Book Review: Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_totaraThe ‘mighty tōtara’ has been central to life in New Zealand for thousands of years. It was used by Māori for carving and building, and when the white settlers arrived in New Zealand they found it a perfect wood for cutting into fence posts as they divided up their farms.

Botanist Philip Simpson shares his knowledge of these trees in his book Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History, which is well illustrated with many excellent photographic examples of trees still to be found around the countryside.

New Zealand has four recognised species of tōtara: lowland, Hall’s, needle-leaved, snow and one distinctive variety (South Westland). The biggest trees being the lowland tōtara and the smallest ones the snow tōtara being found among the alpine rocks.

Growing up in the Takaka Valley, Simpson recalls second growth tōtara was a major feature of the valley, as settlers had cleared the earlier forest, and in this boyhood playground his love of the trees began.

In the Foreword Maui John Mitchell says, “Philip has written a history of Aotearoa/ New Zealand from the tōtara perspective. He has seen it as part of the primeval natural world, he has clearly portrayed why the tōtara is the leading rakau rangatira-‘chiefly conifer’-to Maori, and he has shown how critical the tōtara was to successful European settlement.”

Throughout New Zealand, tōtara trees have been honoured by inclusion as place names, for example just south of my hometown of Oamaru there is a small rural school called Tōtara. Its name came about because of a lone tōtara tree growing on a limestone outcrop.

This excellent publication is a book for all to enjoy, the well written text is supported with a variety of photographs in colour and black and white. The cover has a stunning photograph of Pouakani, the largest tōtara tree in New Zealand at 3.88 metres, found at the northern end of the Hauhungaroa Range in the King Country. It can be picked up time and time again to be reread and devoured. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Where tōtara lives and who lives with it” which discusses climate and environmental factors which influence distribution, and the author also discusses the importance of the tōtara to wildlife including spiders, butterflies, lizards, microsnails and birds.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History
by Philip Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408190

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