the spirit of the place

Calming the mind allows the subtler senses to engage. Gentle listening to trees and landscape features inspires awe and connection with something greater. Some trees (see picture below) have quite a presence indeed!

I had a question in my mind before visiting New Zealand. If the English landscape is imbued with milennia of spiritual practice, how would it be in New Zealand where humans have interacted with the land for a mere 800 years?

In the English countryside there are countless wells, standing stones, sacred hills, ancient yews and other energy landmarks, as well as churches built on sites of worship to aspects of mother nature. Since pre-history people  have observed an energy in a place, felt connection and generated a location of spiritual focus, then handed it down through generations. If you are open to it, you can often feel that energy now, even if local practice has slowly dropped away since the ‘Enlightenment’ and the lore has been lost. Is it the wavelength of the place and/or the wavelength of the human interaction over generations that creates the energy there?

The Maori arrived in Aotearoa so recently by comparison, and though there is research to show other peoples may have been there before, fewer generations have invested in the land. In addition, the rock is much newer – volcanic compared to the largely Cambrian, long-weathered bedrock of the British Isles, scraped and moulded by several ice ages.

Anyway, from the first morning when I stepped out into the suburban streets of Auckland I felt the soul of the place was the trees. The most amazing large, old, characterful trees had been allowed to stay between the wooden bungalows. What a joy. I walked in the sweltering heat (I later learned that even for subtropical Auckland it was a heatwave) to the local park where more magnificent trees  the like of which I had never seen grew tall and graceful. Some imported horse chestnuts looked stunty and unhealthy by comparison.

Rightly, much is made of tree conservation and bush (forest) regeneration in New Zealand. It’s a passion, and a given ‘good’ in Kiwi society. The whole of the islands were originally deeply forested, and the Maori took what they needed. The Pakeha (Europeans) arrived and within a century the land had been largely cleared: valuable timber to build with and export, pasture for stock.Travelling the islands I felt a loss where the hills and valleys were scraped clear or arrayed with lines of pine for agroforestry .

Where forest was intact or regenerating, it is an exciting sight and dauntingly impenetrable. The forest has a lovely texture, hardwood trees unlike any in Europe, interspersed with the exotic-looking ponga and black tree ferns. The bush is only really accessible on Department of Conservation (‘DOC’) tracks and boardwalks, both to protect the trees and nesting birds, and to avoid you getting lost. Walking through it, every turn feels perfectly composed, nature having a better planting plan than any garden designer could come up with. Ferns and other epiphytes take root on the bigger trees.

Enter the mythological Kauri, Agathis australis, a kind of pine and the world’s second largest tree (after California’s sequoias). It provided long, straight, very solid timber for ships’ masts, and is a joy to work with a fine grain for furniture, apparently. It also produces a resin made into varnish. The trees grow up to 50m in height and and 20m in girth but loggers battled almost impossibly with steep terrain and teams of oxen to cut and then drag out the heavy timber, so valuable it was. Three-quarters of the only surviving mature trees can be found in an area only 100 square kilometres in Northland. Look at Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, 18m to its lower branches, and see the tiny heads of tourists at its base.

On the left you can see trees in the ‘Cathedral Grove’ group, appropriately named, the trunks like columns and, further from the tourist hubub, a place for communing. These are some powerful and implacable trees. I feel that these and the less remarkable, but equally spirited trees of NZ are the soul of the land. As my friend Deb from the Wairahe valley said, ‘we (humans) are just the epiphytes on these islands’.