A kaupapa inspired by Colin McCahon's legacy has resulted in 1000 healthy kauri saplings grown from trees infected with kauri dieback, on the whenua of Te Kawerau ā Maki. Gabi Lardies investigates.
For seven years, painter Colin McCahon lived amongst a thick stand of kauri trees in Otītori Bay, Titirangi. From 1953 to 1960, their mottled trunks and verdant foliage featured prominently in his work: vital, refracting, and appearing to move and grow. Sixty years later, the little house is a museum, cared for by the McCahon House Trust. On its concrete path, kauri cone scales and seeds lie scattered. The seeds have a single wing, and are about the size of a thumbprint. Despite their wings, kauri seeds don’t travel far, spiralling to the ground no more than 100 metres from their parent. When I press them between my fingers, the seeds are soft – perished.
Yet siblings of these stillborn seeds have grown into hardy saplings 40 kilometres southeast as the kererū flies. Over the Manukau Harbour and flat pastoral land, 300 kauri saplings in black plastic pots are lined up on top of a weed mat, where they are automatically watered with sprinklers. Some are knee height, and others right up to my waist – tall for three-year-olds. They are known as the McCahon Kauri Project saplings.
300 kauri saplings in black plastic pots are lined up on top of a weed mat
But at the McCahon House, on the whenua of Te Kawerau ā Maki, I didn’t see any seedlings or saplings. Trunks bleed thick yellow gum down scaling bark, and the foliage is yellowing and sparse, while the remains of another tree is stacked in pieces on a silver tarpaulin by the door of the house.
These kauri are being attacked by a tenacious, microscopic pathogen – Phytophthora agathidicida – commonly known as kauri dieback. For the Trust, the kauri are just as important as the house – McCahon studied them in over 50 paintings during his time here. The dedication to preserve McCahon’s legacy has sparked a collaborative project to conserve the lineage of this particular kauri stand – so far resulting in 1000 disease-free saplings grown from seeds collected from infected trees.
Kauri dieback was found on the site in 2009, and by 2012 the departing director, Chris McBride, had to arrange for two trees to be cut down. “It was a very sad and dramatic end to those trees, which are an iconic part of McCahon’s painting and drawing,” he says. “I just used to love driving down Otītori Bay Road, seeing the beauty of these magnificent trees. Now it's a sad trip.”
These kauri are being attacked by a tenacious, microscopic pathogen – Phytophthora agathidicida – commonly known as kauri dieback
The following year, McBride was part of a group who initiated The Kauri Project, an organisation to use art alongside science and other cultural activity and knowledge, to promote awareness of kauri dieback, kauri biodiversity and the significant role kauri plays in the ecology, history, economy and cultural landscape. This organisation continues to produce exhibitions and other projects in order to educate towards the conservation of kauri.
McBride began to wonder how the kauri at McCahon House might be conserved, how the Trust could protect their lineage. He understood that the disease attacked the roots of the tree, killing it by “kind of ringbarking the tree, limiting or cutting the nutrient supply, and starving it.” Despite the dieback, spiky green cones, right at the tips of the branches, kept forming, ripening and dropping rust-coloured seeds. Were these seeds infected? Could they be grown into healthy trees? McBride consulted experts, including scientist Nick Waipara (Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Ruapani ki Tūranga) from Plant and Food Research, who said it was an “excellent idea – one of the earliest examples of ‘ex-situ conservation’ by propagating away from the pathogen.” And so they “decided to give it a go.”
The seeds had to avoid contact with the ground in order to prevent contamination. Arborist Fredrik Hjelm and his team at BioSense are experts at climbing kauri while managing the dieback contamination threat, having done it for many scientific projects. In the summer of 2014, Hjelm and a colleague climbed the kauri at the top of the property near the power lines. They collected cones from the tips of their branches, and then “swung across to the other trees, and kept on swinging.” They made their way carefully through the canopy, collecting cones and avoiding the ground. “Obviously,” he says, “all our equipment was sterilised before and after the job.”
The cones were placed in paper bags for two weeks to ripen and unfurl, and then germinated and grown into saplings at the Auckland Botanic Gardens. Seven hundred healthy seedlings showed it was possible to grow healthy kauri from diseased trees. During the stages of the project, successful relationships were built between Plant and Food Research, Auckland Botanic Gardens, BioSense, The Kauri Project and the McCahon House Trust. These collaborators “have provided support through their own generosity – we wouldn't be able to do this if we didn't have that type of generosity,” says McBride.
Three years later, the saplings were sold at several art-related events such as the Auckland Art Fair, as a fundraiser for the McCahon House and The Kauri Project. Some were given to Te Kawerau ā Maki, and about 100 were planted at Rotoroa Island.
Cone harvesting was repeated in 2019, for the 100th anniversary of McCahon's birth – “Centennial trees, if you like,” says McBride.
Seven hundred healthy seedlings showed it was possible to grow healthy kauri from diseased trees
Today McBride and I are on our way to visit these second-wave saplings, kept safe 40 kilometres away from their infected parents. “You’ll just love them,” McBride says, ready with his sunhat on the backseat. The Plant and Food Research grounds, deep in Pukekohe, aren’t where I expected Titirangi-born kauri to have been brought up. This time around, the Auckland Botanic Gardens didn’t have space for the seedlings, and Nick Waipara “knew this amazing person, who would assist.”
Surrounded by fields of crops, and a motley collection of greenhouses, the saplings have been cared for by scientist Peter Wright. He has been working for Plant and Food Research since before I was born, has grown crops in every patchworked field around us, and has watched the grounds shrink, and lose staff and funding for maintenance. For Wright, looking after the young kauri has been “easy”. “They are forgiving and tough,” he says. Later, McBride insists the project couldn’t have happened without Wright, offering him a collectable Kauri Project print and a packet of Mallowpuffs.
We circle, photograph, admire and touch the saplings, while they discuss other kauri, young and ancient, they have seen. A particular teal-coloured leaf is remembered – “it was just beautiful, almost blue.” Both of these men are kauri aficionados, but others have bonds that go deeper; for the mana whenua of Titirangi, Te Kawerau ā Maki, kauri are living tūpuna. Edward Ashby, board trustee of the iwi trust, says, “The whakapapa of kauri goes right back before people – back to the atua Tāne. They have witnessed our tūpuna come and go across the generations. Those trees connect us in a very direct way to our earliest origins – they have been around for the whole of our iwi’s history, back to the time of Hape from the Tainui waka. He may have walked past some when they were saplings, and now they are big rangatira.”
The connection is not just about the past. “They can also take us forward. Hopefully the big ones can watch over many more generations, and also these young ones. These saplings are the next generation, so one would hope that at least some of them will be growing 800 years from now, and see 800 more years of our history and our forest,” says Ashby.
For the mana whenua of Titirangi, Te Kawerau ā Maki, kauri are living tūpuna
The McCahon Kauri Project, however, is not laying claim to these deeper histories – it is sticking to stories that are its own – those of Colin McCahon. Inside the little house, a chirpy guide points to miniature reproductions of paintings stuck on corners of the windows. She says that in his ‘Titirangi Years’ McCahon would look at the kauri each morning as he rose from bed. It is from this blurred view that he would then paint works like Kauri Tree Landscape (1955). Still, through this shorter story the saplings are connected to their place of origin, and tied to their whakapapa. “Everyone that buys a tree knows it has a connection to a specific place, no matter where they might plant it,” says McBride.
The conservation methods are not driven by mātauranga or tikanga. “It is strange to us, because they’re taken away from their whānau, grown outside of that context,” says Ashby. “Although it might be a bit out of our natural process – not the norm from a te ao Māori point of view – it isn't necessarily a bad thing: it comes down to intent. Ultimately people are respecting and supporting kauri, people are showing manaaki and care.”
When Te Kawerau ā Maki announced rāhui across Waitākere in 2017, they said it would “take a whole city to protect a forest this size”
When Te Kawerau ā Maki announced rāhui across Waitākere in 2017 because of kauri dieback, they said it would “take a whole city to protect a forest this size”. Ashby says the rāhui was not only about the physical protection of the forest, “but also hopefully to inspire and involve people to be aware and so to do their own initiatives for kauri, because kauri are bigger than Kawerau ā Maki – they're bigger than all of us. They’ve been here longer than all of us, and hopefully they will be here long after all of us.”
The McCahon Kauri Project actively tries to do right by Te Kawerau ā Maki – maintaining relationships and communication, seeking their blessing, and gifting back saplings. It seems like a good example of working alongside, rather than fumbling in places it doesn't belong, and claiming knowledge it doesn't have the right to.
For those of us who aren't Indigenous it can be complicated to navigate ways to participate in conservation without re-inscribing colonial legacies
For those of us who aren't Indigenous it can be complicated to navigate ways to participate in conservation without re-inscribing colonial legacies. It is justified to be wary of Western science, as it continues to play a role in colonialism, and historical patterns give it a dominant position. But perhaps it isn’t necessarily pitted against other epistemologies. Mātauranga, Western science, and other epistemologies can be seen as complementary parts of an ecology of knowledge. The problems arise with hierarchy, when Western science is elevated as the ‘correct’ way of knowing. It can instead be an equal partnership, and in the fight against kauri dieback we need all the partners we can get. The mess cannot be left for mana whenua to clean up alone because of our own colonial fragility. We, too, must be moved by the plight of kauri. Hjelm, the expert seed collector, has some advice: “Don’t just go and collect cones anywhere, respect each mana whenua group, and engage on their terms.”
Hjelm has some advice: “Don’t just go and collect cones anywhere, respect each mana whenua group, and engage on their terms”
These kinds of complex negotiations aren't the first connected to McCahon’s legacy. The Urewera Mural commissioned by the Urewera National Park Board in 1975 was controversial from the beginning. Misunderstandings led to several alterations of the text, which includes Ngāi Tūhoe history and spirituality, before the painting was hung. Then in 1997, the painting was taken by Tūhoe activist Te Kaha, for 15 months. This strategic nonviolent protest drew attention to land claims and differing value systems, turning the painting into a mediator to renegotiate cultural values.
With the ideal replanting season (winter) approaching, and the saplings healthy, it is time to find uncontaminated ground for them to grow old on. They will go much further than their single wings could have carried them. “Who knows where some of these could end up, they could go quite far, but their whakapapa ties them to Waitākere,” says Ashby. The McCahon House Trust keeps a register of who has bought, or been gifted, saplings, with the intention of checking in on them in the future.
Some of the saplings we visited have already been adopted – exchanged for $100 each at the exhibition Kauri Ora, which ran from 5–8 May at Allpress Gallery in central Auckland. Here the saplings stood alongside artworks by Emily Karaka, Cora-Allan Wickliffe, Imogen Taylor, Shane Cotton and, obviously, Colin McCahon, who died in 1987. Like the saplings, the living artists are also a new generation, part of the legacy of the McCahon House site. They have been recipients of McCahon House residencies, where they lived in the neighbouring house, overlooking the same kauri stand.
To date, these kauri have received two rounds of phosphite injections. Dr. Nick Waipara, who originally confirmed the presence of dieback at the site, says “Without the intervention of phosphite treatment the infection would have progressed to death of more, possibly all, the infected trees.” It acts as a sort of chemotherapy for dieback, which is thought to boost the tree’s immune response, and slow their succumbing to dieback, so, at least for a while, they will keep standing.
These kinds of complex negotiations aren't the first connected to McCahon’s legacy
It will take the saplings at least 25 years to begin to produce viable seeds to continue the lineage. When we are almost back in the city, about to return to separate, forestless apartments, I ask McBride if he thinks it may be possible for the next generation of kauri to be returned to the McCahon House site. “I hope so… that's a good idea, I like that.” We have hardly talked about McCahon, his paintings or life. Instead McBride was animated by the beauty of kauri, the tenacity of Phytophthora agathidicida, and the promise growing up out of the little black plastic pots.
Feature image: Anastasia Burn
Gabi Lardies is a cadet in the Next Page cadetship programme, public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.