t. 91, Philip Simpson, Tōtara: A natural and cultural history.

Tōtara: A natural and cultural history by Philip Simpson.
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $75. Hb, 288pp.
ISBN: 9781869408190.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.

 This is a wonderful book. It’s a credit to the author – to the publisher – and to the dozens and dozens of people who generously provided expertise, information, enthusiasm and wisdom to the author while he was assembling this biography of a New Zealand tree.

Philip Simpson has written biographies of other New Zealand trees.[1]  He is officially a ‘botanist,’ but his work is much broader. In Tōtara, he presents a huge collection of information, all relating to the tōtara, all of it fascinating. And the subtitle really says it all: ten chapters, lavish illustrations, and an extraordinary collection of information, form ‘a natural and cultural history’. I can’t possibly summarise the contents so will just go through chapter by chapter with brief comment.

‘Tōtara in the natural world’:  The naming of tōtara, its te reo names and its Linnaean names, and how these fit in; the various New Zealand species; other podocarps, their development and their worldwide distribution. Most of the graphics are in this chapter, and they are very good indeed – more about the production later.

‘How tōtara grows’: Phases of growth, including aspects of old, older, and oldest trees; anatomy, form and function, including an in-depth look at tōtara bark. This links with later chapters harvesting and use of the bark, and harvesting and milling of the wood.

The writing is brisk. The first paragraph of this chapter:

“Tōtara has a chaotic juvenile phase, rapid maturation as a typical conifer, and then a very long progression – if it survives a mid-life crisis – to old age. What features enable it to grow to massive proportions and persist for many hundreds of years?”
(p 33).

and then the tree’s physiology is addressed, the anatomy of its bark and timber, the unique chemistry of tōtara. Simpson doesn’t dumb his readers down, nor does he over-explain; his readers are in a world where they need only type define:conifer [or whatever] into their computers to get back up to speed, and we are all spared the need to go down every possible sidetrack, just in case one person lacks some information.

‘Where tōtara lives and who lives with it’ shows ecological preferences, provides a two-page distribution map, environmental factors. Genetic variation, plant and animal associations are covered, including linguistic evidence for some aspects.

The next chapter begins:

“In what ways did tōtara influence the spiritual, legendary and oratory aspects of Māori culture? The tree figures in many tribal legends and underpins some fundamental ethical values; it is the cornerstone of the waka culture and it also, through carving, records tribal history. It inspires proverbs and laments in which loved people are named ‘tōtara’. The tree’s name is used in many locations around Aotearoa. Dead tōtara logs are guardians, while living trees commemorate important events and people, and are markers of birth and death. No other tree has stamped sutch unique qualities on Māori culture.” (p 87).

This chapter,‘Te mauri o te tōtara: how Māori value tōtara’, and the two following, ‘Ngā mahi o te tōtara: using tōtara wood’ and ‘Te kiri o Tāne: the bark of tōtara’ go into great and fascinating detail on the care and handling of tōtara timber and – an equally valuable resource – the tree’s bark. The pictures (as in the whole book) include photos and drawings of places and artefacts sourced from museums, other people, and past as well as present. Religious buildings, musical instruments, carving ancient and modern are all looked at, as are the variety of techniques used in getting and using the tōtara bark and timber.

“For the first few decades of Pākehā settlement, tōtara was the raw material for every kind of construction” (p 165) begins Chapter 7, ‘Pākehā discover tōtara’ – by no means an exaggeration. Fences, houses, church, boats furniture …. The huge increase in public works after 1870 leads us to ‘Tōtara creates a nation’, and the explosion of road, railways and bridges meant that tōtara was swallowed up as never before.

‘Where have all the tōtara gone?’ takes us to the beginning of the author’s lifetime. He discusses natural loss and various waves of settlement. Two pages (pp212-3) show ‘Estimated comparative usage of tōtara, pre-European vs Pākehā’ – using pie charts elegantly drawn and which give not just quantifiable information on what tōtara was used for by which groups of people but also an intuitive snapshot of usage.

The book ends with a chapter on ‘How tōtara is (and isn’t) being protected’, discussing the government’s changing role, national parks, private initiatives, tōtara in horticulture – and salutes the Champions of Tōtara, the people who have brought tōtara to our attention.

The production of Tōtara is of a standard worthy of its content. It’s been given a two-column format, which accommodates the pictures more attractively and efficiently than a wide single column does – and it looks far less ‘busy’ than the author’s earlier publication on, say, pōhutukawa. The illustrations are of scenery, people, artefacts – different ages, different sizes – and combine to give a balanced feel from page to page.

The graphics are a pleasure to read. Traditional scientific publications tend (for perfectly good but now outdated reasons) toward linear graphs and boxy tables, stomping boringly from year to year to the last syllable of recorded time. In contrast, the figure on page 12, ‘Plants in the geological timeline’, uses tried and true information but also encourages us to think of history in a spiral of development which adds another dimension, that of a flow of energy developing over time. And the ‘Life cycle of a podocarp: tōtara’ (p 22) is equally energetic.

This is a very fine book indeed, a classic, and not to be dealt with in one sitting. I will read it again and again to absorb its rich and fascinating detail – which is just fine. I look forward to the experience.

[1] Dancing Leaves: The Story of New Zealand’s Cabbage Tree, Tī Kōuka (Canterbury University Press, 2000) and Pōhutukawa and Rātā (Te Papa Press, 2005) won Montana Book Awards. They are out of print, but a few used copies are still listed online.


 Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.