At first, “swamp fires” might seem like an oxymoron, and I was certainly surprised to read about them when I read Suspended Access, the history of the Opiki toll bridge. In this history, Molly Akers relates how, as the floodplains around the lower Manawatu River were drained to stimulate flax growth for milling, peat fires in the swamp became a continual menace. What makes peat fires unusual, in comparison to forest or scrub fires, is that they burn underground. (more…)

The Waikato was one of the original dairy farming regions of New Zealand, and its transformation from forested hills and swampy valleys to productive farmscapes was well underway by the late 19th century. So it would be ironic, but a satisfying example of the circular route environmental history often takes, if the region was one day to become known more for its wetlands than its “smiling farms”. (more…)

Lake Rotoiti is one of a number of lakes which lie to the east and south of Lake Rotorua, the second largest lake in the North Island. The lakes were created as a result of a volcanic eruption about 240,000 years ago, and were for hundreds of years the ancestral home and source of food and other resources for the Te Arawa people.

Today, the land around the lakes is almost without exception developed – either as urban or rural settlements or farmland – with almost no indigenous forest remaining [click here to view satellite image showing the extent of development around the lake]. (more…)

On a recent trip from Rotorua to Hamilton, I stopped to look at what I thought at the time was a section of Waikato River, just west of State Highway 1, south-east of Cambridge [click here to view map]. Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest river, running 425 kms from its source on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, through Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake, then flowing through the Waikato Plains before emptying into the Tasman Sea. I was therefore surprised to see a sign at a jetty informing me that this was in fact a lake – Lake Karapiro.

But something didn’t add up – it seemed remarkably “river-like” for a lake. (more…)

In Nga UruoraEcology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (Chapter 3 – “The Riverbend”), Geoff Park tells the history of the riverine forests of Mokau, a river which flows from its source in the forest on the slopes of the Rangitoto Ranges, out to sea at the Taranaki Bight, just north of the boundary between Taranaki and Waikato [click here to view map]. Here is one of the very few places left in the North Island where coastal forest remains intact down to the sea. (more…)

New Zealand’s tallest forest tree, the kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), once dominated the forests that covered much of New Zealand’s swampy lowland areas. Far from a solitary tree, the kahikatea groups closely with other kahikatea, intertwining its buttressed roots with its neighbours for support in the unstable swampy ground. (It is perhaps for this reason that the kahikatea has evolved with such a tall, straight trunk with no lower branches, to enable it to “huddle” with others for stability). In autumn, throughout the lowlands of New Zealand, numerous forest birds chattered noisily in its canopy, feeding on its abundant red berries. These berries, called koroī, were also a valued food source for Māori, who skillfully climbed up the smooth branchless trunks to harvest them. (more…)

Radio New Zealand’s “Country Life” programme is a favourite of mine – as a born-and-bred “townie” – I enjoy the insights it provides into living off the land – whether as a farmer, horticulturalist, or cottage industry owner. The programme also features stories which provide important insights from an environmental history perspective.

The most recent programme features a story about a southern Waikato farmer who, after growing up seeing the lowland indigenous forest around her town decimated by forestry, is covenanting 4 hectares of remnant bush on her farm in Mamaku [click here to view location] to ensure its future preservation. The bush is dominated by tawa, rimu and kahikatea, and is one of the last surviving remnants on this ignimbrite plateau which was once covered in dense forest. (more…)

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