The Occasional Journal

The Dendromaniac

March 2015

For the trees

Rachel Buchanan

Several months ago, the photographer Ann Shelton wrote to me, asking if I wanted to contribute a piece for a special issue of Enjoy Public Art Gallery’s occasional online journal. The theme was trees.

Shelton suggested I might like to do something on momori rākau, the rare carved trees out by the harbour heads in Wellington. I was chuffed to be asked but my first thought was no, absolutely not.

I had written about these trees once before for a memory studies journal; it had not been an especially positive experience.

Re-making memory on Matiu and other settlement sites documented my attempts to engage with the 18 sites handed back to us in a 2009 Treaty settlement.1

In 2010, my daughter, my niece, my father, my mother and my brother had come with me on various pilgrimages to each place. The best-known settlement site was Matiu, the island in Wellington harbour. It’s good out there but it can also feel desolate and damaged, especially around the old quarantine station near the summit.

But Matiu was paradise compared with many of the other settlement sites. The empty Wainuiomata secondary school had the torn aura of the apocalypse. One block had recently been burned. Many more were tagged or boarded up.

The Wi Tako Scenic Reserve was worse. A Department of Conservation sign warned: Please do not enter this reserve because dead pines are a significant hazard.

Lake Kohangapiripiri and Lake Kohangatera—better known as Pencarrow Lakes—appeared equally bleak. To get there, we drove through Eastbourne, unlocked Burdan’s Gate, and kept on going towards the harbour heads. To our left, the hills blazed with gorse; to our right the sea burned a brilliant blue. The skeletons of dead boats and docks listed on the wide, pebbly shore. A concrete platform fingered the sea. Danger Sewage Outfall, the sign said. The sea in this area is polluted. Do not swim, take fish, or shellfish.

We wanted to visit the dendroglyphs (dendro, a Greek word element meaning tree and glyph, a carving). Apparently, there were three by the lakes. These engraved trees were once common on Rekohu (the Chatham Islands) but they are now endangered. These three near Wellington are the only ones on the mainland.

We parked the car and Dad led the way up a steep path. My brother Ben and I panted along after him. From the crest, we could see the lakes, two grey eyeballs in a blasted face. We saw flax, toi toi and gorse but no trees. There was barely any scrub. We climbed up higher, towards the 1866 Pencarrow Lighthouse. By now, the hills were quite bald.

Was this a joke? It felt like a joke.

I suggested we try some flat land, away from the wind, and we took the path that went towards swampy wetlands. We skirted some water then rounded a corner. There was a rickety fence and … a tree! Just one. Could this be it? I had expected something enormous, a towering giant with a wide girth as a canvas, but this karaka tree was gnarled and modest, shaped by the winds into a flat-topped green flag flying east. Its leaves shone a glossy, deep green.

Dad could not climb the low fence—or would not—but Ben and I did.

We stared at the grey trunk. It was lumpy and indented but hard to read, like skin when a tattoo has been removed. Because we didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know what to look for.

“I can see some shapes,” Ben said. “I think this is it. There is a bird. And a tiki I think.”

I read later that the carving depicts a fish.

Did the carver want to communicate with his contemporaries or with his descendants, with people like my brother and me? Or did he work purely for himself, caught up in his own audacity and skill? He cut his marks into a living tree. He cut into the bark, gently, not going so deep that he would damage the living tissue of the tree. He wanted to leave the soft, living body beneath his canvas intact. The technique was as much etching or engraving as carving.

The tree was a historical marker with a fence but no sign. How come it was here, the only tree at the lake? Was it always the only tree here or was there once a small forest of compact, twisting trees, curling themselves around the wind, their trunks sheltered by flax and fern? I felt protective of the tree, its modesty and its singularity, the quiet mystery it invoked through the oblique statements knifed in its side. I wanted the site to stay as it is – hard to find and remote, so understated.

Rachel Buchanan, Momori rākau, Lake Kohangapiripiri and Lake Kohangatera ‘Pencarrow Lakes’, Wellington, August 2010. © Rachel Buchanan

Rachel Buchanan, Momori rākau, Lake Kohangapiripiri and Lake Kohangatera ‘Pencarrow Lakes’, Wellington, August 2010. © Rachel Buchanan

Although Dad did not actually see the carving, he saw the tree and he was there with us. We spent the day together. That was enough. That was the value.

But the warmth of that day, the closeness I had enjoyed with my Dad and with Ben, all that had been smothered by the peer reviewing and revision process. I loathed the pedantry of the footnoting conventions and the queries about the most minor of historical facts. It was a waste of time yet it was my job. I was an academic. I had to write scholarly essays. I had to follow the conventions. We all did.

My article was published online sometime in 2011. I could barely stand to look at it by then.

My patience with this sort of work was almost gone. The chaos of my home life sapped what little tolerance I had left. 

In the first six months of 2011, it appeared that two of the people I loved most would soon die.

My mother had been diagnosed with dementia and then she had collapsed in church. “Massive stroke,” Dad said. I couldn’t go back to be with her because my partner was sick. Eye roll. It was a bad case of man flu. I’d reluctantly driven him to hospital. The closer we got, the sicker he appeared. His skin was grey and he could not speak because of the pain. They rushed him through to a bed. The nurses and doctors took off his shirt and put the sticky pads on his chest, like the ones you see on TV. I watched, useless and shocked. They thought he was having a heart attack. Pain ripped across his upper arm and shoulder. Two whacks of morphine did nothing. After several hours of drama, it was discovered that Mike had pneumonia. “The devil’s claw,” is medical slang for the pain that can be referred from a chronically infected lung to a shoulder. He was on IV antibiotics for three days and in bed for two weeks. His strength was gone. He was scared and quiet but at least he did not smoke anymore.

I had to do everything at home. Our three girls were then aged 5, 6 and 9. I also kept commuting out to work at La Trobe University where I was a lecturer in the journalism program. The university was a convenient 45 kilometres away.

The emails about the Re-making memory article piled up. Files were attached, marked with those maddening track-change bubbles. The editors were just doing their job. The problem was with me. Everything was collapsing.

Fairfax and News Limited announced further redundancies at their newspapers. I stared out my office window at the trees. It was autumn and I saw the leaves had turned a deep yellow. The sun shone through them, lighting them up. The beauty of those leaves astonished me and some of that warm yellow light entered my brain. I could not go on teaching a vocational course when the vocation was disappearing. None of the justifications worked anymore. My mind had been stripped of its protective barrier. I had no bark, only bite. I wrote a hot-headed letter to the head of school explaining that I would not be able to teach journalism in semester 2. It was not a resignation; it was more of a plea for release. I tried to negotiate a transfer to history but I failed.

Three months later, I was unemployed. That phase of my life as an academic was over.

I finished in the August. By the January, I was living in a rented house in Lyall Bay and looking for work. So was Mike. Our children were at primary school up the road.

We spent all of 2012 in Wellington. I immersed myself in the intrigues of the Taranaki Māori world. I no longer thought of the Treaty settlement as a positive. Perhaps I never did in the first place. Most of the money appeared to have gone. Meanwhile, the Serious Fraud Office had announced an investigation into transactions connected with the Wellington Tenths Trust, a body that represents Māori land-owners in the capital. Furthermore, the Office of Treaty Settlements had offered another iwi settlement sites in the middle of town, just along the way from where our tūpuna had lived at Te Aro Pa. It was a mess but like any soap opera, pretty compelling too.

Ann Shelton’s invitation sent me back to the Re-making memory article. The conclusion made me cringe. I had suggested that the 18 Treaty settlement sites were re-stoking Taranaki whānui fires of occupation around the harbour. This was so untrue as to be laughable. 

I aim, in all my writing about the Taranaki Māori world, to turn things around, to find the good in the bad, but in this case, my strategy had flopped.

But there was some good stuff in the essay. It was still worth sharing. I sent Ann a link and explained that, sorry, I had nothing else to say about the carved trees. In fact, I had nothing to say about any trees at all. I knew nothing about them. Not my field. Not my thing. No money in it. Not an academic anymore. Not an artist either. Had no time. Had another book to get on with. Had to stop doing unpaid work. 

Yet, here I am, writing for free again. 

Ann’s invitation has started something new for me, something important, even if I don’t yet understand exactly what or why.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino considers what a work of literature would be like if it was “conceived outside the self.”

Such a work would allow writers to “not only enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in the spring and the tree in the fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic….”2 

It is spring now in Melbourne. Three weeks ago, the fig tree by our bedroom window was speckled with the tiniest green buds. Now the tips of its branches are crowned with vigorous new leaves. I can even see figs up the top, pale green and hard as rock. Soon they will be ripe and we will be woken by the sound of fruit bats and possums gorging on them and the next morning the deck will be sticky with half-chewed figs, the remnants of their midnight feast.

Last night, Melbourne was lashed by a storm. Lightning took out some signaling points at Flinders Street station. Hundreds of trains were cancelled. Lighting struck a house in Prahran and it caught on fire. At 2am, I ran outside to shut the windows in my writing room. Papers and photos were all at risk of a fine soaking. Mission accomplished, I went back to bed and listened to the thunder roar above us. I had never heard anything like it. The sound was rich, luxuriant and menacing. Lightning x-rayed our room. The dog went ape. The children stood in the hallway, their hair stuck to the sides of their faces. “The light is scratching the sky,” the oldest one had said the first time she watched a storm. 

There was more lightning and thunder at 6am. Mike reminded me how his friend Danny had seen someone struck. “They were at school. The lightning hit a tree and it went down into the ground and then up into Danny’s friend. It lifted him up and all his clothes came off.”

“What do you mean?”

“They were just gone, his clothes. Incinerated.”

“Did he die?”

“Yes, he died.”

Naked and spinning, catapulted through the air by the purest of light, a flash of insight can feel as radical as that.

Although I had said no to Ann, I continued to think about her invitation and about trees and eventually these thoughts meshed together and—quite suddenly—I saw that trees and forests had been central to my recent work.

In 2012, I stared a new research project on a piece of Māori land owned by our whānau. I had no funding, no outcome in mind. I just wanted to know more about this mysterious block, Orimupiko 22 at Opunake, a small town on Taranaki’s spectacular Surf Coast highway. I took a trip up there with Dad and my youngest child. I’ve documented this journey elsewhere but the thing I had forgotten—or overlooked somehow—when Ann got in touch was the buried forest that we found.3 It was extraordinary.

Whenever the farmer went to dig a ditch or lay a drain he’d hit trees, big, black rata logs all pointing in the same direction: seawards. “If you dig down deep enough, you’ll find natives,” he told us. I interviewed a volcanologist who had mapped all the soil around there. The mountain, Taranaki, felled the forest 7000 years ago. A portion of his summit collapsed and the volcanic debris spewed down the side, destroying everything in its way. The trees were buried under five metres of ash, stone and gravel. The world was upside down. Cows chewed grass grown from volcanic soil that had come from the heart of the mountain. A forest existed under the earth. It was being excavated and burnt, destroyed for a second time or so it seemed.


Rachel Buchanan, Rata trees at Orimupiko 22, Opunake, May 2012. © Rachel Buchanan

Rachel Buchanan, Rata trees at Orimupiko 22, Opunake, May 2012. © Rachel Buchanan

The trees were coming for me. I encountered another buried forest later that year. This was the forest that made newspapers. For the past 26 years, my stories and headlines had been published in newspapers but I had never given a thought to the paper itself and how it was made. That was about to change.

A few months after I saw the remnants of the 7000-year-old forest beneath our land in Taranaki, I started work as an offshored sub-editor for Fairfax, the Australian-owned company that publishes many New Zealand newspapers, including Wellington’s Dominion-Post and The Press in Christchurch. Our crew subbed regional Australian papers from a basement in Boulcott Street, Wellington. I decided to write about what I was doing and to research the implications of the collapse in newspaper manufacturing. Paper-making was one of the industries in catastrophic decline. I read that Norske Skog was going to close the number-two paper machine at its mill in Kawerau. The Norwegian multinational would cut newsprint production by 150,000 tonnes and more than 100 people would lose their jobs. I negotiated access just before the machine was shut.4

Rachel Buchanan, Wood chips, Norkse Skog mill, Kawerau, December 2012. © Rachel Buchanan

Rachel Buchanan, Wood chips, Norkse Skog mill, Kawerau, December 2012. © Rachel Buchanan

The mill opened in 1955, right next to the raw material it needed – the pine forests of the central North Island. Returned soldiers started planting the trees in 1919. In the Depression, men dug in trees too. By the end of the 1930s, Kaingaroa was the biggest manmade forest in the world.

At its peak in the early 1970s, the Kawerau paper mill and its sister kraft mill next door employed 2000 people. Only a decade ago, 600 people still worked on the three paper-making machines. By January 2013, there were 170 people left.

As well as newsprint, the Kawerau mill used to make book paper too. The last book run there was to make the paper for the Australasian editions of the Twilight books.

The title of the bestselling series of vampire books is horribly apt. Within five years – probably less – I think the mill will shut altogether. The talk, now, is of using the trees for biofuel. The forests, according to one report, could be New Zealand’s new oilfields.

Now another forest has arrived in my life. This one is just ten minutes from my front door in Altona, a western suburb of Melbourne. This forest comprises 6000 trees: red gums; paper barks; and she oaks. New York-based land artist Agnes Denes planted it in 1998.5

I heard about Denes’ Forest for Australia a week after I told Ann Shelton that I could not write anything about trees.

Agnes Denes’ best-known work is Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). Denes got hold of two acres of abandoned landfill in Manhattan (on the site that is now Battery Park). She cleared it and planted a field of wheat. More than a thousand pounds of wheat was harvested and became part of End of World Hunger, an international art show. Seeds from the Manhattan crop were planted at 20 places around the world.6 

Much of her practice has been with trees, projects such as Rice/Tree/Burial (Chaining the Forest) from 1977 and her monumental work in Finland. Denes made a mountain there and 11,000 people planted 11,000 trees on it.

I was intrigued and decided to do a bit of digging to learn more about the Altona project. What happened next is a story for another time but I am now in a conversation with Denes herself. I had a new message from her this morning about photographs of her forest here in Altona. I have already taken some but she wants more.

No I can’t write about trees. I know nothing about them. Not my field. Not my thing. No money in it. Not an academic anymore. Not an artist either. Have no time. Have another book to get on with. Have to stop doing unpaid work.

Next week, I visit the Agnes Denes forest again. A tree expert is coming with me.7

Rachel Buchanan, ‘A forest for Australia’, Altona Treatment Plant, Melbourne, 1 October 2014. © Rachel Buchanan

Rachel Buchanan, ‘A forest for Australia’, Altona Treatment Plant, Melbourne, 1 October 2014. © Rachel Buchanan

About the author

Dr Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ati Awa) is the author of ‘Stop Press: the last days of newspapers’ (Scribe, 2013) and ‘The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget’ (Huia, 2009). In 2013/14 she was a creative fellow at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and made an artist newspaper, ‘Melbourne Sirius’.

  • 1.

    Rachel Buchanan, “Re-making memory on Matiu and other settlement sites,” Contained Memory 1, 1 (2011), accessed November 5, 2014, ↩

  • 2.

    Italo Calvino, “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-86 (New York: Vintage: 1988), 124.

  • 3.

    Rachel Buchanan, “Orimupiko 22 and the haze of history” Journal of New Zealand Studies, NS16 (2013): 66-78, accessed November 5, 2014,
    An edited extract from this essay also appears in: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-Fiction 2015, ed. Jolisa Hazelwood and Susanna Andrew (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2014).

  • 4.

    Rachel Buchanan, Stop Press: the last days of newspapers (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014): 123-145. For more on offshored workers in New Zealand see Rachel Buchanan, “Off Shore, Near Shore and Unsure,” Griffith Review Edition 43: Pacific Highways (accessed November 5, 2014).

  • 5.

    The Bridge Construction in Process VI: An International Artists’ Museum Project, ed. Richard Thomas (Sydney: G + B Arts International, 2000), 56.

  • 6.

    Nick Stillman, Review, “Agnes Denes: Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects”, Artforum International 48(6) (February 2010): 202.  

  • 7.

    For an account of my initial work with Agnes Denes and her forest, see Rachel Buchanan, “If a tree falls in the forest…,” The Age, November 30, 2014, 31-32, Insight section.
    Also published online: Rachel Buchanan, “Agnes Denes public sculpture neglected,” Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 17 December 2014,