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Maori Agriculture

Preparation of Land for Cultivation

Preparation of Land for Cultivation

The amount of labour required to prepare a piece of land for cropping would depend on whether or not such land had been previously cropped, and, if not, on its natural condition. If previously worked, then the work was comparatively light, the removal of weeds and working of the soil. If a new piece of ground was to be broken up, it might be covered with fern (bracken), or scrub, or bush, or stones, all of which demanded much labour from a page 141people provided with such poor tools. A clearing in bush or scrub covered land might be made in several ways. A method known as hapai tu meant the removal of all timber, or its destruction by fire, any logs that would not burn being rolled aside. This is a modern method, I take it. In other cases the bigger trees were left. The autara or kairangi method consisted of cutting the branches from a tree, but leaving the trunk standing. Such bush clearings are known as waerenga. Since the acquisition of European tools such clearings have been made by felling the trees with steel felling axes, the earliest obtained being the old-fashioned narrow bitted English axe. In former times the Maori possessed no good wood cutting tools, hence he was compelled to rely principally on fire in his clearing operations. Branches were broken or hacked off, plants pulled up, and all were piled in heaps, or against trees and logs, and burned.

The following notes from the already quoted paper by Archdeacon Walsh are of interest: "In preparing a piece of land for cultivation much had to be done long before it was ready for planting, and, considering the nature of the tools available, the labour must have been almost incredible. The whole surface of the country was covered either with bush, fern, or tea-tree scrub, except, perhaps, on some of the river flats, and even these had to be cleared of a rank growth of rushes, toetoe, flax bushes, and other plants found in such places. The work was always done in the late autumn, when the weather was dry and breezy, and the soil in a suitable condition for working. At this season also the fern root (aruhe), an important article of food, was at its best. Fire was the principal agency for preliminary operations. For a bush clearing (waerenga) a place was generally chosen at the edge of the forest, over which the fire had run some time before, and had killed the standing trees. The branches and small stuff were broken down and piled round the larger trunks, and, where necessary, dry material was collected and carried in to assist the combustion. The small roots were dug and thrown on the fires, and where possible, the large stumps were undermined and prized out with a kind of gigantic spade worked as a lever by the united strength of several men. This may seem rather a tedious way of clearing land, but a number of hands intelligently employed made light work, and on a dry, windy day the business proceeded merrily; and if some of the heavier masses of timber still proved refractory, they were left to be dealt with at a future season, and so by degrees all obstacles to cultivation were removed. In the case of clay lands, page 142especially those on the river flats, drainage was necessary, and where possible, surface channels were made before the winter rains set in, as the prolonged exposure to water not only retarded the spring operations, but had the effect of 'souring' the soil, and making the work of cultivation more difficult. On the old cultivations the cleaning out of these drains was the first thing to be attended to as the planting time approached."

After describing the method employed in breaking up land with the ko, the above writer proceeds:—"It is not to be supposed that these processes were completed in regular sequence, i.e., that the entire patch was cleared before the digging commenced, as would have to be done in preparing a piece of land for the plough. As a matter of fact the several processes would often be going on simultaneously on different parts of the field, the smaller stumps and roots being taken out in the action of digging, while special gangs were dealing with the larger pieces, and the general crowd keeping the fires going all over the place. Allowing for the difference in the implements, practically the same system is pursued on a Maori waerenga at the present time.

The only object for the deep digging was to get rid of the roots and clear the land from the fern, which would otherwise shoot up and injure the growing crop. On a patch that had been previously cultivated it was sufficient to clear off the weeds and stir the surface for a couple of inches. In fact it was an advantage to have a hard bottom, as where the tillage was too loose the roots of the kumara were inclined to run, and the tubers to be small and of poor quality."

The statement about the soil being stirred merely to a depth of two inches is scarcely correct. The ko was thrust much deeper than that, though the soil was not turned over, but merely loosened, and, if necessary, pulverised.

"The native method of preparing land," wrote Polack in the early part of last century, "is by burning; the soil is afterwards dug up in clods by spades and hoes, and left exposed for the weeds and new grass, which soon spring up after burning, to decay. The farmer then waits for some heavy rain, which, saturating the clods, renders them easy to crumble, which done the soil is levelled with much care, and the seeds planted." In Polack's time the natives had already acquired European tools.

Weeds were usually piled in heaps on the margins of the cultivated plot. These heaps were termed hawahawai, and occasionaly kumara page 143were planted in them. This refers to weeds taken up during weeding operations among growing crops.

In Bayly's Journal (Cook's Second Voyage), are a few remarks on native methods of clearing ground for crops, as seen at Tolaga Bay:—"They first set fire to the wood and then cut it off about knee high and then turn the earth and cleanse it with sticks which serve instead of spades." This looks as if he had seen clearings made in scrub, perhaps manuka. The natives did not fell any large trees when making a new plantation, nor would a fire run through any ordinary bush. Fire was largely used in these tasks, but had to be kept going by piling on brush, logs, herbage and debris. Shrubs and small trees were hacked down with stone tools or taken up bodily. The larger trees were left, but often killed by fire, and then burned down in succeeding years, when dry. Both sexes, of all ages, assisted in such work.

The Rev. R. Taylor, in his Te Ika-a-Maui, makes the following remarks concerning native cultivation grounds:—"Three years cropping being, in general, all that can be obtained from one spot, the place is then abandoned and another selected. But this abandonment is only for a space of time; instead of turning up the soil and suffering it to lie in fallow a season, their method of renewing it is to allow it to remain unoccupied until it is covered with a growth of wood, if situated in woodland; or of fern, if in fernland, which requires a period of from seven to fourteen years, when the spot is again cleared and planted. Thus many places which appear never to have been touched by the hand of man, are pointed out as having been the farms of some ancestor, and, when more closely regarded, will be found destitute of old timber. The kumara, taro, and even potato grounds are generally selected on the sides of hills having a northern aspect; by this declivity towards the sun they gain an increased degree of heat." It depended, of course, upon the quality of the soil as to how many successive crops were raised on an area. It might not stand more than two. Again, in many places, flat land, such as alluvial river flats, were the only or principal lands cultivated.

Thomson, in his Story of New Zealand, tells us that the kumara and taro were cultivated in the South Island north of Banks' Peninsula. He proceeds:—"The small finger-shaped sweet potato, brought by the New Zealanders from Hawaiki, furnished much food. The edible part is several inches long. Sweet potatoes are planted in November and are ripe in March. Light sandy soils suit them best, and the warmer the climate the better. In the Middle page 144Island [South Island] they grow with difficulty. After being dug up they are carefully preserved in houses built for their reception….

The culture of sweet potatoes has been much neglected since the introduction of a large species from America. [The large sweet potato called kai-pakeha, to distinguish it from the kai-maori or finger-shaped sweet potato, was introdced by an American whaler in 1819.] But an idea of the high estimation in which they were formerly held may be drawn from the care bestowed upon them. The men engaged in preparing the ground ornamented their hair and spades with feathers. The seed was planted in hillocks perfectly straight, and each potato was placed in the ground with the seed end towards the rising sun. The labourers so occupied moved along in rows chanting songs to propitiate the god of cultivated food. Some of them were tapu; and no sick persons, or women recently confined, were permitted to plant sweet potatoes. The labourers, on giving up the work for the day, washed their hands and held them over a tapu fire before eating. A small wooden image daubed with red ochre was stuck in each field to show it was tapu. The plantations were carefully weeded, and it was the duty of every one to plant a certain quantity of sweet potatoes every year."

In olden days the removal of tapu from planters was a more ceremonial affair than is described above. The image mentioned would be more likely to represent the autua under whose care the crop was placed. The aspect of tapu pertained to all growing crops.