The Pohutakawa trees planted along the gravel road stand out against an otherwise desolate landscape. They are the footprints of Graeme Atkins, who put the seedlings in the ground twenty three years ago. Like lights on a runway, the trees guide us to Pokai marae in Ruatorea.
Beautifully kept, the Marae boasts a chef worthy kitchen. It's good for hosting politicians, says Graeme. They've had a lot of those lately, here to discuss the same overarching theme. Forestry slash and climate change. The many faces of colonisation are threatening Ngati Porou way of life and the heartbeat of the whenua itself is in danger of being extinguished.
Of Ngati Porou descent, Graeme has three grown children and lives near the marae with his wife, Makere, a paramedic in Ruatorea. Graeme worked for the Department of Conservation in this rohe for decades and knows the Raukumara ranges like the back of his hand. He now works for his iwi leading the Raukumara Restoration project and has been instrumental in the fight to save the Raukumara forest and its unique flora from extinction.
Graeme shows me a fresh Pohutakawa shoot and points to a furry looking yellow patch on the stalk. "That's myrtle rust... it’s killing this tree" he explains.
An import from Australia, similar to the Cordyceps fungus in the TV show ‘The Last of Us,’ this fungus spreads quickly and there is no cure. Once rust infects a tree it infects the surrounding trees and kills them slowly over years. When Graeme tells me that one rust spore can travel thousands of kilometres on the wind, the gravity of the situation almost makes my knees buckle.
The realisation that the mighty Pohutakawa, New Zealand Christmas tree, symbol of hot summers and BBQs at the beach, is heading for extinction, is heavy. Nobody knows exactly what to do about it. Graeme tells me that scientists and citizens alike are experimenting with different fungicides and natural concoctions to find a cure, but it has not been found yet.
It went from knee buckling to fall on the knees despair when Graeme took me to Tikapa beach. I wondered if I could ever put into words the sight of forestry slash, smothering the land and choking the sea. It's hard to convey. Graeme and Makere documented finding generations of crayfish and paua, from babies to granddaddies that lay dying amongst the slash, wiped out in one storm. And we know there’ll be more storms. I can only describe this as an ecological genocide. Death by forestry, and climate change.
This is not the uplifting story I came here for, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t report on how dire the situation is. Thankfully, Graeme turned my despair into something more hopeful when he took us to his whare for a cup of tea and a walk around his garden. Graeme is warm, approachable and intelligent, with an unmatched knowledge and passion for te taiao.
His garden is full of interesting and rare native plants, some on the brink of extinction. He’s particularly proud of the masses of healthy Kakabeak bushes growing all through his property. Endangered in the wild, they are notoriously difficult to grow. Pests love them, but his are thriving. He goes out at night with a pair of scissors and deals to most of the slugs and snails, but he’s not averse to using snail bait if necessary. Anything to protect the taonga.
As we walk I notice a ground cover I’ve never seen before, for good reason. It only grows at Graeme’s house. It’s otherwise extinct as far as we know, Graeme says as he shows me a book about extinct and endangered NZ native plants and turns to a page with the groundcover. On the map of NZ he points to one tiny red dot on the most eastern coast of Te Ika a Maui.
“That’s me.” He says without any pretentiousness, “I found it here.” Apart from the spot he found it, Graeme’s whare in Ruatorea is the only place on earth the plant grows. Graeme found the species and reported the finding to a botanist (he knows a few), who identified it as Mazus novaezeelandiae subspecies impolitus forma hirtus, once considered extinct. Graeme has an incredible eye for spotting difference amongst the sameness of the forest. He recently found a seed pod he had never seen before and sent photos to a botanist friend. Even the botanist had not seen it before, so it may be an undiscovered species, and is now going through an official identification process.
By the time I leave with a pocket full of seeds, a small section of the aforementioned groundcover, and a rare native iris, I feel more optimistic knowing there are people like Graeme in the world, not only for his Kaitaikitanga but for his willingness to share his knowledge, to educate others. As we drive back through the Pohutakawa lined roads, locals smile and give us a quick wave. I see resilience and graciousness. They are still smiling after everything, like Graeme, as much a taonga as the land itself.
In fact it’s hard to separate the man from the land. You can see him in the trees. I left with a determination to plant the seeds and guard them with my life. Graeme Atkins may be an environmental hero, but he can’t do it alone.
Story by Aimee Vickers Photographs by Owen Vickers