Recently I’ve been reading Gossip from the forest by Sara Maitland, an English book about the relationship between forests and fairy tales, and forests and people. Each chapter contains a ramble through a different English or Scottish forest, some musings and lots of fascinating information about trees, animals, history, fairy tales and people, and then ends with a retelling of a relevant fairy tale. I’m find thing it’s making me reflect on my own feelings about New Zealand’s forests. And I’m also learning a lot about British forests.
So far I’ve learned that the pre-modern relationship between people and forests in Europe was generally quite symbiotic. That the selective cutting, coppicing (cutting off the trunk of the tree and letting new shoots grow from the stump) and pollarding (when a tree’s branches are cut off and allowed to regrow) was good for the biodiversity of a forest, and allowed the trees to live longer. I also learned what coppicing was – it’s a term I’ve never heard before.
I’m not sure that either of those methods work with native New Zealand trees (though I can confirm that they do with the holly and sycamore trees I’ve been having a hard time killing). By the time European settlers got to New Zealand this sustainable living with and in the forest was out and the agricultural revolution was in. Why have lots of trees when you can instead have green productive farmland? In consequence, native forests tend to remain only in isolated areas or on mountains in New Zealand – generally areas that are no good for agriculture.
This interactive map, which shows which parts of New Zealand were forested in the years 1000, 1840 and 2000, indicates that forest loss began even before European settlers made it to New Zealand. Between 1000 and 1840 forest cover reduced from about 80% to 50%, at least partly due to Māori making use of fire in agriculture and hunting. New Zealanders’ relationship with forests is not exactly symbiotic – we have got a lot out of the forests, but the forest has not got a lot out of us.
Settlers changed New Zealand’s landscape in various ways, one of which is that now a green grassy paddock looks a lot like nature to most of us, but in the last few years I’ve been realising more and more how unnatural that really is. A lot of effort has gone in to making those green pastures, a lot of cutting or burning and a lot of fertiliser. A couple of years ago I first visited the UK, and while on a train from London to Edinburgh I got to see the landscape that our rural landscape is trying to look like – the landscape that most of the first European settlers came from. But now, reading Gossip from the forest, I’m realising that the rolling green fields in England and Scotland aren’t really ‘natural’ there either. Forest covered much more of the British Isles, and stock was able to graze within many forests. It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution hit that forests were seen as a barrier to farming.
So the forests visited by Sara Maitland, the author and narrator of the book, are often remnants, or even re-growths of old forests. These forests sound like charming, almost friendly places. With bluebells in the spring, and clearings and sun. The thing that has struck me the most is how different they sound to our forests. For a start, we generally don’t generally say ‘forest’ – ‘the bush‘ is our favoured term. And New Zealand bush is a gorgeous thing to behold and adventure through, but not a good place to go off-track or get lost in. It can be deadly. I remember a very sharp terror of having somehow wandered off the track by myself in a fairly tame bit of bush, and realising I was lost. The bush is so dense that you could be anywhere. (I managed to bash my way through the bush to the nearby road – fortunately I wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere).
Just this week there was a report of a tourist who took one track rather than another and ended up lost for three days in Fiordland. If she didn’t have survival skills, the outcome of her story might not have been so good. So, like many New Zealanders, my feelings about the bush are not just fond, but also respectful and a little bit fearful.
I grew up in a little place called Pinehaven, so named because of the pine trees that grow on the hills that virtually surround it. We also had quite a bit of native bush around, including ‘the-bush-at-the-front’ and ‘the-bush-down-the-back’ of our house. Rimu was my favourite tree – for reasons I’m not really sure about, but probably have something to do with the fact that we had a least one quite large specimen in the back bush, and I was in the Rimu ‘house’ at primary school. The other houses were Kauri, Tōtara and Pine. I think I was a reasonably old child before it dawned on me that pine trees weren’t actually native. I guess when something has been around long enough – like pine trees and rolling green fields, they start to seem like they’ve been there forever.