Saturday, 29 March 2008

Orwin Kauri: Witness to a Nation's History

KAURI: WITNESS TO A NATION’S HISTORY Joanna Orwin, New Holland, 2004, 208 pages, paperback, NZ$39.99.
ISBN -86966-037-4

This superbly presented slice of our national heritage is a certain winner when the Book Awards are handed out next year. Instead of the usual collection of antiquarian curiosities, Joanna Orwin has chosen to reconstruct the historical and cultural ecology of the kauri in succinct prose and superb pictures.

To the early Maori in the North, the mature kauri was not as important in daily life as totara, karaka or even manuka. Its great size, however, earned it respect as Te Matua o te Wao, the Father of the Forest. The kauri appeared in legend swapping its skin with the whale, and its light, straight-grained timber was used for some large war canoes.

The status of kauri changed in 1772, when a French naval officer noted kauri as “very suitable for making ship’s masts.” The expanding timber trade for masts and spars changed the local Maori economy. As Waaka Vercoe of Tauranga said ruefully, “…it was all right for you [Hokianga] people, you could cut down one little kauri sapling and you’d get two or three muskets – we had to cut twenty tons of flax.

Note that quotation. Orwin enjoys letting people speak for themselves. When Titore sold spars to the Royal Navy, he declared, “Here are some trees for your battle ships”. We also read the words of millers, ship-builders, Maori and Dalmatian gum-gatherers, bullock-drivers, scientists, furniture-makers and bush-men. You can almost hear this book talk.

Every page is rich in lively detail. The care given to the selection and captioning of pictures is also impressive. The sequences of photos showing gum gathering, kauri rafting, and the dramatic use of timber dams are particularly well done.

Orwin has an ability to draw connections and give insights into unexpected relationships. Thus she directs readers to the kauri’s companions: not just the carnivorous kauri snail but also the world’s tallest moss, delicate orchids and fragrant mairehau. Kauri gum has been used for fabric dope for aircraft wings, marine glue, dentures, linoleum, printing ink, Pears soap, cigar holders, jewellery, and furniture restoration. Violin-makers valued its fine varnish. “They still claim that the kauri gum varnishes produce the best sound,” says Milan Jurlina, a former gum trader, who owns the largest remaining gum stockpile.

Above all Orwin values accuracy. She debunks the nonsense about kauri masts at Trafalgar. Less romantically, kauri provided railway platforms in Sydney and warehouse beams in San Francisco. Kauri’s influence on our housing and furniture is also shown.

Kauri is a model of how to present research information, and how to draw readers into the unexpected excitement of a subject. For example, the last war between Maori groups took place as late in 1898, when two hapu of Ngati Hine fought over their gumfield rights with firearms. Orwin doesn’t just retell yarns; she has a photo of one of the war-parties and names those killed, before peace was made at Poroti.

Her account of our changing attitudes to kauri forests, from destruction to conservation avoids over-simplification. It is also very readable: “Invading deer, goats, and possums rampaged through the forests like soccer hooligans on package tours.” She also explains why there is no Kauri Forest National Park and probably won’t be for some years. That jewel will only be placed in the National Parks’ crown when Treaty negotiations are completed.

Orwin combines the awareness of an historian, the perception of a novelist and the understanding of a scientist with her depth of knowledge of things Maori. With its excellent maps, good use of illustrations, lively text and superb design, Kauri is a book worthy of its subject.

This review by Trevor Agnew first appeared in The Press, Christchurch on 13th November 2004.

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