The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 47 — Dr. Leonard Cockayne. The Empire's Greatest Botanist
Lord Bledisloe is foremost among those lovers of the New Zealand primitive vegetation who profoundly appreciate the value of the scientific work of the late Dr. Leonard Cockayne. In a notable address, published in his “Ideals of Nationhood,” he described Cockayne as the greatest of the Empire's botanists. Another eminent man in the scientific world, Professor Tansley, wrote that “Leonard Cockayne played the most conspicuous and important part in the development of modern field botany during the first third of the twentieth century. He showed what field botany could become in the hands of a man with the right endowments. Not only could it give us a really adequate scientific picture of natural vegetation, but it could also be most effectively applied to the utilitarian purposes of forestry, pastoralism and reclamation of lands. Cockayne's vigorous indefatigable personality, combined as it was with complete sincerity of mind, wide outlook, and the particularly acute powers of observation and memory that make the born field naturalist, were devoted to a flora and vegetation of great richness and unique interest at a time when it was largely unspoiled by human interference.” His distinction happily was well recognised before he died, and the many publications he gave to the world are his enduring memorial.
Teonard Cockayne was an Englishman whose quick, keen brain early turned to the study of wild nature, and who was fortunately able from his boyhood to engage in the botanical research that developed into the great and all-absorbing love of his existence. He was born at Thorpe House, Norton Lees, Derbyshire, on April 7th, 1855. His father, Mr. William Cockayne, was a merchant. Reared in conditions that made him acquainted with the beauties of nature, his childhood life was a fitting preparation for the pursuits that came to dominate his career. He lived much in the out-of-doors; he was in the midst of gardens and trees. He was educated chiefly at Wesley College, in Sheffield, and he spent two years at a Manchester College with the idea of becoming a doctor. He studied chemistry and botany, but did not take a degree or carry out his youthful desire to be a doctor. His intentions were not very clearly defined at that early stage; it was his migration to New Zealand in 1880—he had an uncle here—that opened up to him interests in the study of wild life that shaped and matured his scientific tastes.
Early Work in New Zealand.
He was first a school teacher, for several years after coming to this country. He was on the staff of the Tokomairiro District High School. It was then that he began the study of New Zealand's plant life; and later, when in Christchurch, he experimented in the reclamation of sand dunes. He established a kind of plant museum close to the sandy coast near Christchurch, and it was there that he became known as a keenly observant student of the New Zealand native plant world. Eventually he gave up his teaching work and applied his whole attention to botanical problems, to the incalculably great benefit of his adopted country.
The Study of Our Flora.
Henceforth his life was spent in making an intensive survey of the plants of New Zealand and their environment, and in exploring every forest zone, from the kauri groves in the far North to the rich rain forests of the South and the West Coast, and Stewart Island. The alpine and subalpine vegetation particularly interested him, and he was the most vigorous and outspoken critic of the acclimatisation blunders, which have resulted in enormous injury to mountain flora.
In 1904 he was requested by Professor Engler to write the volume on the vegetation of New Zealand for publication in his series of monographs on the vegetation of the earth. This great book was published in 1921; in the meantime Cockayne wrote many reports on botanical surveys for the New Zealand Government.
Surveys of Forest Regions.
He wrote about the Arthur's Pass region, which was one of his earliest happy hunting grounds; the Waimakariri River region, the off-lying islands of the South, the Waipoua kauri forest, Kapiti Island bird and forest sanctuary, the Tongariro National Park, the dune areas of the Dominion, and other regional descriptions. Some of his work, such as the Tongariro National Park survey, was done in conjunction with his friend and fellow-lover of the forests and flowers, Mr. E. Phillips Turner, of the Scenery Conservation and State Forest Services.
A most useful handbook written by these two great men is “The Trees of New Zealand,” published when Mr. Turner was Director of Forestry. To this manual I often turn for enlightenment and for sheer pleasure of the study of our trees; its clearness and simplicity, combined with a masterly scientific presentation of the subject, gives it an educational value that should be more widely known. It enables New Zealanders and visitors to the country to identify trees and shrubs and to learn something of their characters and uses. The authors page 10 trusted also that it would attract school-teachers and senior pupils in the schools, “so that the latter,” as the authors explained, “may come to understand clearly what a priceless possession are these forests of theirs with the trees pure New-Zealanders, and that with such knowledge will arise a fixed determination that the areas of forest and other vegetation set aside as national parks, scenic reserves and sanctuaries shall never be desecrated, but remain far into the distant future living examples of primeval New Zealand.”
The Spoilers of the Forests.
Dr. Cockayne again and again emphasised this point, the preservation of the rapidly disappearing primeval vegetation of New Zealand in its original unsullied condition. In the Otari Open-Air Museum at Wilton's Bush he illustrated his principle of faithfulness to Nature's original scheme by stipulating that no species should be added to the bush which did not originally belong to that class of forest—the semi-coastal forest of Wellington. His intention, as the Director of Kew observed, was to bring back the forest as nearly as might be to its original composition and status. We may imagine from this, if we had not known it already, that Dr. Cockayne's objection to what has well been called “mongrel forest” was as deep and great as his objection to deer and other destroyers.
The Forest's Power of Recovery.
Dr. Cockayne frequently pointed out the usefulness of such small trees as manuka as nurse-trees for the larger timbers, especially the kauri. Yet it has been the custom to get rid of the manuka as mere useless “scrub.” He had a strong belief, based on long experience, in the power of much of the indigenous forest to reproduce itself. In his account of the botany of Stewart Island he wrote: “There is a deep-rooted popular belief that when the New Zealand forest is once interfered with, and the light let in through trees being removed, and so on, it is doomed. This opinion is one of those half-truths that arise from an imperfect acquaintance with the facts. It is true that forests do cease to be; but it is not merely the cutting-out of a certain proportion of the trees which has led to their destruction, but fire and cattle-grazing must be added to the destructive influences. In Stewart Island, cut the forest to the ground, burn its last remnant to ashes, and in a very few years, notwithstanding the presence of cattle, it will reappear.”
The indigenous forest, he held, while-some of it was of great value as a source of timber, was for the larger part possibly of greater value in its function as protection forest for conserving and regulating the water supply and preventing erosion.
In the Midst of the Trees.
The great botanist was always ready to place his vast store of plant-lore and his advice about tree-planting at the service of his fellow New Zealanders. He fired others with his enthusiasm for the saving and reproducing of the country's natural vegetation. One of the visible fruits of his long campaign is the Otari Open-Air Museum, at Wilton's Bush, Wellington, where trees and plants representing the original covering of these islands are assembled in a little wild park. In that beautiful sanctuary of primitive flora he was most fittingly laid, on page 11 his death at Ngaio on July 8th, 1934. His works live after him; his memory is revered by thousands who never knew him but through his faithful and loving labours in the cause of the beauty and the treasures of the real New Zealand.
A Great Botanist's Tribute.
Only a botanist can adequately describe the special value of Dr. Cockayne's plant experiments and surveys, and I turn gladly to an appreciation of his work written by Sir Arthur W. Hill, the famous. Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Surrey, who visited New Zealand some years ago. What appealed to Cockayne so strongly, he wrote, and what fired him to pass on his vision so ably to others, was the study of the living plant in its natural surroundings.
“Unrecognised and unlabelled at first, Cockayne in New Zealand was already an ecologist waiting for the term to be adopted by botanists, and fully trained, with his keen insight, to lead the way not in New Zealand only but in the world. Ecology, as Cockayne himself briefly described it, is ‘the class of research which deals with living plants and their relation to their surroundings, and which gathers its data from actual observation in the field.’ Therefore it is fitted to provide ‘a more accurate knowledge regarding the maximum and minimum requirements of each economic plant and its behaviour when growing with other plants and animals’.”
In recognition of natural hybrids—which at the time was considered almost heretical in the botanical world—Cockayne opened up a new branch of study, and stimulated investigation. His attention was first drawn to the prevalence of natural hybrids in the New Zealand flora by his study of the native beech trees. Two distinguished botanists who visited the Dominion, the late Dr. K. Ritter von Goebel and the late Dr. J. P. Lotsy exercised a profound influence on Cockayne and stimulated him further in his special lines of research. When von Goebel came, in 1898, Cockayne was studying the seedlings of our trees and shrubs and their remarkable juvenile states.
The two great botanists deeply appreciated each other's worth and discoveries, and Cockayne wrote in 1933 that “Von Goebel's visit was the greatest stimulus to my botanical career.” It was owing to Goebel's representations that the honorary degree of Ph.D. was conferred on Cockayne by the University of Munich in 1903.
For his researches and writings on plant ecology Cockayne was awarded in 1912 the Hector Medal and Prize by the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand).
The Darwin Medal.
In the same year his work was recognised in England by his election to the Royal Society; this was crowned in 1928 by the award of the Darwin Medal. New Zealand's great native son, Lord Rutherford, President of the Royal Society, said in conferring the award at the Anniversary Meeting:
Lord Rutherford also spoke of the remarkable local effect of Dr. Cock-
(Continued on page 49 )page 12