Totara: A Natural and Cultural History

Author(s): Philip Simpson

NZ Natural History | NZ Non Fiction

The 'mighty totara' is one of our most extraordinary trees. Among the biggest and oldest trees in the New Zealand forest, the heart of Maori carving and culture, trailing no. 8 wire as fence posts on settler farms, clambered up in the Pureora protests of the 1980's: the story of New Zealand can be told through totara. Simpson tells that story like nobody else could. In words and pictures, through waka and leaves, farmers and carvers, he takes us deep inside the trees: their botany and evolution, their role in Maori life and lore, their uses by Pakeha, and their current status in our environment and culture. By doing so, Simpson illuminates the natural world and the story of Maori and Pakeha in this country. Our largest trees, the kauri Tane Mahutu and the totara Pouakani, are both thought to be around 1000 years old. They were here before we humans were and their relatives will probably be here when we are gone. Totara has been central to life in this country for thousands of years. This book tells a great tree's story, and that is our story too.

This is indeed a natural and cultural history; the author is an Ethnobotanist – one who investigates the relationship between people and plants – so this story is really a history of Aotearoa/New Zealand from the perspective of a tree! One reason for writing the book is the observation that this ancient tree has been greatly diminished. Totara take hundreds of years to reach maturity and only then do Maori select its durable wood to carve accounts and expressions of their own history. The available supply of this precious resource for future generations has become a serious concern. For their purpose (waka, whakairo carving), Maori selected individual Totara to fell, but European settlers cleared entire forests. So much application did the timber have that it became a victim of it's own success. It was only in the 1970's that forest milling was finally halted – now, only young Totara trees are visible in the landscape – ancient New Zealand has gone. The etymology of 'Totara' is interesting. 'Tara' refers to something sharp and spiney, like Tuatara, while 'Toto' can be loosely described as tall or upright.There are many such aspects to consider and think about in this book. The natural and cultural history offers an overarching perspective of our past and a unique interpretation of the story of Maori and Pakeha in this country. Mike


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Shortlisted for Ockhams Illustrated Non Fiction Award 2018

Philip Simpson is a botanist and author of Dancing Leaves: The Story of New Zealand's Cabbage Tree, Ti Kouka (Canterbury University Press, 2000) and P?hutukawa and Rata: New Zealand's Iron-hearted Trees (Te Papa Press, 2005). Both books won Montana Book Awards in the Environment category and Pohutukawa and Rata also won the Montana Medal for best non-fiction book. Simpson is unique in his ability to combine the scientific expertise of the trained botanist with a writer's ability to understand the history of Maori and Pakeha interactions with the environment. He was awarded the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer's Fellowship to work on Totara: A Natural and Cultural History. Born, raised and now living in Takaka, Philip studied botany at Canterbury University and UC Santa Barbara. He worked in soil conservation, environmental education, and ecology in the public service before becoming a botanical consultant and author. Philip lives on a rural, bush property with his wife, wine scientist Wendy Parr, and he is father to five adult children and grandfather to eight.

General Fields

  • : 9781869408190
  • : Auckland University Press
  • : Auckland University Press
  • : May 2017
  • : 260mm X 224mm
  • : July 2019
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Philip Simpson
  • : Hardback
  • : English
  • : 634
  • : 300
  • : HB
  • : Colour illustrations