Can't see the trees for the wood needed for growth

One of the great delights of my life is reading.

I'm an unabashed book nut and enjoy reading every day. If I don't read for at least one hour, I begin to get a bit antsy and find myself climbing out of bed at 1.30am to make coffee and sit at the dining table with a book for the next two hours.

I'm currently most of the way through Gavin Menzies' interesting book, The Lost Empire of Atlantis.

Menzies, a former Royal Navy submarine captain, and therefore no off-the-edge mug, seems to have spent much of his early retirement ferreting through the broader Middle-East region in search of Atlantis, what it was, who ran the place, and discovering why it was such a fabulous location.

His findings and measured conclusions are extraordinary, especially his realisation that the alloy metal, bronze (a careful mix of copper and tin at the ratio of 10 to 1), turned a large part of the world on its ear and enabled huge leaps in construction, urbanisation and civilisation.

The manufacture of that metal was of immense importance and value to those who knew the secrets of its production.

Also, Menzies strongly asserts, that feverish production turned vast areas of the Middle East from huge forested lands into deserts. It was this section of the story, which I have not yet finished reading, that got me sitting up and taking intense notice.

My books are my tools of trade, and I treat them with a great deal of care and respect, but I also use them as mines of information, and I have no hesitation in marking in pencil any snippet of information I think I'll need to refer to again. Five pages in the middle of Menzies' work have been liberally scored with pencil marks.

Briefly, they are these:

"In antiquity vast forests grew in the Middle East."

"As Mesopotamia constructed thousands of roads, cities, canals and palaces using bronze (to cut and size both stone and wood), the forests were felled to fuel the furnaces. They also needed cement, plaster, brick and terracotta, all of which required fuel for their manufacture."

"The problem of deforestation became so serious that around 1750BC, King Hammurabi, of Mesopotamia, set up laws against unauthorised tree-felling."

This man also talks of King Solomon's mines, and the fabled "cedars of Lebanon" – an immensely important forest in its time. Now, much of that region is struggling to coax a corn-stalk out of the ground.

As well, Menzies says: "The slag heaps [of Cyprus] suggest a total production of 200,000 tonnes of copper – and that, in turn, suggests a fuel equivalent to 200 million pine trees were cut to supply the copper industry, forests 16 times the total area of the island."

This problem occurred in many other parts of the Middle East. Forests were destroyed to produce bronze, used for so many necessary things.

Bronze melts at about 1000 degrees Celsius and, to get those sorts of temperatures for the manufacture of wood and stone-working tools, as well as the wide range of armaments then in use, required enormous amounts of quality charcoal.

About 300 kilograms of charcoal were needed to produce just 1kg of bronze in its finished form.

Experts estimate that during the Bronze Age (about 3500BC to 1000BC), almost half the natural forest cover of Britain was cut down, and all this occurred 3000 and more years ago.

In modern times, look what we've achieved in the Waikato basin.

About a century and a half ago, vast kahikatea forests stretched from Te Kuiti in the south to Thames in the north, but Pakeha started to milk cows and produce butter that was wanted in England, so we felled the kahikatea and made butter-boxes by the millions out of its timber, because it didn't taint the butter and the timber was sturdy, and seemingly, there were trees in unlimited quantity.

There was flax, too, in the wide, sweeping swamps, and hemp-cutters chopped into it with a desperate will, keen to have the fibre turned into anything from rope to knickers.

In the 20th century, the world clamoured ever louder for wool and mutton and beef, so we tore into the bush on the hill country and planted grass in its place.

So now, if you now look out across the Waikato basin from the slopes of Pirongia, or the Kaimai Lookout on State Highway 29, you can see where our ancestors ripped into the great spreading forests of the Waikato lowlands.

They attacked them with keen axes, humming two-man bush saws, mauls and splitting wedges and powerful timber jacks. They felled, burned and cleared, and in place of the trees, they established flourishing, strong, highly productive farms – sheep, beef, dairy, pigs, horses, deer – and a range of orchards and vegetable-growing ventures, all of it second to none in the southern hemisphere.

But what have we ruined in the process?

We have done pretty much what the ancients did in the Middle East 3000 to 4000 years ago. We cut down the cedars of Lebanon, or their equivalents – the kauri, totara, tawa, rimu, kahikatea and others. Nga rakaunui.

Yet if you get up early, at 6am or so these days, and get yourself on to a raised elevation that gives a view out over the Waikato – the Ohaupo ridge is as good as any – you will see that perhaps a million hand-planted trees are out there, and that pockets of ancient native bush still cling to the landscape.

There are places such as Lake Ngaroto, where 30,000 or more hand-planted shrubs and trees are beginning to reconstitute a long-forgotten landscape, and in the process are providing the living conditions for seriously endangered native birds, insects and invertebrates.

There are Yarndley's Bush, the gullies in Hamilton, river and stream banks, town parks, Pukemokemoke, lake edges, shoulders on Pirongia, corners of private farmland and the gardens of many urban dwellers – all of them flourishing with purposely planted native and exotic trees, shrubs and flowers.

Maungatautari is emerging from its 20th-century birthing pangs to become a centre of astounding success in the recovery of endangered native species, and has the potential to be a world leader in how to care for and regenerate animal, bird and plant species that may otherwise perish because of human encroachment.

It's not new, this business of deforestation, and the consequences of removing all the trees from our environment is there for all to see, from 3000 years and more ago.

The Waikato now has lots of trees spread across its landscape, but don't hesitate to plant another one. Future generations will bless you hugely.

To contact Kingsley Field, email

Waikato Times