourite walk ‘through the magnificent forest’ with his fiancee.
The rather turgid poems of William Golder, an early settler who farmed in the Hutt Valley maybe cast some light on how people who admired the bush might also quite happily destroy it:
‘…Yon majestic trees,
Which have for ages stood the stormy blast,
Are destined soon to feel the settler’s axe,
And by it be laid prostrate, as they are
Considered now mere cumbrers of that ground
He means to turn to fields of growing grain;
A noble change indeed! Thus nature wild
Must wear another aspect, feel renewed
With civilization introduced, where once
The wildest solitudes supremely reigned!‘
Golder goes on (at great length) about creating a civilised and christian land of industry and prosperity, the ‘Britain of the South’, from ‘forest land’ that is ‘lying waste’, a point of view that reflects what Geoff Park described as ‘a culture that aspired to order and improvement, to a time when the entire inhabitable world would be tilled like a garden’.
The bush walk brings me out in what I always think of as the ‘Harrogate’ part of the Gardens – lawns and formal flower beds stuffed with colourful bedding plants, not unlike the Yorkshire town near where I grew up. A young Katherine Mansfield wrote about this contrast between bush path and formal planting in the Botanic Gardens in 1907:
‘I turn from the smooth swept paths, and climb up a steep track, where the knotted tree roots have seared a rude pattern in the yellow clay. And suddenly, it disappears – all the pretty, carefully-tended surface of gravel and sward and blossom, and there is bush, silent and splendid. On the green moss, on the brown earth, a wide splashing of yellow sunlight. And everywhere that strange indefinable scent. As I breathe it, it seems to absorb, to become part of me – and I am old with the age of centuries, strong with the strength of savagery….I pass down the central walk towards the entrance gates. The men and women and and children are crowding the pathway, looking reverently, admiringly at the carpet bedding, spelling aloud the Latin names of the flowers. Here is laughter and movement and bright sunlight – but behind me – is it near, or miles and miles away? – the bush lies hidden in the shadow.’
Mansfield’s rather romantic characterisation of the bush reminds me of the paintings of C F Goldie, and with them, the widespread view, influenced by Darwinism, that the indigenous aspects of New Zealand – flora and fauna as well as Māori – were unlikely to survive the introduction of Western civilisation and species and would soon die out. In that respect, the early settlers considered they were merely speeding up the inevitable.
There’s a sense in Golder’s work too of a natural and inevitable order of progress:
‘Here, as elsewhere, must civilization’s power
In industry, in enterprise, and skill,
All three with ardent energy combined,
Must rise and conquer nature’s wildness, and
Upon her work far other change bold
To bring her to subjection.’
At the same time, I can’t help seeing a parallel between the people in Mansfield’s description spelling out the latin names of the flowers and my own study of the information boards on the bush path, and wonder what Mansfield would make of the neat labels on the trees of her ancient and savage bush.
From the Botanic Gardens, I walk through the suburbs of Northland and Wilton to Otari-Wilton’s Bush, an altogether more significant ‘remnant’ of native bush. Part of this remnant was preserved by Job Wilton, an early settler who purchased 108 acres of land for his farm, but left 17 acres uncleared. He fenced it to keep out livestock and it became a popular destination for walks and picnics. Job Wilton and his family seemed to have put considerable effort into preserving the bush, checking the fencing and making sure that fires lit by picnickers had been put out. There is no record of why Job Wilton put the land aside, but he appears to have been well ahead of his time.
A piece of land adjacent to Wilton’s in Māori ownership had also retained its native bush cover, although not in such good condition as Wilton’s land, and when the Māori owners decided to sell their land, Wilton petitioned the Minister for Lands to preserve this area, offering to add his own land. This led to the introduction of the Scenery Protection Act in 1903, the first piece of legislation to protect New Zealand’s native bush, although it was by then too late for much of the lowland forest.
I’d walked in Otari-Wilton’s Bush many times, but nearly always on the far side of the reserve, to the west of the Kaiwharawhara stream. I hadn’t realised that the portion of bush retained by Wilton is the part closest to the road. I follow a boardwalk that takes me through the tops of tall rewarewa and rata, looking down on tree ferns a surprisingly long way down. From the boardwalk, the path winds along the edge of the bush, only metres away from traffic noise, which gradually recedes as I get further into the bush. The bush is much denser here than in the Botanic Gardens, and there seems to be a much greater diversity of different trees and shrubs.
While I’d come across accounts from settlers who admired the New Zealand bush, it seems this was not always the case. Theopilus Heale, the commander of the Aurora which brought the first settlers to Wellington, described their bitter disappointment, at the ‘steep and barren hills’, and the Hutt Valley ‘so densely covered wth timber of valueless description’. Other research has found that early settlers felt the bush was gloomy, and even dangerous, particularly once relationships with Māori deteriorated and the bush held potential for ambush.
New Zealand lowland bush is more akin to tropical jungle than the open forests of the European countries that early settlers came from. It’s easy to see how the trees, laden with epiphytes and looping vines, could have appeared unseemly and grotesque, and how the denseness of the bush would have made it seemed endless. A long tradition of European fairytales featuring menacing forests full of strange beasts and lost children would probably have fed on these perceptions. A relatively small and contained remnant such as this could have provided a thrill of other-ness, of Katherine Mansfield’s ancient savagery, without the fear of getting hopelessly lost.
The path takes me up to a picturesque little waterfall that I could imagine delighting the 19th century picnickers. I commune with an inquisitive fantail as I climb up through tree ferns to the nature trail, which takes me past some huge podocarps – a hollow-based rata, and a monumental rimu, vines twisting ladder-like around its trunk. I bring my own cultural perceptions to the bush of course, and I find there is something about the ephiphyte-laden podocarps that makes me think of Enid Blyton’s ‘far away tree’ housing strange creatures on the way up their massive trunks, and magical lands in their distant branches. And as for fairy-tale forests, growing up in intensively-farmed countryside, I longed for limitless woods with the possibility of getting lost.
Cultural perceptions aside, as Catherine Knight points out, no matter what the early settlers thought of the bush, most of them would have had no choice but to clear their land. Enticed here by the New Zealand Company’s promise of endless fertile plains, most settlers would have had to make the best of the land they had bought, sight unseen, in order to feed themselves and their families. Clearing the bush was incredibly hard work: it could take an entire day to clear a patch large enough to pitch a tent. The undergrowth would have had to be cleared, and trees cut down and left to dry over the summer before being burnt in autumn, often several times. Stumps had to be torn up by two bullocks with a chain, and the remaining soil would be full of roots that had to be be broken up with a hoe or mattock.
I’m still not sure though why the early settlers went quite so far. I’ve often wondered why the Rimutaka hills outside Wellington were cleared. Surely no one could have thought they were suitable for farming. Interestingly, when the Minister for Lands was petitioned to preserve the land now in Otari-Wilton’s Bush in 1902 he ‘replied sympathetically …we had been too extravagant in our destruction of bush land – land which was good for little or nothing else had been cleared of its native bush land especially on the Rimutakas’.
I was intending to recreate a 19th century picnic experience on the Troup Lawn, but it has been colonised already by a group of very excitable children with over-sized water-pistols, and so I skulk at an out of the way picnic table. I cross the stream, where the children are refilling their water pistols ready for the next attack, and head up the steep path towards the 800 year-old rimu tree. Where the path levels off, there are a few large trees, but the 800 year-old rimu is the most impressive. I sit on one of the huge roots that snake across the forest floor, eating a cereal bar and contemplating. Wandering further along the path, accompanied rather ironically by the distant noise of a chainsaw, I come to a kahikatea, the tree that Geoff Park described as a ‘supreme survivor’ from prehistoric times, a species of tree so ancient that pterosaurs might have perched in its branches, ‘drying their clumsy wings’. I shuffle between its massive roots and put my ear against its trunk which close up, look scaly, almost reptilian. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it feels solid and ancient and very silent.
Belich J (1996) Making Peoples
Dawson J and Lucas R (2012) Field Guide to New Zealand’s Native Trees
Gabites I (1993) Wellington’s Living Cloak: a guide to the natural plant communities
Golder W ( 1865) The New Zealand Survey
Heaphy C (1968) Narrative of a residence in various parts of New Zealand
Knight C (2012) Did European Settlers Loathe the Forest?
Mansfield K (1907) In the Botanical Gardens, originally published in The Native Companion [under the name Julia Mark] and quoted in Shepherd W (2000)
Park G (1999) Nga Uruora (the groves of life) [this book is out of print and quite difficult to get hold of, a radio series made by late Geoff Park on the same topic is available here]
Russel Taylor C (2008) Cultural perceptions of the Wellington Landscape 1870 to 1900: an anthropological interpretation
Shepherd W and Cook W (1988) The Botanic Garden, Wellington: A New Zealand History 1840 – 1987
Shepherd W (2000) Wellington’s Heritage: Plants, Gardens and Landscape
Ward Louis E (1929) Early Wellington
Information boards in Botanic Gardens, Otari Wilton Bush, and Zealandia
Central Park and Brooklyn Road, Wellington. McBride, Denise & Megan :Photographs of Brooklyn, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-182020-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/32049996
Remutaka [Rimutaka] Hill, one mile from top, looking down on the Wellington side, Bragge, James (photographer), circa 1875, Upper Hutt, http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/127949
Brett Printing and Publishing Company Ltd. Goldie, Charles Frederick, 1870-1947 :In doubt. [Portrait of] Atama Paparangi, a chieftain of the Rarawa tribe. Brett Printing Company ; from a painting by C F Goldie, 1918. 1923.. Ref: B-059-012. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22873437
Bush Tram, Wairarapa – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19030806-8-1