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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Maori and the Forest

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The Maori and the Forest

The outlook of the Maori, as in connection with natural phenomena and nature generally, often differed widely from our own; thus he looked upon the far spread forests of his island home as being necessary to his welfare, and also as being of allied origin. This peculiar outlook was based upon the strange belief that man, birds, and trees are descended from a common source; their ultimate origin lay with the primal pair, Rangi the Sky Parent and Papa the Earth Mother, though they were actually brought into being by Tane the Fertilizer, one of the seventy offspring of the above-mentioned primal parents. Also, owing to his supernormal origin, man inherits a strain of the ira atua, divine or spiritual life, as pertaining to his brethren and himself, though he is subject to death owing to his being a descendant of Hine-ahuone, the first woman, who was formed from a portion of the body of the Earth Mother.

A perusal of Maori origin-myths shews us that, when seeking a female being capable of being the mother of a mortal race, Tane begat many species of trees, while he is also looked upon as being the origin of land-birds, as explained in No. 11 of this Bulletin series.* Another supernormal being named Rehua is also viewed as being connected with forests, and, in some recitals, he is referred to as an elder brother of Tane. Thus we are told that Tane obtained certain trees from Rehua, but when we remember that lehua is an old Polynesian term for a forest then the light shines before, for the Maori "r" becomes "1" in several dialects of the racial tongue. Our Maori folk tell us that, when birds first appeared, they were fed upon the vermin of the head of Rehua, and it is plainly shown that such Vermin' were the berries of certain trees. In the myths concerning the visits of Tane and Rupe to Rehua we see that the food procured for them consisted of certain birds (koko) that were feeding on the 'vermin' of the head of Rehua, that is to say of the heads of trees.

Assuredly the Maori prized the forest, and his aim was to conserve it; as a rule any clearing made for the purpose of cultivating crops was not situated in heavy bush but in brushwood areas or light bush, such as is seen on the skirts of a forest. Sometimes a fire page 2kindled in order to burn off a tawaha aruhe (place where the esculent fern-root was procured), or to clear an overgrown path across bracken-covered land, would run wild and do some damage, but fire seldom extends far into our local forests. Such fires would, in olden days, occasionally be the cause of quarrels, and might lead to a muru expedition to punish the fire-kindling offender, in which his crops and other portable property would be carried off, and possibly his hut would be burned.

The old-time Maori was wont to speak of his two 'food-baskets,' namely the forest and sea; these were the principal sources of his food supplies, inasmuch as, in many districts, his cultivated foods, taro and sweet potato, were not produced in sufficient quantities to form a very important part of his food-supply. He spoke of Papa, old Terra Mater, as the mother of mankind, and as providing food for her children; a large proportion of that food was procured from the forest. About fifty-five years ago (1874) an old Maori held forth to certain hearers in the following strain: "Our forests were to us a rich possession, such trees as the totara, miro, matai, rimu, rata, maire, tawa, kahikatea, karaka, hinau, and others, were invaluable to us, as they provided both man and bird with food, and also man with materials wherefrom were fashioned canoes, houses, defensive stockades, and a great variety of implements. So it was that care was taken to prevent the damage of forests by fire, lest such valuable trees be destroyed. In past times birds were exceedingly numerous, but they have now almost passed away. Europeans brought hither rats, and dogs, and honeybees, and these destroy birds; also those Europeans have destroyed much valuable forest, and so have driven the birds afar off."

Another old survivor of long-past forays said: "In olden times our islands were covered with forest growth; the only open spaces were sterile places whereon nothing would grow. When Kupe and other early immigrants arrived here they lit fires at all places whereat they landed, and so much forest was destroyed, also the moa perished in those fires."

There is a considerable amount of evidence to support the Maori statement that these isles of Aotearoa or New Zealand were originally covered with forest growth. In many districts that have evidently long been treeless we find evidence that the land has been bush-covered in past times. In many places swamps in open lands are found to be full of tree-trunks, and it is often clear that such places must have formely been dry lands and not swampy. One of the most remarkable items of such evidence is that contributed by Lieut.-Governor Eyre, who ascended the high-lying slopes of the page 3bare Kaikoura range in the 'forties of last century. His remarks were as follows:—

"Little vegetation on the hill, but mosses and lichens, and some coarse grasses, besides prickly plants, of which the taramea [Aciphylla squarrosa, spear-grass] is the chief, but the singular part was, that on so steep and high a hill, where nothing but mosses and lichens grow, were the charred remains of large totara trees, evidently shewing that the ground once has been low and has been covered with forest, and that it has been pushed up within a comparatively recent geological period." This evidence is interesting and highly remarkable, though some may doubt the latter part of the communication.

Maori terms for a forest are ngahere, ngaherehere, nehenehe, ngahengahe, wao, waoku, and motu, the last mentioned being perhaps confined to the Taranaki district; in most places it is employed to denote a clump of trees or patch of bush of limited area, which same is termed a motu or motu rakau. Other words used to describe a small clump of bush are uru, urupuia, oro, kari, and aropa, the last of which I have heard used when referring to a clump of trees of the same species, as aropa kowhai, but its use may not be restricted to such clumps; I have heard it used among the Ngati-porou folk only. In many places a clump of trees or shrubs of one species is termed uru manuka, or uru tutu, and so on, as composed of manuka, or tutu, etc. Again, papa is a word often employed as is our term 'site,' and it is used in conjunction with tree names to denote that the area is occupied by such trees, as papa kowhai. The word pa is employed to denote a grove of flax (Phormium) and also a grove or number of Cordyline, the so-called cabbage-tree, as seen in the expressions pa harakeke and pa ti; the writer has never heard it so used in connection with any other species of tree. Rōpū is yet another word used to describe a clump or grove of trees, while rake seems to be applied to bush or close mass of growth, such as toetoe, hence it is closely allied to pu—a tuft or small clump, as of rushes, flax, toetoe, etc. The Tuhoe folk use the word pārae to denote forest land; other tribes apply it to open country. The forest as a whole is often alluded to in recitals of folk tales, etc., as the wao tapu nui a Tane, or very tapu forest of Tane.

Captain Cook tells us that, during his brief sojourn on the East Coast of the North Island trees of 'above 20 different sorts' were observed in the woods, and that: "The Country abounds with a great number of plants, and the woods with as great a variety of beautiful birds, many of them unknown to us."

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There is yet another grove-term to be mentioned, and this also was collected among the Ngati-porou folk. The word hapua is on record as denoting a hollow, a depression, also a pool or lagoon, likewise any place much frequented by birds, thus a hapua koko is a term used by the Tuhoe folk to describe a place whereat the koko bird congregates in numbers. It is in this latter sense that the folk of the rising sun employ the word, i.e., as denoting a collection or assembly, in the examples given me as indicating a grove of trees of one species, as a hapua tawari, hapua tawa, hapua kahika, etc., also hapua karari, a grove of flax (Phormium tenax). In this usage the meaning of 'hollow' or 'depression' seems to be lost, for such groves are not necessarily situated in such places. Kopua denotes a deep pool, while hopua is a variant form of hapua.

The descriptions of our local forests left us by the earliest visitors to these shores are not voluminous, but it must be remembered that they did but little exploration on land. Thus, during Cook's first visit to New Zealand, he sojourned at few places whereat bush areas might have been examined, and apparently short walks only were taken in the forest. Banks himself remarks as follows of the flora of these isles: "I cannot say that it is productive of such great variety as many countries I have seen; the entire novelty, however, of the greater part of what we found recompensed us as natural historians for the want of variety."

In Anderson's account of Cook's first voyage we are told that about 400 species of plants were found. Unaccustomed to such forests as ours the voyagers found difficulty in traversing them, hence the remark: "As to the woods they were almost impassable on account of the number of supplejacks which grew there." Elsewhere in the above work occurs the statement: "The hills are clothed with beautiful flowering shrubs, intermingled with a number of tall, stately palms, which perfume the air, making it perfectly odoriferous. These 'stately palms' must have been the common cabbage-tree (Cordyline australis). At p. 45 of Anderson's work (London 1781) we see that 'many trees that produced fruit fit to eat' were seen, but at p. 56 we are told that: "In New Zealand is only one shrub or tree which produces fruit, which is a kind of berry almost tasteless." At p. 196, in an account of Captain Furneaux's interview with Maori folk near Cape Palliser, we read that: "Some of the natives brought us in their canoes abundance of crayfish and fruit." One can but marvel as to what that fruit was.

Dieffenbach, who traversed many parts of the North Island in the early 'forties of last century, makes some interesting remarks on the Taupo district. He tells us that evidently much of the fern-covered page 5land of that region was originally in forest, and that probably such forest was destroyed, not by any volcanic eruption, but by fires kindled by the natives when clearing land for cultivation. He accounts for the lack of humus in the fern-clad lands of Taupo by the theory that probably it has 'filtrated through the porous sub-soil.' Our own experience seems to shew us that repeated burnings of such areas is responsible for the impoverishment of soil. We found here fine forests growing on lands shewing but a scant deposit of humus, and Dieffenbach himself explains how fire has such an effect after the passing of forest growth. Thus, ere long, one views a fern-covered waste, a mixture of manuka and Gautheria, tutu, etc., or of rushes and other waste-frequenting species.

Despite its usefulness to the Maori, it is highly probable that, in dry seasons, fire would not infrequently take its toll of the forest, and that such fires were in most cases kindled for necessary purposes.

The mythical origin of trees has been fully explained in No. 11 of this series, as also the like origin of birds, both coming under the heading of "Origin Myths." Our Maori folk at least partially understood fertilization of plants, and, in some cases, believed that he could recognise different sexes of trees. Needless to say, that one hears some quaint remarks made by natives when speaking of such matters, but in many cases such remarks are merely conjectures evolved by the speaker, possibly while speaking, and not common beliefs of the people. The flowering and fruiting of certain trees were closely observed, as in connection with the art of the fowler, certain signs betokened a fruitful season, and during such a season meant that fowlers would be kept busy.

The Maori employs the word toa when alluding to the male sex of trees, while I have heard the three terms uwha, kouwha, and karawa used to denote the female. The Tuhoe folk tell us that two sexes of the totara (Podocarpus totara) are known, and that the male tree is termed by them karaka, and the female kotukutuku, while one enthusiast informed me that Leptospermum ericoides (kopuka, kahikatoa, manuka, mōarū) is a male tree. Other trees of which they claim to recognise two sexes are the miro, kahika, matai, and kotara, while the hae of male trees of matai, kahika, miro, etc., is not a hua (fruit), but a dust-like pua (seed), such is their name for pollen; only female trees produce real hua or fruit (Ko nga rakau kouwha anake e hua ana). We have seen in a former publication (Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 11) that, when the wao nui a Tane, or great forest of Tane, was brought into being, one male and one female tree of each species was placed therein, but that they proved infertile until the page 6Rara-taungarere caused them to become fertile. This singular name may represent a personification of fertility in the vegetable world.

All forests were under the protection of certain gods, of whom the principal one was Tane, who represents trees and birds. Inasmuch as man, birds and trees are descended from a common source, it is not surprising that, when the Maori entered a forest, he felt himself to be among his own kin, albeit somewhat distant relatives. This attitude was productive of a singular train of thought and also curious superstitions and quaint ceremonial. So it was that, ere a superior tree was felled, the overlord Tane was placated by means of a somewhat elaborate ceremony; in like manner the fowling season was marked by certain restrictions and ritual. This means that the restrictive tapu often affected the forest, either as a whole, or any particular spot whereat a superior canoe was being made, or a ceremony being performed. This tapu lay on the forest during the whole of the fowling season. These peculiar rites and superstitions can be traced back to the universal belief in departmental gods, in quaint origin-myths, and in the possession of a vital spirit, an active life-principle by all entities, man, birds, lowly creatures, trees, and all things that exist. The life-principle referred to is of a tapu nature, and if that tapu be interfered with or desecrated as it were, then the people, birds of forests were in a parlous condition, and open to assault by all the demons and tribulations that ever surround all life and all things.

A forest might at any time be placed under a special tapu on account of the death of a person of importance, and in such cases all food-products in such a forest were under the ban, and no person was allowed to take them. If any person chanced to be so rash as to disregard the embargo, then such an offence, known as kai parapara, might lead to his being slain. The tapu of a forest during the fowling season prevented any person carrying cooked food into such forest; such an act would cause the forest to become tamaoatia or polluted, the tapu would become null and void, the care and help of the gods would be withdrawn, and so birds would desert that region. This hapless condition is explained by the Maori as a result of the life-principle or mauri of the forest being nullified. It must, however, be explained that uncooked food could be taken into the forest, and such food-supply usually consisted of fern roots (Pteridium aquilinum var. esculenta). Not only so, but birds might be cooked and eaten in the forest, so long as no portion of cooked food was carried away from the spot; disregard of such prohibitions would result in the migration of birds to better protected areas. Such a foolish act is termed a taiki, as Ngati-porou put it a taiki i nga atua, a belittling or page 7insulting of the atua, the supernormal beings, spirits, who presided over forests. Troubles inevitably follow upon any disregard of the gods.

Grey-haired old bushmen have told me that birds were exceedingly numerous so long as the Maori cooked them in the old way followed by their fathers, viz., in the hāngi or steaming pit, but when metal cooking-vessels were acquired from Europeans, and used for the purpose, then such an unlucky act caused birds to leave the forest, and so the evil results of the tawhauarua afflicted the people. This term is used to denote a second cooking (tao rua), which is another unlucky act. If, when a steam-oven is opened, the birds therein are found to be underdone, then it is dangerous to cook them again; birds will leave that vicinity; it is one of the many, many unlucky acts that come under the name of puhore. Says the Maori: "If birds be not properly cooked then eat them as they are; do not recook them, or Tane will depart, that is to say, birds will."

A Ngati-awa sage of Te Teko informed me that, during the fowling season, birds were cooked only in the evening, and never during the daytime, otherwise birds would desert the forest. Apparently birds in past times were easily offended, or their patron deities were. At such times, said my informant, the birds would be heard flying away in myriads.

* This refers to Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 11, Maori Religion and Mythology, Part 2.