Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Tuahu walk

Walking in the Tuahu forest

I leave the car first and the sealed road second. I'd like to leave my shoes as well but stern warnings of thorn-vines and stay-a-bit-longer creepers infiltrate the impulse. Familiar, alien birdsong fills a spring afternoon and with the woods just over there and green fields and roadside flowers I could be in England. 

The woods are calling and their edge and its shadows turn the blackbirds away, and the greenfinches and goldfinches and chaffinches. Even the bold robin won't follow me for long. The trees here aren't the trees I know and even these are alien to the wood that waits. Japanese Honeysuckle, Pepper bushes, gum tree and wattle are punctuated by those cheerfully tough treeferns. They seem to manage to poke their wonderful exploding crowns of uncurling fronds through any gap in other trees' canopies, doing their bit to defy these alien invaders

At the useful station, I pause to scrub my shoes and disinfect them. Having endured for millennia and bypassed the logging orgies of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the survivors are now facing another of those pernicious Dieback fungi that seem to be turning up everywhere these days

Keep walking. Keep walking. Listen now. Now I can hear native voices singing: tui, bellbird, maybe. A fantail dances in the sunshine on the path and flits away as I get closer to pause on a branch and tease me on

The woods are changing as the path begins to climb. On my right, the hillside drops away sharply to where an unseen stream burbles along. The shadows under the trees are filling with tree ferns, thrusting upwards, elbowing the toppled trunks of their parents aside. A little further on, and palms are doing the same thing. The two trees create a prehistoric gloom where something hungry, browsing and reptilian would not seem out of place.

The woods are still changing. Tougher locals replacing the invasives. Big trees, now: southern beech have their grey trunks bearded with ferns and cascades of epiphytes. They are massive trees, trunks fork and sweep majestic branches out over the path. Elegant Rimu and Totara slip in beside them. Tough vines string trees together and by now, I seem to have left all the birds behind and the woods are quiet. Tree ferns sigh and their dangling dried fronds whisper secrets to each other. Or rustle suggestively so that I reflexively look for the squirrels of home or expect deer.

The path climbs and forks and I take the narrow trail that loops back, climbs up the hill. Steps. More steps. Somewhere I take my shoes off. The need to do this barefoot is greater than the risk of thorns. Still climbing, still rambling, at least on the inside, I turn a corner

I have met older trees and possibly met bigger ones but very rarely have I met a tree with the simple majesty of a mature Kauri. At 500 years, the Tuahu Kauri is the oldest of this forest and it stands there and takes my breath away. Someone written into being from a book. It reminds me of so many moments: Tolkien's Middle Earth. Beautiful Iftsiga from Andre Norton's Janus books. Ursula Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest. Charles de Lint's First Forest. Middle Earth again. Mallorn? 

At 8' wide, the trunk soars upwards. 25' before the first branches, The trunk is sort-of smooth. It flakes carefully to keep itself free of fern-beards and moss-hairy chests. Those growths come with the branches high above. Here, the trunk feels rough as elephant skin and as grey. Down at ground level, Vulnerable root systems lie just below the surface, cruising through the mulch the trees make for themselves. Delicate, easily crushed, too fragile for a tree of this size, we have to approach Kauri on boardwalks, lifting us off their sacred ground and making the whole experience even more of an audience

For it is an audience and I know I enter the Presence as a supplicant slipping into the throne room.  somewhere, I slow down. Feel the smooth wood under my feet, the warmth if it, the rightness of the moment. somewhere I manage to shut myself up. To stop talking and reading and spouting and just. Stop. And be still. And curl up on a corner of the boardwalk and just breathe for a bit. And stop for a bit and be wrapped in the ancient, growing peace of a Kauri tree.

Tane mahuta in the Agathis Forest of Northland, New Zealand, is believed to be the oldest kauri surviving and to be anywhere from1 250 to 2,500 years old. Coyly, Tane does not give away his age

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