Growth Rings: New Zealander Of the Millennium: Tane Mahuta

Listener 29 January, 2000

Keywords: Environment; Political Economy & History;

Perhaps our best image of a millennium is the polished cross-segment of one of those great kauri trees in many of our museums. At its centre is some date over a thousand years ago. The various growth rings around it are marked – the arrival of the Maori, the arrival of Tasman, and so on. The last ring is the year the tree was cut down, typically in the time of my grandfather.

I was reminded of the image when visiting the new visitors’ centre at Wellington’s Otari Wilton’s Bush and Plant Museum on New Years Day. Along side it are some recently planted juvenile kauri trees. The building is likely to be replaced a dozen times in the lifetime of those trees. Those who planted them have a commitment to a millennium that sees much further than the fireworks of New Years Eve.

Local councils put in a bit of money for the spectacle (and also the enhancement of Wilton Bush or its equivalent in your locality). Nothing wrong with encouraging of public partying, if that what the ratepayers wanted. The disappointment was the central government Millennium Fund which may, or may not, have contributed to your party. (The Fund’s website strikes one as portentously ineffective. The slogan “first to the future” was especially pathetic. Is that all New Zealand has to offer to the world?) The new government must be very pleased with the Millennium Fund team. Any reasonably well-run organization would have been scattering funds around to assist the previous government’s chances of being re-elected (as occurred for the 1990 and 1993 celebrations). Instead they got carried away with the commercial opportunity to put New Zealand on the tourist map, found this not especially effective (how many tourists do you think it has generated?), and ended up lamely subsidizing local initiatives.

What a post-modern choice: an opportunity for subsidizing someone making a dollar or an excuse for a party. Is that all we are capable of in this new millennium? Our media struggled too. Something was happening – actually little more than a natural clock ticking past an arbitrary point of time – and we wanted to make something of it. But we knew not what.

Although I never saw it mentioned in any millennium review, a thousand years ago almost all the North Island and the sub-alpine South Island was covered in natural bush. Its subsequent destruction, adding far more to the greenhouse effect than our consumption of fossil fuels, transformed the New Zealand landscape. Little of those mighty forests are left – the 75 hectare Wilton Bush is but a remnant with some secondary growth.

This economist loves the settled productivity of those New Zealand farming landscape, just as this environmentalist loves what is left of the wild mysterious natural habitant. At issue is whether we have the balance right. No, I dont mean “balance”: I mean vision. How can we tear out the natural coverage and hardly notice? To be fair, the new government has preserved some West Coast forests from commercial cutting. (Of course those who were going to benefit from the commercial exploitation are worse off, but Coasters need not be, if the government offset package is big and effective enough.)

Is that one preservation of the natural habitant enough? This is not a question economists can answer, but we can pose it. Should we be not just preserving what is left of the native cover, but regenerating some new bush? I would have had more respect for a millennium celebration in which each local authority, having fired off the ephemera of the fireworks, then announced they were going to extend the natural environment in their region by regenerating bush – a sort of millennium grove. (I can hear ecologists muttering, “dont forget the wetlands, Brian, we are losing those too, and they are as important”.)

Some local authorities are taking initiatives. Wellington has recently set aside an old reservoir for a 252 hectare Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. (It is no surprise that the Sanctuary and Plant Museum have far superior websites to the Millennium Fund.) Perhaps more should do so. Of course it would be on the rates (and perhaps the central government could kick in some tax money). But there is also considerable voluntary effort involved. Would there also be a willingness for individuals to, say, “fund a tree for posterity”? (If they had asked me to donate one of the kauris at Wilton, I could not have said no.)

Making up “person of the millennium lists” is a silly game but, thinking outside the square, perhaps it is Tane Mahuta – and the thousands of followers who have preserved and promoted the environment. Thinking from this perspective faces us with the question of what is our relationship to the land and water, and thence to who we are, what we are, and where we are going. Proper questions, I would have thought, for the turn of a millennium. Instead, we just went out to earn a dollar and have a good party.


DIANA BALHAM wrote in the Listener’s ‘Any Question’ (22 November 2003)

Boo! Bloody Aussies. Always gotta be the biggest.

This is my response to the wild tree chase I have been on for Brian Easton of Wellington, who asks what are New Zealand’s oldest, tallest and largest trees?

Jim Holdaway, an 86-year-old part-time farmer of Dairy Flat, north of Auckland, and our man from the Tree Council, has been invaluable here. He tells me that an Australian mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) at Waitati near Dunedin is probably our tallest tree, at 69.1m. Boo! Hiss! Bloody Aussies, etc. However, Jan Simmons from the Waikato DOC office says that second place could well go to a majestic kahikatea in the Pirongia Forest Park, which is a stunning 66.5m. Yay! Go Kiwis, etc.

On to largeness. Desiree Wikaira from the Waipoua Visitors Centre and Jim agree that Tane Mahuta, in the Waipoua Forest in the Far North has the greatest volume of timber, with 244.5 cubic metres. Another Waipoua kauri, Te Matua Ngahere, has a greater girth: 16.41m, to Tane’s 13.77m, but its timber volume is only 208.1 cubic metres. Te Mahuta is a short, fat fellow at only 29.9m tall, while Tane measures 51.2m in height.

As for age, as Jim points out, it’s hard to age your tree without killing your golden goose. You can count the rings, but then you are left with a glorious stump! Taking a core sample may not work, as very old trees are often hollow inside. But Tane Mahuta probably takes the prize. This anecdote from Jim: “Many years ago – 30 or more – the Forest Service placed a sign at the base of Tane Mahuta which read ‘Age estimated at 500 years.’ This seemed to me to be patently absurd. I was subsequently at a meeting in Wellington where Priestley Thompson, Director-General of Forests, was present. I said to him, ‘Priestley, if that tree is not 2000 years old, I will eat my bloody hat!’ The next time I visited Waipoua, the sign had been changed to read: ‘Probably a sapling at the time of Christ.’ I think you might find that sign still there.”