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Kauri – Witness to a Nation’s History by Joanna Orwin


This book was first published in 2004 and this new edition has been revised and updated to focus on the recent developments in the mysterious kauri dieback disease that has brought the fate of New Zealand’s iconic tree into the limelight. That was what drew my attention to the book. It’s hard to ignore the signs – the abrupt closure of local walking tracks, the emergence of shoe cleaning stations on the ones that have re-opened, and the serious effort that is being put into dealing with what is potentially the death of our beloved giant of the forest.


This book gives a very thorough account of how kauri has held a prominent place in New Zealand’s history. Starting with the arrival of the first Polynesian voyagers to settle in New Zealand and the early development of the land, each chapter explores a different time period and the way that kauri became central to the activity of the time.


When Europeans arrived on these shores they soon discovered the giant and stately tree made great masts for sailing ships. Initially Maori people had limited use for the kauri, but when it became a tradeable commodity a whole industry developed around this. The trade in timber for muskets elevated it as a major player in the evolution of the political landscape.


There was a huge international trade as well, and this created a massive demand for kauri logs. The intensive felling and milling were on a scale that we can look back at today with horror. The mills that were constructed to process the timber became a major industry. Kauri was used in ship building, furniture and house construction, and after the supply of large trees was used up, the kauri gum was dug (bringing another wave of immigrants to the country).


Conservation didn’t become a movement until the 1940’s, although some early warning bells were sounded as early as 1863 against the possible extinction of the kauri. Efforts to protect the remaining trees and to restore areas of native forest began.


Today’s battle against kauri dieback disease is just the latest in the continuing effort to preserve and protect the giant of the forest.


There is a lot of detail in this book, which makes for very interesting reading. The kauri has certainly played, and continues to play a central role in the history of Aotearoa.


Reviewer: Rachel White

New Holland $45.00

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