The Lord of the Forest

The Lord of the Forest

Gnarled and pitted wood rests where it has fallen, shapes transformed by the tiny creeping filaments of the moss that covers everything, in this place so textured with age. It is in everything: in the soil woven thick with fibrous, sinewy roots, in the song of the tiny birds that whip amongst the canopy, and in the Maori prayer that echoes through the trees, a complex baritone chant that surrounds the knuckly boughs and reverberates, liquid and substantial. But most of all, it is in him, as he towers above, timeless and massive. There is an air of certainty here. Of inevitability.

Kauris spend the first hundred years of their life fighting to clear the canopy, and to reach into the sun. There are trees of that age scattered around the edges of the clearing and their slender trunks look fragile in comparison to the massive bulk of Tane Mahuta squatted in front of us. This is the world's largest known kauri, and it is some two and half thousand years old. His name means the "Lord of the Forest" and he is the one that dug his shoulder into the muddy ground, coiled, heaved, and rent Papatuanuku and Ranginui asunder. In this, he created the earth, and the sky, and brought the huddled god-children, blinking, into the light.

I spin a slow circle and take in the vertical abbreviations in endless green, and try and judge their age. It is sobering to think that before these trees reach the sunlight, we will again be returned to dust in the ground. Still he towers above us.


A school of fish are pinned to the wall with nails. They spell the Maori word, Koha. It means a gratuity, a gift. The fish are chocolate, and I take one from the wall and chew on it. Behind me, a mountain of butter or, more specifically, a particular mountain modelled in miniature, in butter, shares centre stage with a radio in the shape of pavlova. I am in New Zealand. I ponder if I can get away with taking a second fish.


It took longer than we had planned to clear the sprawl of the city of sails, Auckland's network of freeways, perpetually under-construction, are lined with witches hats and empty in the pre-dawn light.

In time the blocks of prefab industrial buildings give way to the rolling greenery of the hill country, the road ducking and weaving between hedges of scraggly gorse. On the way we talk of the burden of assumed responsibility, and she says, "It's getting easier, you know, getting easier every day. At first it was demanding, and difficult, and it put me in a bad place. It still is, of course. It still is difficult. I guess there was an element of guilt there, a sense that somehow, in some way, there was something you could have done differently that would have changed things. You have to let that go, or it'll tear you open, but once you do, it becomes much easier."

She had mentioned this in December, briefly, as she stood by the window and looked out over the city. A punctuation, a pause, and a furrowed brow before she turned away and pointed out her school, her college, the path we had traced in the rain as we tramped the back streets beside backpackers on the piss. The lines on the hotel window remind me of those painted on the inside of the cabin that undulate as they trace the curve of the fuselage.


I have spent fifteen minutes in an unfocused daze glaring at the walls of the cabin. The lines. This is dendrochronology for the jet-set: a record of the passing of designer signed glasses over dappled grey Formica, white linen, and perfect half triangles of folded navy-blue tissue paper. My head rests against the wall of the cabin, and the gentle vibration of the engines rattles my teeth.

I follow these lines as they buck and curve, cut short by dotted plexiglass, and the blue on blue on blue of the early morning Tasman beyond. The Weather Report mutter in my ears in approbation, bass, strings, and the clicking of my teeth an unintended solo.

I have the volume down enough to hear cabin noise and this half-heard jazz is entirely at odds with the Chilean pop, as interpreted by the immaculately-manicured hostie, that issues from the galley behind me, accompanied by the soft clinking of cutlery.

The seat belt sign above me illuminates, dings, and Senores Pasajeros are asked to secure their seatbelts. I drift out of consciousness.


The sign, framed in the green and yellow so favoured by the DOC, informs me that this tree is partnered with another. One whose clumpy, knotted branches stretch into the mountainside mists of a pentagonal island several hundred kilometres off the southernmost tip of the four major islands of Japan. I've been there too. It took a pre-dawn departure and seven hours hiking up trails set between the roots before we stood at the top and leant back slowly, marvelling at the spread of branches shaped over four thousand years.

Jōmon has rested there since humans huddled in groups around their fires, set between the barrows, shaping tools of bronze. This squatting giant felt the pull of seasons before people had arrived, before roads, before cars, and before the view from the clearing took in the structures erected on the islands in the blue haze of distance. Cranes and gantries that plot the initial point in the parabolas of white scrawled across the sky, tracing the rockets launched from Tanegashima as they claw their way beyond the pull of the earth. That there is evidence standing in front of us of these kind of time frames leads to a very acute feeling of insignificance, and the realisation that we humans, for all our bluster and self-worth, are but a buzzing noise, half-heard, at the edge of the world's history.


We collapse onto the grass at Manukau, and my heart soars. The spray-flecked breeze brings with it the smell of chips, and the laughter of the kids playing touch with a rolled-up ball of newspaper beside the fountain. I can just make out a santa-hatted figure at the far end of the beach, reaching forward into a yoga pose I cannot identify, nor replicate. We are engulfed by the familiar sounds of summer: that meaty thwomp of a wet tennis ball being lofted into the ocean by a cricket bat, the squawks of those enormous red-beaked gulls as they fossick amongst the kelp, the snap of unfurling canvas in the breeze.

The essence of the Pursuit of Happyness, she says, lies in seeing mistakes, feeling the shape of them, and then laughing them off for their triviality. That y, for example, it has always bugged me, "and that's the point," she says, "that's the whole point of the movie. Seeing the frivolous for what it is and moving past it." This resonates, the cracks meld, and I stretch back and take in the sun. One of the kids has scored a try and is thumping his chest, newspaper held aloft.


This has been a pilgrimage of sorts, I think, a quest to reach out for something spiritual, if spiritual is the right word for we two godless, empty vessels. But there is spirituality, for me, in the wonder I feel in these two places separated by hemispheres. For all the treated pine boardwalks, the shutters of cameras clicking behind me, and the carefully hidden dark green barbed wire wrapped around the base of the tree, there is something beyond measure in the age of this place.

Our fingers wrap, brown on white against green. She is back then, for a second, and I drink it in.

Then it flickers and fades and she recedes. Disconnects. I fail to chase it because I know something has changed. Something fundamental. And from that comes a powerful desire to grasp the present and to shape it. To leap between the connections and to trace them back to their source, and be kinetic and frantic and alive in the way only humans can. For all the crossed paths, confusion, and duality of the past few days, this is good madness. It is transient in a way that is entirely at odds with this place, but that is human, and it lifts me up and gives me purpose.

We look out over the forest. There is a spider crouched on a broad leaf at eye level, powerful jet-black front legs tapering to a rear of mustard yellow, the outline of a smaller spider in reverse, and its whole function centres around this deception. It jerks a few steps backward then leaps forward and is gone, in the perfect choreography of something that is not what it appears to be.

We are here, both of us, in this place beyond time, and we are both thousands of miles away, seagulls chasing each other into the pines and the smell of salty air as irresistible as the call of friends and family, as they collapse onto the grass ahead of us, laughing. The future unfurls beneath my feet. It ripples and shears, and is beautiful in all its scattered, tangled complexity