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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter XIII. — Some Forest Lore

page 167

Chapter XIII.
Some Forest Lore.

The Maori, living as he did in such intimate touch with his Mother-earth and the forest, had careful respect for the spirits of the wild, and his mind was saturated with the magic and mystery of the bush. The forest was his home, refuge, and defence; from it he drew much of his means of life. He was prone to invest the Tree with human attributes. The Mountain, the Rock, he clothed with poetic legend and with lore of tapu.

A feature of the old Maori's reverence for the sylvan deities, whose material frame is the spreading forest-tree, is their habit of referring to the trees as their ancestors. Some genealogical tables trace a chief's pedigree away back into the dim past until it comes to what was regarded as the root of all things—the tree.

Tane-Mahuia, the ancient Maori god of the trees, is in fact, the personification of the trees of the forest and of the birds which have their homes therein. Tane's limbs were the trees; it was with these great forest-pillars that he propped up the leaning sky. The ancient classical name for the dense forest was “Te Wao-nui-a-Tane” (“the great forest of Tane”).

The olden Maori would not lightly lay hands on those noble children of Tane, towering so far above him. The affectionate strain in which Tennyson sang of his “Talking Oak” that “circled in its grain five hundred rings of years” was merged in the Maori mind in the deeper mystic feeling of awe and dread of the consequences of offending or in any way meddling with the life and sanctity of his spirit-tree.

page 168

All through native districts, in fact, one comes across instances of this tree-veneration, sometimes in stories, sometimes merely hints or stray allusion, William Cullen Bryant and Longfellow could have well appreciated this aspect of the Maori nature worship. Bryant, in one of his poems, expressed just the idea of a Polynesian when he speaks of strange shudderings that run through the tree's fibres when the axe is raised against it, and of the faint, dream-like, yet real existence beneath its thick, rough bark.

The most ancient story pertaining to any of our trees is the legend of the origin of fire. The kaikomako tree, which usually is not more than thirty feet in height, is a famous tree and a most important one, for it was the principal wood from which the Maori obtained fire by friction before the pakeha came with his flints and steel, and later with his phosphorus matches. In mythology Mahuika, the Polynesian Pluto, who had fire in all his fingers and toes, was wheedled out of most of his wonderful fiery sparks by the demi-god Maui. To save what was left, it was thrown into the woods, and it entered into the kaikomako, the mahoe, and the totara, and it is these trees, but more particularly the kaikomako, that preserve to this day the hidden flames of Mahuika, and from which the God of Fire may be coaxed again for the use of man.

The centuries-old methods of spearing and snaring the forest birds are illustrated in some curious primitive paintings in the large carved meeting-house “Te Whai-a-te-motu,” at Mataatus, in the heart of the Urewera Country. On the broad tawa rafters there are paintings in black and white, representing rata, maire, toromiro, papauma, and other trees, with quaintly-figured hunters of old in the act of killing with their long spears the koko page 169 (tui), kuku (pigeon), and kaka (parrot), which were such an important item of food in this region. On one rafter is a picture intended to represent the famous ancestor Toi, standing beside a mamaku fern-tree. The pith and tender shoots of the mamaku, and other forest products, were Toi's food, say the local Maori in explanation of the picture, hence his name, Toi-kai-rakau (Toi-the-eater of forest foods). On other rafters you see pigeons flying from tree to tree, and resting on the branches of the toromiro tree, on the berries of which they feed; a papauma tree with koko-birds in its leafy boughs; and rata with famed chiefs of old, Te
Tukukino, a warrior of the olden type; Ngati-Tamatera tribe, Ohinemuri. In his right ear he is wearing an unusual ornament, the skin and beak of the female huia bird. [From a painting by G. Lindauer

Tukukino, a warrior of the olden type; Ngati-Tamatera tribe, Ohinemuri. In his right ear he is wearing an unusual ornament, the skin and beak of the female huia bird.
[From a painting by G. Lindauer

page 170 Umu-ariki and Te Kurapa, perched in the branches with their bird-spears awaiting the approach of some unsuspecting “flapping child of Tane.”

The long, slender limber spears used in killing the pigeon and the tui were still in use in the Urewera Country when I first visited that mountain region, and they were also used until recent times in the remote parts of West Taupo, where the Tuhua Ranges and other mountains were renowned for the abundance of bird life.

In making the bird spears, the pole from which each was cut was scorched with fire till very dry, then it was shaped and scraped down with shell, and scorched again, and once more scraped and shaped with great care and industry, until it had been reduced to the size desired and was perfectly smooth. I have seen spears fully 30 feet in length at Ruatahuna.

Snaring the forest-birds was an industry and sport combined, in which considerable technical skill as well as forest-craft was employed. The snares fixed in the tops of trees—usually rata trees—for the kaka, were ingenious contrivances consisting of a perch—usually carved—and a running noose which led down to the fowler concealed in the lower branches. There was also the kaka mokai method, in which a decoy parrot was used. This was a bird hunting practice in every bush district of New Zealand.

A Maori fowler selected an open space in the forest, usually on a hill. He there prepared a screen of branches, behind which he concealed himself, after fixing a slanting rod in front of him. He slipped a bone or greenstone poria or ring over the foot of his tame kaka, used as a decoy for other kaka. A cord was attached to a smaller hole in the poria. One end of the cord was held by the fowler, and the decoy was allowed to play on the ground near the page 171 slanting rod. When the cord was pulled, or gently jerked the decoy screeched. This attracted the parrots in the vicinity, which flew up to the place to investigate and alighted on the convenient rod. The fowler waited with his right hand raised against the side of his ear, the most convenient attitude for snatching downwards. When the kaka came down the rod, screeching, he was soon within reach of the hunter's hand, and the rest was quick silence for that inquisitive bird.

Bushmen and settlers sometimes find small canoeehaped wooden troughs in the heart of the forest, especially on high places remote from streams. The use of these waka-whangai, or waka-manu, continued till recently in certain Maori districts. They were placed under such trees as the miro, and were filled with water. Rows of running-loop snares (héré), of flax or cabbage-tree leaves, were arranged above them, and in these snares the thirsty pigeons and tui were cautht when they flew down to drink after feeding on the miro berries or other fruits of the forest. The first bird caught was left by the side of the waka as a thank-offering to the gods.

When using the long spear, usually barbed with bone, or, in these later days with iron, the hunters were careful not to allow any blood to touch their hands, in pulling out the point from the bird's body. Should the blood of “Tane's flapping children” stain the fowler's hands, the spear would lose its mana and could no longer be used with success.

Bush Remedies.

The Maori wise men and women were skilled in the lore of bush remedies. A great deal could be written on the native pharmacopeia. The virtues of some of the plants are becoming known to our chemists, the koromiko (veronica) for instance. page 172 But the doctors and chemists have not yet discovered such plants as the little papapa. Its leaves, when the outer surface is rubbed off, are very soft to the touch, and the liquid obtained from boiling a quantity is a strong soothing and healing agent. The leaves may be applied to wounds without being subjected to any cooking process. The juice expressed from the roasted leaves of the kawakawa, or “pepper-tree” (piper excelsum) makes an excellent dressing for bad wounds; I have even heard of a case where a Maori woman was cured of what was believed to be cancer through the use of this herbal remedy applied as a dressing. Flax-root juice, applied either raw or after boiling the roots, was the favourite native cure for gunshot or bayonet wounds in the war days. The edible pith of the black ferntree or mamaku (Cyathea medullaris) makes a first rate dressing for sores and chafings. It is applied raw. The leaves of the tarata and one or two other small trees, chewed and made into a kind of paste, will quickly cure raw places on a saddle-sore horse. These are just a few of scores of bush remedies. There is a wide field for research and experiment in the healing virtues of New Zealand plants. A great deal of the bush-lore of the Maori has vanished, but there remains an abundance of useful knowledge to be gathered and turned to account by scientific enquirers.

Forest Foods.

Occasionally the berries of the karaka and the tawa trees are eaten. The kernel of the karaka was treated by cooking and steeping; the tree was planted in the villages and cultivations. The tawa is a highly resinous fruit, and in its raw state tastes like turpentine. No Maori would attempt to eat it untreated by drying and cooking. The native method is to split the fruit and lay it out on stones or slabs page 173 to dry in the sun; this process rids it to a large extent of its turpentine flavour. Then it is cooked and pounded into cakes, or otherwise prepared according to taste. At Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, some large flat silicated rocks (papa-kahatu) are pointed out as favourite places for drying tawa berries; the place is pleasantly warmed by the subterranean heat from the geysers and boiling springs. The tawa is an oval fruit, blue in colour, and not unlike a small plum. It looks tempting, but appearances are deceptive. The drupes are only fit food for pigeons, and even these birds when cooked retain the resinous flavour if they have been feasting on the tawa.

The fruit of the hinau tree, too, was eaten after much preparation. The juice of tutu fruit (tupakihi shrub) was made into a sweet drink; this was sometimes used to flavour the mamaku pith.

Bush settlers learned from the Maori many bush arts. They learned to make use of certain fruits and wild vegetables. One hint learned from the Maori was the fact that pikopiko, the young curly fronds of the ground-fern, was excellent when steamed with pork and potatoes and kumara in a hāngi; it gave a flavour to the food.

The Maori Sugar-tree.

A whole bookful of Maori story and folk-talk could be written about that familiar object in the New Zealand landscape, the common cabbage tree, the plant of many names—the palm-lily, asphodel, cordyline australis of the botanist, the ti or whanake of the Maori. Everywhere in the back-country its tall pencil trunks dot the landscape; everywhere its long sword leaves switch and toss in the wind. And native legend twines as thickly about it as you see some of the page 174 cabbage-trees in the public parks and gardens grown about with the white man's ivy.

To South Island natives the ti-kouka, as it is usually called there, was something more than a landscape ornament or a shade for the tribal altar of incantation. It was their sweets tree; it supplied the sugar for which the palate pined. The early summer was the Ngai-Tahu tribe's season for sweet meats working. The name given to the cabbage-tree sugar was kauru, and the getting of kauru was the chief industry in ancient times on the Canterbury Plains during the month of November.

The old men of the South Island, from Kaikoura to Otago, have given me many curiously interesting details of the kauru-working. This was the procedure as described by the late Hone Taare Tikai, of Rapaki, Lyttelton Harbour:

Young cabbage-trees, four to six feet high, were selected for the process of extracting the sugar These ti-kouka were cut down close to the roots, and often also the largest roots were taken. After being cut into convenient lengths the bark and the outer wood were stripped off with small sharp axes until the heart or pith alone remained. This sappy and fibrous heart, containing the saccharine substance was then sun-dried and cooked. The roots, which contained the most sugar, required a longer treat ment than the trunk portions.

The sections of ti were spread out on platforms to dry in the sun, sometimes for several weeks; them the great oven, the umu-ti, was made. This earth oven, many yards long, was prepared in the same way as the usual hāngi, or food-oven, with red-hot stones on which water was thrown to produce steam. The kauru stalks were packed in bundles in flax kits, soaked with water and laid in this oven and covered up. The cooking occupied all night; sometimes in the case of the roots the oven was left untouched page 175 for about forty-eight hours. The process was attended with priestly ceremony, and the oven was tapu. This tapu, in fact, extended to the people also, for certain restrictions were observed during the steaming of the kauru. The men of the village were required to absent themselves from their wives; a breach of this was liable to bring down upon the tapu-brenkers quick punishment by club law. Such a hara, a transgression, was invariably detected, said my Maori informant. If when the oven was opened it were found that the kauru was not properly done, not cooked to the right degree, it was known that some couple had disregarded the tapu of the umu-ti, and the offenders would quickly be discovered by the tohunga. Then, unless the culprits were so powerful that they could defy the law, they would be patu'd, killed with a stone club. Such was the penalty for spoiling the tribal sweets oven.

When the oven was uncovered, the kits of kauru, if properly done, were taken out and packed away. The cooking reduced the stuff to a kind of sweet flour, intermingled, however, with much woody fibre. This floury substance, which was kept for winter use, was often made into a sort of porridge by mixing it with water. Often, however, it was eaten dry, a Maori substitute for chewing gum. It was almost as dark as liquorice, except for the woody fibres, and a stick of this aboriginal liquorice was a popular sweetmeat.

There were usually two cuttings of the ti tree in the year, one in late October or November, and one in March. The young ti, after being cut, would shoot up again, similarly to the korau (mamaku) fern-tree, which was cultivated by the Taranaki natives in the old days for the sake of its edible parts. The ti harvest marked the first food-gathering season of the Maori year. The March cutting would be followed by the weka-snaring page 176 season (April), then the trapping of the kiore Maori, the native rat (May), and the catching of the piharau or lamprey in June.

The first umu-ti workers in New Zealand, said Tikao, were the Hawea people, a dark curly-haired race from the north. They brought the knowledge of the sweet-tasting kauru with them from the tropic lands, and they taught it to succeeding generations.

The umu-ti is known from end to end of Polynesia, from the Paumotus and the Gambier Islands, in the extreme east, to Fiji in the west. It is associated with the strange fire-walking ceremony. Roots somewhat similar to that of our ti were cooked in great quantities in some of the island, particularly in Raiatea, in the Society Group, which appears to have been the original seat of the fire walking rite, and in Rarotonga and Fiji, and the bare-footed passage of the priests and people over the red-hot stones seems to have been considered as giving added mana and efficiency to the cooking. And among our New Zealand Maori there are lingering remembrances of this very ancient rite of their Asiatic-Polynesian ancestors.