Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bad Boy Will....Colenso on how Trees Can Save us and Keep us Sane...

Recently the Napier Mail, one of our local newspapers, reprinted a talk I gave to a Treecrops Association conference by Colenso's grave. It was on Colenso's attitudes towards trees. (I have put my talk down below....) 

I was bemused, amused and fascinated by the editorialising headline. The fact it says GOOD SIDE heavily implies there is a 'bad side' to William Colenso I am not talking about, or covering up.

I suppose we have to be grateful Colenso actually has a reputation, ie he continues to live in people's minds in some way.
The worst thing for an historical character is to have NO reputation. Then your job as a writer is truly difficult.
Besides, I like people with bad reputations. I feel at home....

Below is my talk, which looks at Colenso's entirely individual attitude towards trees...

   The first thing William Colenso did after his arrival at Waitangi, Hawke’s Bay in late December 1844 was to take his plant stocks and grafts and speedily bed them in. This was partly so they would survive. Trees - fruiting trees especially - were important to the survival of the early missionaries and every mission station of any age had a full orchard which provided a wide range of fruit.  

  But trees, to Colenso, had a greater importance than pure survival. On 30th October 1858 he wrote one of his characteristic letters to the local newspaper - part lecture, part sermon and part folk wisdom. When he later said ‘if I did not thus make it known, (the information) would in all probability die with me’, he was not exaggerating. As a first generation migrant his experiences of encountering an ancient Maori culture and then living alongside it through rapid changes granted him special insights. But some of these key insights related to migration itself. 
He understood how profoundly disruptive migration from a parent culture to an entirely different landscape could be. One of the ways to root yourself to new landscape was to literally put down roots. '

So ‘cultivating the trees of our Father-land’ as he called it, had three ‘noble benefits’. ‘Ist on themselves and their visitors, physically, in their fruits; ((he means food to eat))- 2nd on the same morally, in the reminiscences of the past, which such trees and flowers and fruits must inevitably convey; - and 3rd in transmitting the same - trees and ideas and kindly feelings - to the rising generation.’

In other words he thought trees - both fruit and decorative - were important because they would provide an ongoing practical benefit - fruit - food. But these trees were also important because they provided a kind of mental connection to a culture left behind. Most migrants realistically would never get back to their homeland. They would die on what was essentially foreign soil. So it helped mend the wound of migration if you could surround yourself with trees which echoed a world you knew, a landscape you had come from. The third benefit of these trees is that these very same benefits - practical and one might almost call them psychological would be passed on to a younger generation. They could eat the fruit, sit under the shade, enjoy the blossom and identify with a world that their ancestors had come from.

Colenso in this sense was very modern. He was one of the very earliest lovers of the New Zealand forest and bush and he is probably the foremost chronicler of New Zealand plants in the nineteenth century. He connected New Zealand botany and its wonders back to Kew Gardens and through this, he connected to Darwin himself, the great reinventor of how humanity came to be: (Colenso had also met Darwin in 1834 and spent Xmas Day walking off the pork - really the only meat the missionaries had - on Paihia Beach.)

But if Colenso believed in the beauties and richness and mystery of the New Zealand forest he did not believe in a kind of monocultural Department of Conservation approach by which only natives could be planted, appreciated and encourage to flourish.

He would have seen this as a denial of the rich complexity of the past. His own house both out at Waitangi and on Napier Hill was a seductive combination of both cultural inheritances: it had a magnificent 5 foot tall kaka beak plant forming an arch over the front door at his house on Napier Hill, but he also had figs, peaches, fruit trees and decorative English flowers and plants too. He had nikau palms which were not native to HB at all, as well as foreign invaders from the north like cabbage trees, which he tended out at Waitangi like they were sick individuals which needed careful looking after. He kept a kind of botanical-zoological garden out at Waitangi where he looked after New Zealand plants he was growing for specimens to send back to Kew, so they could be tabulated and internationally recognised. But the mission garden was complex. It was a mixture of indigenous and exotics. For example when he sent a bottle of gooseberry wine to Donald McLean when he first arrived in Hawke’s Bay (McLean having spent the first three days living with the Colensos) the fruit came from Colenso’s own garden. Like most missionaries he grew grapes for eating but also with the idea of making wine. (Colenso was enthusiastic for Australian reds and called Busby ‘the man who introduced the vine to NZ’.  

  He said he lost over 200 trees when the Mission house burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1853. He also said he could not leave the spot until he spent a winter there so he could shift what trees were left. 

Trees were important to him. He was a tree lover, he actually spoke to the trees. This is not as unusual as it might seem. He had observed in old Maori culture that nearly everything was to a degree animate and full of spirits. Many things were greeted and spoken to. So when he as an old man doffed his hat in greeting to the trees of the forest out by Waipukerau which he went to visit as others would visit a concert hall, a circus or a zoo, he also raised his hat on leaving the forest. To him there was nothing more beautiful on earth - more connected to a great principle of becoming - of energy that the complexity of the New Zealand forest. It was where this migrant from distant Cornwall ended up, ironically, feeling most at home.

  Round his homestead on Napier Hill he created what he said was a Res In Urbe, that is, a feeling of the countryside in town. Vegetation up to 10 feet tall and ‘very close and always in flower so I am well screened and sheltered’ surrounded his dwelling so that he boasted to people in the denuded countryside that ‘I live in the bush...Of course I tell them so by way to taunt or banter for though they live in the wood (or what was wood) they are always chopping down and destroying their trees and shrubs so that in nearly every one of their homesteads, there is a want of trees and shrubs, and an ugly barrenness instead! or worse, standing black burnt trunks and prostrate logs’. I fear I may tire you with my long ‘yarn’ about Trees,’ he wrote to his nephew in an undated letter’ but I love them, and to be alone among them. Yet not alone, never alone, for God and nature is there and everywhere.’ 

  Colenso had a three acre garden on Napier Hill, north facing and sloping right down to Milton Road. In season he had so many figs and peaches he used to gather them into baskets and offer them to children wandering home from school at the bottom of Milton Road. He also had a man who lived in and gardened for him. Colenso was practical but aesthetic in his appreciation. His idea was that you had a cloaked landscape, a soft landscape which took in the best of both cultures, the indigenous and migrant in an intricate personal forest which yielded practical benefits.

By 1858 in Napier there was the beginnings of a small settlement. By that time he had lived in Hawke’s Bay for an extremely long 14 years, longer than anyone else as a settled migrant. Thus he could offer real insights to incoming migrants or newbies who were finding the lay of the land difficult. In April 17th 1858 the HBH had carried an ad for Apple Trees. ‘A few choice young trees for sale, of superior qualities - among which are some new highly -approved long-keeping sorts; also a few large trees in full bearing. An early application is necessary. Apply to W Colenso Waitangi.’

 In August of the same year he wrote a long article on ‘the best sorts or varieties of Apples Trees suitable for cultivation among us.’ He excused himself for launching into what he described as ‘a broad and little known sea’ by saying he would speak from experience and not from what was available in Ak, Wgt, Nelson or Canturbury. He recommended a Horticultural Society of London’s list of apples based on colour, form, size, use, quality and season. This list had 1396 named varieties of apples and 677 named varieties of pears (which I think is an interesting reflection on our reduced world...)

He then named his own apples - saying they were divided into 5 old, I improved and two new varieties. The old were Devonshire, March Aromatic, Nonesuch, Hawthornden, and one, a yellow apple, ‘name unknown’. The improved apple was grafted off a Nonesuch ‘by which the apple is greatly improved’. The two new varieties seemed to be his own invention because he described them as ‘a small sweet very early apple and a great bearer’ which ‘I have named ‘New-Year’; and the other was ‘a very elegant and juicy apple having a transparent centre’ as yet unnamed.

He recommended the Hawthornden and Nonesuch as a cooking apple, ‘forming in cooking one uniform mass of rich pulp.’ The others are table apples.

Colenso had 15 varieties of what he described as winter apples, meaning apples which ‘ripen late, keep well and improve by keeping.’ The 8 old ones were
Ribstone Pippin, Royal or autumn Pearmain?, Court of Wick, Margil, Dutch Mognonne?, Codlia, Yellow Pippin: the new varieties are Waitangi, Napier, Settler, Keepsake, Phoenix and Bonum. These are not so good for dessert but are excellent for the kitchen ‘remaining firm and sound until October.’ Keepsake lasts till November ‘one of the very best of  all my new kinds’.

The London list may be available, he said, in either New Zealand ‘or in the neighbouring colony of Tasmania.’ (And here he cautioned ‘the new settler’ not to rely too much on the mere name of an apple tree: for example there were 4 Hawthornden trees -8 Nonesuch's - while other fruits which, as he says, ‘whose fruit we have formerly eaten, and whose names we recollect with a sigh’ might not be what they say they are ;through the carelessness or ignorance or knavery of the cultivator...and when the amount and height of impudent adulterations of the last 20 years are considered...(it wld not be a surprise) if a settler sending abroad for some good old pear or apple by name and believing  that it is sure to bear the like delicious fruits as those he knew once in her fatherland bearing the same name may be after all disappointed.’ In other words, you couldn’t really just rely on the name of a fruit tree.
Incidentally it is worth pointing out that Colenso bought some of his fruit trees from Edgerley’s in Auckland. Edgerley was a pioneer nurseryman who actually arrived in the Hokianga about the time Colenso did, in 1835. He stayed in Hokianga till 1841 with what was described as ‘an English-style garden’, sending botanical specimens back to Kew. He eventually set up a ten acre garden in Newmarket in Auckland (still called Edgerley Avenue) where he specialised in fruit trees.

With this in mind Colenso then moved on to advice about the practicalities of planting a fruit tree. This he wrote about at length in the letters column of the HBH 5 June 58, noting ‘that every bone fide Settler who has Fruit-Trees should be determined to do it himself, and not trust to servants.’

His advice runs to several pages and includes such advice as: don’t go about the job in a hurry- ‘good work requires time’. Have a good sharp knife. Choose dry winter weather..if your planting ground is very much exposed to a strong wind, like the Westerly, set your trees a little inclining that way; if your orchard is very much exposed to high winds, a few screens dead or living, will amply repay the trouble. ‘tutu and other native shrubs or even fern might be advantageously be left for this purpose.’ If your trees show any sign of unhealthiness, quietly endeavour to find out the cause. Beware however of nostrums (ie false advice), look to Nature.’ ‘Should a sheep or what is worse a goat get in and gnaw the branches of your trees, cut off as soon as possible the bitten part quite down to the sound bark. Have good fences.

And being WC he closes with a bit of poetic folderol...which does not bear repeating here. Basically he was practical and full of good advice. We even find him writing nearly forty years later on an epidemic of fungus among apple trees. He noticed this first in the garden of Lindaeur the portrait painter who by this time no longer lived in Cathedral Lane in Napier but out of Woodville, where Colenso saw several ‘large and hitherto flourishing apple trees (10-12 feet high) were killed by the fungus which struck the roots. Colenso recommended he burn the trees completely and even burn the holes from which the trees had been dug. Later he added advice from a Mr Olsen of Norsewood, a painter, who recommended exposing the tree roots and covering them with lime, leaving the roots bare. The trees, he said, recovered.

It is probably apt to finish on such a practical note, of information shared settler to settler, as Colenso was a curious mixture of a man, a deep thinker who also saw things practically, a man who saw in depth and across the span of time and cultures - he was one of HB’s first Pakeha settlers, he kept notes on just about everything and as such I think we could regard him as a kind of wonderful tree which has delivered to us in the present some wonderful and nutritious fruits.



  1. Peter
    I heard your Jim Mora interview on Lloyd Scott last night.
    I live in Osneloc House in Otaki, built by Elizabeth Colenso's family. Have just finished reading William Colenso by Bagnall & Petersen, looking forward to reading your biography. Colenso was a rather fascinating, if flawed man.
    Tell me - what was the rose you planted on his grave ?

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