Saturday, February 24, 2007

Death and Beauty in Otaki Gorge

The degree of settler progress into Otaki Gorge is marked, I suppose, by the landscape, the bush in particular. And, even if it is not so marked, this is an agreeable conceit, and one which lends itself to a jaunty and knowledgeable account of the different kinds of treelife that make their home on the outer slopes of this section of the Tararua Forest Park. Unfortunately I could only sound knowledgable if I lied, and so I’ll just aim for jaunty.

First there are the pines, angular and homogenous, with a serrated skyline and lego-tree neatness. I am sure that there are some places in the world where pines-in-bulk is an attractive landscaping feature, but I do not think NZ is the place. Pinues radiata was chosen as a prime crop, so I am told, because in colonial days a number of rich Europeans enjoyed themselves by competing for the most thorough and immaculate collection of pine trees. He who could grow all 73 varieties of pine in his backyard, and keep them in good condition, would stand to earn a small silver trophy, a certificate congratulating him on his hard-work and pomposity, and bitter neighbours. These competitions doubled, fortuitously but fortunately, as experiments in comparative arboreology (meaning the study of relative merits of tree species, if the reader has not heard this phrase before, or if indeed the phrase does not acutally exist); and these experiments led timber merchants to conclude that Pinus Radiata was the most fast-growing variety, and produced pretty good timber, so the merchants (or rather their moustache-wearing, meat-handed, hard-working labourers) proceeded to grow these trees, hack them down, strip them naked and turn them into houses. Pinus Radiata were introduced by new immigrants for economic reasons: when found in large quantities, these trees still have a look of foreignness and artificiality about them.

Further down the valley the bush is more native and natural in appearance, but it still shows the impact of a troubled past. It is green all right, and the hillsides are alive with nikau palms and tree ferns, but it is young bush, patchy and thin. On the river terraces it gives way completely to yellowish-white grasses, knee-high and dense as wheat. And occasionally these grasses themselves give way, to form the walking tracks that I’ve walked along twice a day for the last week, tracks that wind through paddocks of grass and stop at the river beds, like botched crop-circles.

The loggers troubled the bush, but the bush also troubled the loggers. The logging company whose artefacts I have come here (along with a dozen other volunteers) to recover, flourished in the 1930s, during the depression years. Deep poverty and unemployment during this time meant that people were happy enough to get work, without the work being the sort of work where one had a high chance of retiring with all body parts in tact. Men who worked on the railways, at the sawmill and at the logging face, were in danger of breaking limbs and faces and bodies, and they did. A hearty, knowledgeable bloke gave a talk on the history of bush tramways, and a prominent theme was the perilousness of the work, and the injuries that resulted from it. Floors were slippery, rails were steep, hours long and logs big. New technology sometimes eliminated the really dangerous jobs, but it usually created one or two new ones. When logs were hauled over the ground by rope, for example, one guy pushed his luck and scared his mother by working the rope that did the hauling. This rope was passed through pulleys, so that the logs could be passed around corners; unfortunaely, the log could not pass through the pulleys, so the rope-man had to unhitch the rope from the pulleys when the logs came past. The log was dragged p to the pulley, the rope unhitched, and the log jerked past. The thing that did the jerking was an astonishing machine called a log-hauler; the man who controlled the jerking stood at the log-hauler; and the man who told the log-hauler man when to do the jerking was the rope-man. Most of the time, the system worked: the log stopped and started when it was supposed to, the rope was properly unhitched, and the body of the rope-man was not burst under a log like a possum under a car. Other times, the system did not work.

Because of the times when the system failed, and for reasons of speed and economy, a new system was created. Now the logs were swung above the terrain on a wire that was strung between tree-high poles, like a single telephone wire across telegraph poles. The rope-men swore at their bloody pulleys for the last time, got smashed at the pub, and moved on to a job less likely to kill them. All, that is, except those who became pole-men. The pole-men were charged with climbing the tree-high poles so that they could create and maintain the bits of machinery that supported the wire and the flying logs. Cranes and helicopters were in short supply in those days, and so the pole-man got to the top using ten planks of wood, one axe, and a lot of muscle. The axe made notches in the pole at about chest-height. The planks went in the notches. To make the first notch, the pole-man stood on the ground. To make the other notches, he stood on the planks. To get from one plank to another he used a lot of muscle. If the plank, stuck into the pole like a loose tooth, did not break or slip out of its little cavity, and if the pole-man, strung over the wooden tooth like a piece of last night’s roast, kept his grip and his nerve; then he would head pretty smartly onto the plank and move onto the next one. If not, he would head pretty smartly towards the ground and move onto the next world.

Anyway, back to the bush. At the place where the log-hauler hauled the logs and the rope-man tried not to die, the bush is similar in species to the bush further down the gorge. It differs from the other bush mainly in its thickness. It is dense and moist and green as moss: nikau palms and tree ferns lean out from the hillside and spread their palms benevolently over the vegetation beneath them, like motherly arms. Fern fronds are beautiful things. Tapered, green, fractalled, they splay about like peaceful spears, intricately carved. It is no surprise that the silver fern, with its surprising underside, is a national emblem. It features on one of the flag designs that has been proposed by forward-looking people to replace the British-looking thing that we have at the moment; you can see it on the helmets of NZ cricket players; and when All Blacks get sentimental they talk about “wearing the silver fern” on their jerseys. The Department of Conservation (the organisation that runs the volunteer week I have just completed, and many other things besides) also uses the fern as a logo, this time in its youthful, furled version, with one curling stalk, wound inwards like a seahorse tail; and with all the other curling parts that will eventually unfurl to produce the elegant pattern, hierarchically repeated, of the open frond. The stalks of the fern are brownish black and covered in dark hairs, like the legs of spiders.

Toitois hem the bush at the edge of the creek that runs through the gully. Toitois have straw-coloured stalks that lean out from the bush, a blast in stasis, and they curve slightly from the weight of the flower at the end, a drooping pennant of fluff. The stalks seem to be made up of concentric cylinders, and the outer layers dry up, stiffen and detach from the stalk. These discarded skins are crunchy underfoot, and they collect in and around the toitoi bushes, dry and curled like wood-shavings from a very long plank.

The creek chatters and tumbles in the way that streams do when they are shallow and stone-filled. The water is wonderfully clear. There is not much difference between viewing the stones directly, and viewing them through the water. The latter are darkened by moisture, browned by a layer of slime that makes river-crossing such a refreshing activity, and distorted by the swirling wrinkles that texture the surface of the water, squeezing the rocks into corresponding wrinkles and, on sunny days, casting a wobbly net of light onto the creek bottom. Otherwise, the water in this place is as transparent as the air, and on good days it looks as if the creek is empty except for a thin layer of molten glass sliding over the rocks on a river of air. In some places the illusion is broken by eddies and waterfalls. In one place, a pair of large rocks create a minor damn. They back the water up then spill it out, and at the foot of the rocks the water plunges down deep then bubbles up in a champagne froth, pale-green and ceaseless.


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