A tale of two forests
How does pine forest make me feel (11 minute read)
Like the static of an untuned radio, the eucalypts above me are hissing as the wind tickles their leaves. If I look upwards, I could think I was in Australia, and that a flock of noisy, pink galahs could land in the branches above me. Instead, I hear the long trilled notes of the riroriro, and bursts of agitated squeaking from the fantails. The birdcalls tell me which country I’m in, but it’s the smell which identifies the city. The air carries a suggestion of sulphur, the unmistakable sign that I’m in Rotorua.
I’m sidetracked by the eucalypts, because they are special to me, but I’m actually in search of radiata pine. They might be New Zealand’s most-planted tree, but it’s years since I’ve been in a pine forest. I’ve driven through them often enough, but that doesn’t tell me what it’s like underneath the canopy. For reasons of health and safety – trees as well as people – forestry companies aren’t wild about people hiking through their plantations. But the Whakarewarewa forest is criss-crossed with dozens of tracks, and it’s the perfect place to explore what it’s like in a plantation forest. I have a good understanding of what the science says about radiata, but I want to know how they make me feel.
To put my experience with pine forest into context, the previous day I visited Pureora, an area of native forest as pristine as any in the North Island. It is just to the west of Lake Taupō, so I can’t call it ancient, although it seems that way. When Taupō erupted around 1800 years ago, in the largest explosion the earth had seen for thousands of years, the forest must have been flattened, incinerated and smothered with ash. Since then, though, humans have trod lightly, at least in comparison to other parts of the country. Pureora is something special.
In the Pureora forest, generations of mighty trees have grown and fallen and grown again. The rimu trees are centuries old and huge. There’s no need for me to see the leaves to know I’m looking at rimu. Their massive trunks are fluted at the base, and their bark is like a topographic map, with contour lines chiselled in the surface. Matai, a relative of the rimu, can also have a fluted trunk, but its bark looks as if someone took a hammer to it – covered with circular dents. The totara tree, another relative, has bark scored with vertical lines. I don’t recognise the hinau tree by its trunk, but the track is covered with its leaves, so I know it’s there. In the spring, it gives another sign of its presence too – tiny flowers which, on close inspection, have delicate, fringed petals.
There are no flowers yet, but the forest floor is still entrancing. It’s cloaked in a luxuriant tapestry of mosses and ferns which also wrap the base of every tree and creep up the trunks. Among my favourites are the diaphanous filmy ferns, their fronds so thin they are almost transparent. There are dozens of different species, some with fronds only a couple of centimetres long, some almost twice the size of my hand. They only grow if the forest is humid enough, and to get the kind of variety I’m seeing here, it has to be a large area of humid forest, not just a fragment.
There’s another favourite I’m looking out for as I walk, a type of plant known as a fork fern. It’s a weird-looking thing – it grows downwards rather than up, dangling from the trunks of tree ferns only in areas of mature forest. I’ve never seen it growing near Wellington. But I don’t see any of it here either. I’m not sure why, perhaps this area is too cold, or perhaps I’m so distracted by all the other plants I simply miss it.
That is entirely possible, because my eyes don’t know where to settle – I want to look at everything at once. It’s a long time since I’ve been in this kind of forest. There’s nothing like it close to Wellington, so it’s not the kind of place I can visit on a whim. I want to inhale it, that smell of decaying leaves which is somehow the purest, freshest air to have ever filled my lungs. I want to touch the mighty trunks, the damp leaves and the soft mosses. I want to pull out my notebook and write down the names of everything. I want to photograph it all in the hope I can remind myself how this forest makes me feel.
As I walk, I begin to say the names of the plants out loud. Reciting the names of plants I haven’t seen in years feels like singing a favourite song. My car was the only one in the carpark, so I’m sure there’s nobody to wonder if I’ve lost my mind. I say hello to a favourite fern and I stop to hug a tree or two.
I’m giddy with the exuberance of the rainforest where plants grow one on top of another, filmy ferns on tree trunks, seedlings on fallen logs, mosses on fern fronds, vines hanging off branches, huge clumps of epiphytes up in the canopy. I’m aware of something bubbling inside me, a joy I never feel on the streets of a city. I love this forest and I feel a deep gratitude to the people who protested from tree-top platforms to prevent these giant trees from being cut down.
There’s one thing I see that troubles me, though. In patches beside the track, I see the African club moss growing, and as its name suggests, it’s a long way from home. Not every introduced species which grows in the forest is harmful – some just grow in a few patches and make no difference to the survival of native species. But I’ve seen the African club moss form thick, smothering patches on the forest floor, and that is what it’s doing here. Normally, the sides of the track have a variety of mosses, liverworts, ferns and lichens. Patches of African club moss have nothing else.
It will have arrived in Pureora on someone’s boot and is being spread by people walking through the forest. Once established, it’s difficult to do anything about it, because it regrows from spores or tiny fragments. There are still plenty of places where it isn’t growing, but my dread creeps like the plant itself as I see patch after patch, deeper and deeper into the forest. Whether it’s controllable is debatable, because physical removal risks spreading it further and the only feasible alternative is spraying it. That is a difficult decision – is it more harmful to leave the plant or spray areas of the forest floor? There are other questions too. If spraying is done, is there sufficient funding to keep up the programme for the years that may be required to get the problem under control – and if the plant can’t be eradicated, the programme needs to continue indefinitely. And is that the best use of limited conservation funds?
But even the troubling sight of an invasive species and the dilemma of the conservation manager can’t take away the pleasure that this forest brings me. It feels right in a way that I can’t quite describe. There’s so much complexity here, so many layers. I know that many species are gone – there haven’t been a lot of birds, for example – but this forest still feels rich.
I know that I’ve set up the pine forest to fail. This walk in Pureora has brought me so much pleasure. I enjoy the trees and shrubs, but the magic is in the layers of moss and fern and all the tiny plants which blanket everything in New Zealand’s rainforests. These simply don’t grow in a few decades.
Still, I want to give the pine forest a chance to impress me. I start my walk in the Whakarewarewa forest among the redwoods, and they are impressive trees, taller than anything in Pureora and some with trunks as large as the mightiest rimu. There are a few ferns on the forest floor, but mostly it’s fallen redwood leaves. There’s no stream nearby and it’s not humid here. There are signs of moss growth, but nothing like the tapestries of Pureora.
I head out of the redwoods and up a forestry road. There is a mix of trees in the canopy, eucalypts, Douglas fir, Mexican weeping pine and radiata. The undergrowth is mostly native, with tree ferns and other hardy species, but also introduced species like privet. Wherever the canopy is more open, I see gorse.
I try to like it, and I do enjoy the smell of pine trees, but I can’t get excited about radiata forest. Perhaps it’s because most of the tracks in Whakarewarewa are wide and open, so I’m not right under the canopy. Perhaps it’s the age of the forest, because it’s unfair to compare an 1800 year old forest with a plantation mere decades old. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I saw these species growing where they are native, with all their companion species around them. I’ve been in natural eucalypt forest and it’s not like a plantation – it’s so much more diverse. Perhaps natural pine forest has layers of complexity that take centuries to form too. I’m sure that if I saw bristlecone pines which were thousands of years old, I would be enraptured.
But there are still a few unexpected treasures. There’s a boardwalk through a damp area of the forest, and it’s home to some big native tree ferns. Between the planted canopy above and the standing water below, there’s enough humidity for filmy ferns. I stand looking at them, wondering whether they are a remnant from when native forest stood here, or have grown since the redwoods and pines were planted.
Then I spot it, something I certainly never expected to see here. Out of the trunks of some of the tree ferns I see some weird, dangling plants – fork ferns. I didn’t see them in Pureora, yet I’m seeing them here. Something nudges at my prejudices. If I can see fork ferns in a plantation, it can’t be all bad.
As I drive back to Wellington (I’ll update you with more on this trip and the reasons for it later), I contemplate the different landscapes that I see. Without a doubt, I love the landscapes of native plants the best. I love the diverse canopy of our native rainforests. I love the grass and shrublands of the Tongariro National Park, which I see as I drive over the Desert Road. After that, I love the landscapes of hill country farms. I find them beautiful even as I see patches of erosion because grass can’t hold our soils in place. I adore the gentle curiosity of cows too. They are lovely animals, in the right place. It’s not rational, because I understand the impact on our environment, but a lush grassy carpet over the land still delights my eye.
Of all the exotic trees, it’s the eucalypts which make me happiest. I love their shapes and forms, the different types of bark they have and their smell. I love the sounds they make in the wind. But my love of eucalypts in the New Zealand landscape is even less rational than loving the sight of a dairy herd. Although eucalypts aren’t particularly invasive here, they are highly flammable. A few trees here and there aren’t a problem, but too many of them increase the fire risk in a landscape which is not naturally fire-prone.
I spot another area of accessible pine forest, a little to the west of the Tongariro National Park, so I pull onto a side road to take a look. Although I’m on a public road, it’s in rough shape and my car’s only small, so I don’t travel far before I stop and take a closer look at the trees. First, I check the species – is this radiata? Or is it one of the species which is invading our high country? A check of the needles confirms radiata. I look around me. The trees are forming a canopy of sorts, but there’s not much under it, mostly blackberry. Although there are a few hardy ferns, I find little appealing about this forest. My impression is reinforced when I see the skeleton of an animal, perhaps a deer left by a hunter. I feel on edge here in a way I didn’t walking alone in Pureora.
But there’s a sound of birdsong, so I stop and listen. I can’t identify the call – it’s a little like a riroriro with long trills, but not quite the same. I look in the direction of the sound, high in the pines, and I see movement, flashes of black and white. Then it flits into the open and sits high on a branch.
It’s unmistakable. A male miromiro or tomtit, a native species which never ventures into farmland or suburbia. I’ve never seen it anywhere but large areas of native forest. And now I’m in a patch of radiata which doesn’t even have a native undergrowth, and here it is.
The miromiro is a tiny bird, but it has a lot of song inside it. After a few minutes, it flies to another tree and starts again. It flies and then sings some more. I stand and listen for as long as it keeps singing. My rational mind knows that birdsong is mostly about defending territory, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Even if I’m in a pine forest.