Artful Narratives and the destruction of the kahikatea forests

The destruction of kahikatea forests in the Hauraki Plains inspired Tāmaki Makaurau artist Toni Hartill’s exhibition Artful Narratives. She has created sculptural artist’s books and art objects that showcase the history of these mighty trees and the importance of caring for the forest remnants. This exhibition will be open to the public on Saturday 2 April until Thursday 2 June 2022, in the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna Library. Due to the uncertainty caused by the current Omicron outbreak, all public artist talks and workshops will be scheduled nearer to the time and announced online.

Toni was captivated by the history of the kahikatea swamps of the Hauraki Plains which she discovered while researching an art project about the importance of forest remnants. The kahikatea were cleared to make way for pasture. “I remember as a child being drawn to the sorrowful huddles of the often bedraggled remnants which we passed on the way to visit family - both south to Tauranga, via Waikato; and north to Whangarei, via Waipu,” said Toni.

Image: Toni Hartill. Mementoes of a Lost Forest - detail

“The kahikatea were once our tallest trees, ancient survivors from the Jurassic period. They dominated the forests that covered the swampy lowland areas of Aotearoa. Unfortunately, once drained, this land was perfect fertile farmland. The trees were cleared in great swathes to make room for dairying.”

A key piece of Toni’s research was reading Ngā Uruora by Geoff Park, which described the sequence of events leading to the conversion of the forests to pasture. This began with Captain Cook’s exploration of the flat land at the head of the Hauraki Gulf in 1769, he named the area “The New Thames.” Cook said that this would be one of the two best places “to first fix a Colony.” Meanwhile, botanist Joseph Banks expressed his intentions for transforming the new-found plain “which might doubtless easily be drained.” Toni says the Englishmen decided they were in an empty landscape, that was to all intents and purposes useless to its inhabitants.

Image: Toni Hartill. The Butter Book. Coptic stitched book. Linocut, solarplate, collagraph, digital.
Imitating a block of NZ butter in size, shape and colour, the Butter Book’s pages are printed with woodgrain, perhaps suggesting the trees were effectively chopped into blocks and shipped overseas.

Although kahikatea wood was unsuitable for naval or building applications, there was a sudden demand for the timber when refrigerated shipping was developed in 1882. This soft, pale, odourless wood was perfect for export boxes, because it did not taint the food. As a result, the kahikatea forests were reduced by 63% in the peak period of 1909 – 1917 due to this flurry of activity to export Aotearoa’s dairy products.

In 1913 a Royal Commission was asked to decide how areas of the country “still under standing forest” should be dealt with? The response, in regards to the kahikatea swamps, was clear:
‘As is well known the soil of the white-pine swamps, when drained and the trees removed, forms one of the richest of agricultural land, which when grassed, is extremely useful for dairy farms… Since no land is more suitable for occupation than that of the white-pine swamps, when drained… their value in this regard is a strong plea in favour of the removal of the trees forthwith.’

'By 1947 any reference to the kahikatea forests was in the past tense.' (Park, 1995)

This quote is included in Toni’s The Butter Book, slipped in amongst images referencing the forest remnants and the development of pastures.

Image: Toni Hartill. Lost Forests of the Plains, detail

Toni’s research became an unexpectedly personal journey - her paternal grandfather emigrated to Aotearoa in 1927 as a 16 year old farm cadet. She discovered he was employed during the Depression digging the "Ten Foot Drain," which still runs alongside "Ten Foot Road" on the Hauraki Plains. Piecing together snippets of family history, with the realisation of how this fit within the story of Aotearoa, gave Toni pause for thought. Her grandfather would have been about the age of her sons at the time, too, which she found gave her more to reflect on.

Image: Toni Hartill. Imagined Journeys through Lost Landscapes.
Watercolour meander book, origami box.

Two small watercolour meander books depict imaginary journeys through the lost landscapes that were once the swamps of the Hauraki Plains. Since researching the history regarding the demise of our pre-European landscapes, Toni said she has felt bereft for all we have lost - and fears for what we continue to lose.

The paper for the origami boxes is printed with text from an article by a descendant of the Bagnall brothers, who ran a mill on the banks of the Waihou River at Turua. They had milled kahikatea trees that were to be made into butter boxes. The descendant expressed regret for their family’s part in the destruction of the forest, they describe the “men with axe and saw, slashing their way into the doomed bush… It was the beginning of the end for many of the feathered world that inhabited its depths… The massive trunks came faster and faster… but a grand and noble forest lay dying.” (Le Baigneau, “Where the Village Slew the Forest”, NZ Herald, 24 April 1937.)

This news article inspired Toni’s book, Once a Grand and Noble Forest, a quiet contemplation of the loss of the forests modelled on a vintage photo album. Translucent pages peel back revealing ghostly silhouettes, as the forest thins to scattered remnants and then disappears.

Image: Toni Hartill. Once a Grand and Noble Forest.
Linocut, stab binding, vintage silk ribbon.

Kahikatea now only occur as forest fragments. Toni says these fragments are important for many reasons, such as being “stepping stones” for birds to use between the larger forested areas. They may contain threatened species of flora and fauna, they can prevent soil erosion, and maintain water quality. Further decline of the remnants occurs due to factors such as weeds, animal pests, insufficient fencing, and continued land development.

Local pockets of kahikatea forest can be visited and enjoyed on the North Shore including at Smith’s Bush and Stancich Reserve, both in Northcote. There is also a lonely kahikatea, standing almost invisibly, at the intersection of Taharoto Road and Shakespeare Road in Takapuna. When visiting these taonga, Toni says it’s hard not to wonder at what was - and what we can do to protect what is left.

It is estimated that more than 98% of the pre-European kahikatea forest has been lost nationwide. However, there are a number of restoration initiatives across the country that are providing habitats for indigenous plants and animals.

Artful Narratives will be open daily in the Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library, Level 1, Takapuna Library, from 2 April until 2 June 2022.

A public programme of artist’s talks and workshops will be scheduled and announced online, nearer to the time, due to the uncertainty of the current Omicron outbreak. The artist’s talks will provide the opportunity to attend a guided tour through each of the cabinets, to experience the artist's books being manipulated, revealing the secrets hidden within. Workshops will provide an opportunity to learn to create some of the basic structures as seen in the exhibition.

Toni Hartill graduated from Auckland University, Elam School of Fine Arts, Majoring in Design. Her printmaking and sculptural artist’s books have been exhibited throughout Aotearoa and abroad. She was awarded a Print Council of Aotearoa New Zealand Life Membership in 2021 for her services to the print community.

Image: Toni Hartill. Where Once a Forest - detail.

For updates about the public programme, and to find out more about these works, please see:

Instagram, Facebook: @tonihartillart


Park, G. (1995). Ngā Uruora. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
Papers Past: herald/1937/04/24/25
EnvirohistoryNZ: The slaying of our kahikatea forests: how Jurassic giants became butter boxes

Author: Toni Hartill