Old growth Kauri trees are now found only in small remnant areas. But huge ancient logs buried in peat yield spectacular wood.
A small country in the bottom right of the world
New Zealand is a small country far, far away from most of the rest of the world. It’s roughly the same physical size as the United Kingdom, but whereas the UK has about 65 million people, New Zealand has about 5 million. New Zealand is our closest neighbour here in Australia, but it’s still 2000km and a 3 hour flight between Sydney and Auckland. New Zealanders, nicknamed Kiwis after the flightless bird that is endemic there, are often miffed that New Zealand gets left off maps of the world or are tucked inconspicuously away in the far bottom right hand corner.
Despite its small population and remoteness, New Zealand manages to excel in many ways. For instance, it’s probably the country that has had the most effective response to the COVID pandemic of any country in the world. There’s intense competition between Australia and New Zealand in most things, even though Aussies and Kiwis do tend to get on with one another pretty well. Perhaps this is best exemplified by rugby, a sport pursued with almost religious fervour in New Zealand. It pains Australians to admit that the New Zealand All Blacks are usually much better at the game than the Australian Wallabies, even though the record shows the All Blacks winning far more games and retaining the Bledisloe Cup series for nearly 20 years.
New Zealand has a similar colonial history to Australia, being claimed by the British in 1840. The history of the two countries prior to European exploration and colonization was, however, markedly different. Australian Aborigines have been present in Australia for tens of thousands of years – the exact figure remains debated and the dates pushed back even further as new archaeological discoveries are made. In contrast, New Zealand was colonized by the Maori only about 800 years ago. Nevertheless, European colonists of both countries encountered well-established indigenous cultures, and the history of interactions between Europeans and indigenous peoples has not been pretty, characterised by conflicts, attempted subjugation and, only latterly, some attempts at mutual understanding and reconciliation.
The faraway tree
Like many kids of my vintage (and of other vintages too) in the UK, I was brought up reading books by Enid Blyton including The Faraway Tree. This is a series of books about a tree so tall that the top tier of branches poke through the clouds and so wide that it contains small houses carved into its trunk, and where magical things happen.
I’m not sure if Enid Blyton ever visited New Zealand, and it’s likely that the Faraway Tree was inspired by the Yggdrasil tree of Norse mythology. Nevertheless, if ever there was a real live counterpart of the Faraway Tree, the New Zealand Kauri would be it.
Because of their relative isolation, both Australia and New Zealand developed unique sets of plants and animals that were very different from elsewhere in the world. And, despite their relative proximity, the two countries differ greatly from one another biologically. One of the many biological wonders of New Zealand is the Kauri (Agathis australis). Kauri can grow to 40 to 50 metres tall, with trunk diameters of over 5 meters.
Although not as tall as some of the other big trees of the world, it certainly is an imposing tree. Kauri forests are thought to be some of the most ancient in the world, and are only found in the far north of New Zealand.
Turning magic into money
Stunning Kauri forests with stands of very large trees are a wonder to behold. Joanna Orwin’s 2004 book “Kauri: Witness to a Nation’s History” sketches the history of human interaction with Kauri. It appears that Maori made more use of other tree species, although Kauri was used to make magnificent large war canoes. As with many other forests in the world, however, European colonists saw the trees mainly as huge volumes of valuable timber, and extensive logging saw the extent of the forests diminish rapidly.
Today only small vestiges of the original old growth Kauri forest remain. It’s estimated that the forest has been reduced to 0.5% of its original extent, with only about 7000 ha of mature forest remaining.
Kauri was valued for its structural strength and durability, making it ideal for shipbuilding and other construction. It also produces a gum that was actively collected in large amounts for use in varnishes, paints and linoleum. Although we can lament the loss of much of this magnificent forest, it’s also hard not to admire the fortitude and determination of those who worked in the forests. Vividly portrayed in the historical novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx, felling giant Kauri was dangerous and demanding work. A visit to the Kauri museum in Matakohe provides a fascinating insight into the history of Kauri logging, including some pretty impressive pieces of machinery involved in felling and transporting the huge logs, and historic photographs of the whole process.
Preserving a presence
Fortunately, some magnificent Kauri stands remain and are now carefully protected. In Waipoua Forest, some of the biggest remaining Kauri are easily accessible from the road, along a well-made path. This area, where you can see Tāne Mahuta – New Zealand’s largest known living kauri tree – is visited by huge numbers of people. Access is carefully managed to allow people to enjoy the forest without damaging the trees or other vegetation. In particular, to access the trails, you have to pass through a dieback control station in which you have to clean your footwear in an attempt to keep dieback disease out of the forest. Kauri dieback Phytophthora agathidicida lives in the soil and infects kauri roots, damaging the tissues that carry nutrients and water within the tree, effectively starving it to death. In addition, paths keep people away from the base of the Kauri to avoid trampling affecting the tree’s fine surface roots.
To get a real feel for the Kauri forest, it’s good to take a longer walk, and you can do that on Yakas Walk. Because fewer people walk this longer trail, the path takes you right to the base of Yakas, a tree with a girth of 12 meters – depicted at the start of this post. Having the privilege of standing next to this ancient giant is a humbling experience.
As well as conserving the Kauri and its associated forest ecosystem, there are also efforts being made to bring back typical forest fauna. Trounson Kauri Park has been designated as one of New Zealand’s “mainland islands” Since 1995, an intensive ecosystem restoration project has been undertaken with the goal of restoring the kauri forest ecosystem, including the reintroduction of regionally extinct or threatened fauna and flora. Prior to colonisation, New Zealand had no ground-dwelling mammals and instead had an array of weird and wonderful flightless birds – including the famous kiwi – and a rich array of native flying birds. When mammals such as cats, rats, weasels and Australian possums were introduced, those animals either ate or competed with the native birds.
Conservation efforts in New Zealand have long focused on the many small islands surrounding the two main islands – the plan being to eradicate the problem species and allow native species to recolonise and recover, often together with active restoration of forest habitat. These projects, such as the one on Tiritiri Matangi off Auckland, have often been immensely successful.
The Mainland Islands project extends the idea of protection and restoration to bits of the two main large islands (creatively known as North Island and South Island). This is accomplished by eradicating pest animals and erecting specialised predator-proof fencing. One of the many conundrums facing conservation in New Zealand, Australia and many other places is the need to control numbers of some species in order to protect other species. And the goal is to fill the native forests once more with the songs of native birds such as the Tui, Hihi and Rifleman, as well as the ground-dwelling kiwis, takahe and others.
Buried treasure: ancient kauri felled by long-ago natural disasters
Most Kauri logging occurred in the 19th century, but declined after about 1907 as resources dwindled. Kauri was finally protected in 1973 and thereafter little or no further logging occurred, except under special circumstances.
More recently, though, an unexpected source of Kauri timber has been increasingly exploited. Ancient Kauri (also called Swamp Kauri) – often huge logs – are found buried horizontally in peat in wetlands and farmland. Originally found by gumdiggers – people who dug in the peat to find valuable Kauri gum, these huge logs have been found to be incredibly old – 40-50 thousand years old or more, making them the oldest known wood in the world. There are older tree fossils in many places, including places like Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. However, the ancient Kauri wood has been preserved in remarkably good shape and is still a workable – and highly attractive – timber.
How did these huge Kauri logs come to be buried and preserved? It would appear that large areas of forest were subject to some sort of natural disaster that resulted in large numbers of mature Kauri falling over – the exact cause remains the topic of speculation, but potential candidates include an earthquake, tsunami or massive storm. Preservation over thousands of years was possible where the logs were quickly buried in peat and thus ended up in an environment without oxygen and hence little decomposition.
This surprising supply of high-quality old growth Kauri lying under the soil surface resulted in increasing efforts to dig the logs up and use them. Extracting a huge log from the ground is a tricky feat, made possible only by the use of heavy machinery and a bit of ingenuity. Of course, the wood extracted in this way is highly valuable – and a much more lucrative source of income than could be garnered from the rather poor farmland in which many of the logs are found. So, starting in the 1980s, an industry emerged around extracting ancient Kauri logs that could be milled and worked into beautiful furniture and other things. Over the next couple of decades, extraction operations increased dramatically and by the early 2000s large numbers of logs were being pulled out.
It became increasingly apparent that harvesting of ancient Kauri was rapidly going the way of the earlier logging of extant Kauri forests – rampant and relatively unregulated exploitation of a large but still limited resource. Timber mining, in fact. And another ethical conundrum – is it better to leave the buried timber where it is or to make use of what is undoubtedly a very valuable and useful resource?
While it could be argued that the environmental consequences of extracting huge logs from low quality farmland were probably relatively minor, concerns were raised about extractions happening in environmentally sensitive areas, including swamp conservation areas.
Also, while the new source of timber fuelled new local industries producing spectacular furniture and the like, a lot of the timber was exported as raw logs – for instance, a lot of it went to China.
Environmental groups increasingly drew attention to these issues, and policy makers scrabbled to bring in regulations that could rein in the excesses of the burgeoning industry. Exports became limited to finished products rather than raw timber, although loopholes continued to allow unprocessed timber to leave the country for a while. Only recently has the process been better regulated.
A guitar that’s 45,000 years old
So, the obvious question to anyone likely to be reading this post is: can you make guitars with ancient Kauri? And the answer is a resounding yes. As we’ve seen in previous posts, in the middle of all the over-exploitation, excessive trade and so on sits a small guitar building industry that uses tiny amounts of the amazing wood from ancient Kauri to make spectacular instruments.
However, the first guitar builder to use ancient Kauri was a New Zealander who lives not far from where the huge logs lie sleeping underground. Laurie Williams is the classic example of a phenomenon I’ve experienced repeatedly on my travels: a world-renowned guitar maker living in the back of beyond making magnificent instruments in little more than a shed. After training as a teacher, Laurie moved from Auckland to the Paraoanui Valley in the Far North of New Zealand’s North Island in 1993 to start a different life as a guitar maker. His place is well off the beaten track, a long drive up rough gravel roads (with occasional skirmishes with logging trucks), and is surrounded by native bush and farmland. Amazingly, he and his wife Wendy (a nurse) home-schooled all four of their children, and Laurie makes a living from his individually-crafted instruments.
From the outset, he decided to experiment with native New Zealand timbers and now builds distinctive guitars with a strong New Zealand flavour that find their way around the world to buyers in the US, Asia and Europe. I first came across Laurie when I was searching for guitar makers that were using alternative tonewoods, and we initially had a lengthy phone conversation. I’d noticed his use of New Zealand woods on his website and was especially fascinated by the ancient Kauri. One thing led to another (how does that happen?!), and we hatched a plan that he would build a guitar for me which I could pick up personally when I visited New Zealand the following year.
The guitar was to have ancient Kauri back and sides – Laurie has many fine sets of this spectacular wood, and I chose a particularly stunning set. Ancient Kauri wood can be aged using carbon dating, although this technique gives reliable results for objects only up to about 50,000 years old. There are other techniques for older material and it’s possible that some ancient Kauri are much older. According to Laurie, the set of wood for my guitar was dated as approximately 45,000 years old. If guitars are supposed to get better as the wood ages, this is a pretty amazing place to start from!
Laurie sets great store by the overriding importance of getting the soundboard selection right, and we settled on a soundboard also made from Kauri – but this would be from a tree that was especially felled for Laurie in collaboration with a local landowner and Kaitiaki (guardian), Karamea Davis. The story of the Waingarara Kauri has been documented in the film “The Song of the Kauri” http://www.songofthekauri.com/
His other primary choice of soundboard is Tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) that was salvaged from a river. There is another fascinating story behind the Paraoanui Sinker – a log that was felled some time ago and lost during transport downriver.
Once the build was underway, Laurie sent me regular updates and photos of the build, and we confirmed details on all the intricacies involved. The model of guitar being built was called the “Tui” after the native bird, and the guitar sports an inlay of a Tui on the fingerboard.
And soon it was time for me to fly over to New Zealand, visit friends in Auckland and drive up to the far north of the North Island, via Waitangi where a treaty was signed between the British colonists and the Maori. The nearest town to the Williams property is Mangonui, and from there I took the dirt road as directed by Laurie, eventually reaching the homestead after a couple of hair-raising encounters with logging trucks. And there was Laurie, lunch and a guitar.
It’s hard to describe the anticipation and thrill of seeing and playing a custom-built guitar for the first time. And it’s especially nice when you’ve just been handed the guitar by the person who spent the last months/years building it. Needless to say, it exceeded expectations and looked, sounded and felt wonderful.
There’s a debate that keeps surfacing on guitar discussion groups about whether or not it’s OK to buy a guitar without playing it first. Certainly, it’s great to go to a music store and be able to play and compare different models and brands. And even two instruments of the same brand and model may well sound different. But if you live somewhere off the beaten track, that’s not always possible, and the selection available may be quite limited. Also, if you insist on playing a guitar before buying it, you’d never be willing to invest in an instrument that’s custom built specifically for you. However, if you are willing to assume that a good guitar builder knows what they’re doing, then it sould be OK to trust that they will be more than able to discuss build options and turn them into something magical. So, I’ve certainly been willing to take that risk on several occasions, and haven’t been disappointed yet!
I feel especially lucky to have been able to trace the history and ecology of the wood that went into the guitar – from the living Kauri forest and its magnificent trees through the extraordinary story of the ancient Kauri lying buried for thousands of years before being turned into a beautiful instrument. As I mentioned earlier, it’s an immensely humbling experience standing next to a venerable old giant Kauri. Playing a guitar made from wood that is 45,000 years old is pretty humbling too. And becoming a good enough player to do such an instrument justice is an ongoing challenge…