Dancing on the Brink of the World: Volume VII — Macrocarpa

In September of 2019, I embarked on a global journey as a traveling scholar of UC Berkeley’s Geraldine Knight Scott Fellowship. My purpose was to follow the Monterey cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) wherever it has been planted by people, which for this species of cypress is a great many places. Half the world away, this tree has grown a living legacy in the cultures of countless communities and has indelibly transformed the landscape on multiple continents. In no place is this more true than the island nation of New Zealand.

In the home of the Kiwis, where they call the cypress simply “macrocarpa,” I traversed the landscape in search of trees, and I found more than I could have imagined.  The following are excerpts of my travel log, as well as photographs, paintings, and a couple of poems, of my voyage across New Zealand with Old Hespero.

 

9.12.2019 – Awhitu Regional Park | Brook Homestead Campground

 

Drink, from the earth

To tower above me

Feast on the soil

To rise ‘bove the land

Your magic is rooted

Your place here eternal

Beyond comprehension

To the lifetime of man

 

I sit before the grandest pair of Monterey cypresses that my eyes have ever known, each approaching ten feet in diameter and embracing one another limb for limb, entwined and rising from the earth like behemoths from another realm. I almost don’t believe how impressive their presence is, the growth far surpassing the vigor of even the ancient ones I have seen at Point Lobos. It is stunning, and I am coming to understand that the might of these trees is nearly commonplace, ubiquitous, in coastal, rural New Zealand. Driving here, to my first campsite, at the historic Brook Homestead in Awhitu Regional Park approximately an hour outside of Auckland, I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of giant cypresses hulking in the distance. Rolling hills, endless and verdant, with cows and sheep drifting about amiably and munching on the lush green grass all around, and too many cypresses to count. These, and their sister species, the Monterey pine, define the landscape in this area perhaps more than any native species I noticed, though I must admit my eyes were for the California natives alone. I have found them! It brings a pool under my eyes to contemplate how far I’ve come, to find Hartweg’s progeny at home here in the Southern Hemisphere. The global diaspora of plants, and trees above all, is a miracle wrought by man, he who plants and delivers seed to lands afar. This story must be told.

There must be something in the soil, here, something kindred to Old Hespero in the very Earth herself, for these girthy wonders tower over me with apparent ease, having drank of the fertile milk of the land. It is awe-inspiring to be in their presence, to behold their transformation of this landscape. I have not seen the like in California, even on the Monterey peninsula Old Hespero first called home. How can it be that a living wonder such as this is stronger, more vigorous, more alive halfway around the world from its place of origin? This calls into question the very notion of nativity, as I see it. For who are we to say, the humans who have roamed the Earth and planted flags near and far to claim our right to root, that another being might not do just the same? It is clear that here, in the land of the Kiwis, that Old Hespero has been embraced as one of their own. A botanist might refer to this as a “naturalized” condition, of a foreign tree coming to call a distant land its own, but I believe it is something more. Here, in Awhitu, the cypress is at home.

 

9.14.2019 – Clark’s Beach – Auckland Region

 

Tear not down the forests of our fathers

But plant now the woods of our sons

Bleed not from the land of sweet mother

So our daughters may yet dance in the sun

 

There is an old saying – pardon my lack of citation – that a man does not plant an acorn, to once become an oak tree, for himself, but rather for his grandchildren to enjoy some day. Such is the case, too, for the venerable cypresses that may be found just beyond the shore of Clark’s Beach, an hour outside of Auckland’s city center and just to the east of the Awhitu peninsula. A man long dead, by the name of Henry Dell, planted several juvenile cypresses on his coastal farmstead, never knowing that a hundred years later I would swing in my hammock from a girthy lateral branch, watching a family at play on the more conventional swing set a hundred paces down the beach.

The audacity of the growth of Old Hespero, in this land still novel to me, has yet to settle in my consciousness as a normal phenomenon – they are just so giant! Perhaps a dozen of these behemoths skirt the water’s edge, some set back amidst the grass, others perched upon an eroding promontory, rock red with oxidized iron, roots laid bare in the vertical section of the slope. Several other cypress trunks lay as decaying sculptures, relics of their once prosperous living selves. It is clear that they held long and proud lives, for their size is enough to now serve, in some instances, as tables and benches for adult human beings to perch upon and enjoy a picnic or a long, wistful gaze to the waters beyond.

The few trees that remain growing, the survivors of Henry Dell’s courageous churning of the Earth in the first quarter of the previous century, are enough for me to share the company of, in peace and happiness, for one kind afternoon. In my life, I might venture – no, I declare I shall! – to plant many of my own cypress seeds, to scatter new growth on distant shores, for strangers to one day share in the splendor I unknowingly bestowed upon them. To be the man who planted trees…

The roots of life are an untold miracle, growing beyond any one human. We are each but a part of this Earth for a fleeting moment, but to live beyond our own time in the trees we sow into the land? This, I say, is a miracle to believe in, a miracle to make true.

 

9.19.2019 – Lake Domain Reserve – Wellington Region

 

A final note before I head to the ferry terminal in Wellington to cross the Cook Strait to Picton bright and early tomorrow morning – on the diversity of cypress hedgerows across this magical wooded island. They are more numerous than I would even have guessed at the beginning of this voyage. The simple truth is, this is the primary utility of macrocarpa in the New Zealand landscape, despite the fact that Monterey pine windbreaks outnumber that of Old Hespero by ten to one. Other than singular specimens providing shade to a cattle herd, or windswept clusters dotting the cliffs along the western shore, the majority of cypresses I have witnessed are planted in a line, at varying distances and densities, to be sure, but nonetheless as a linear division in the landscape, separating a wide field from some other allocation of space – a road, a river, a cluster of homes, or, indeed another field. They are iconic upon the land, beyond counting, and to my eye, ponderously beautiful.

But not all hedgerows are created equal! Some are essentially a row of giant specimens, untamed and spread apart enough to take on an open crown form, not impinging upon one another as branches spread and trees reach maturity. These are my favorite to see, for the edge condition is still met, a boundary created, but the individual tree structure itself is not compromised, nor altered by human conditioning and pruning into an unnatural shape. The canopy spreads and arches in full majesty, the foliage of adjacent crowns intermingle and tickle each other romantically, but do not drown each other or create an untoward adversity of space as they grow. Commonly, these shelterbelts are shorter in overall length, perhaps only a dozen trees long at most, and I would describe them in the landscape as somewhere between a cluster and a hedgerow, indeed a linear element but more of a line segment than a vast dividing armature.

 

 

The polar opposite of this would be the dense, heavily sheared hedgerow, with adjacent trunks as near as two or three feet apart, with likely a chainsaw used to hem their foliage into some rectangular, or else trapezoidal, solid block. Here, the individual form of Old Hespero has been devastated, reduced to an inkling of the imagination of my arboricultural awareness – I can see the giant hiding inside, held at bay by regular shearing from some untoward farmhand. He is not to blame, of course – the macrocarpa here serve their utility perfectly well, but the natural form of the individual has been sacrificed to perform the duty of a mass.

These infantry cypress are stalwart soldiers of their agricultural purpose – no sheep dares cross their ranks! The height of such hedgerows is widely variable – some have been repeatedly hemmed in at the top below ten feet, perhaps as low as a man’s height in some instances. Others, generally those with a slightly wider separation of five to maybe eight feet of trunk distance on center, may stretch as high as thirty or forty feet into the sky. The latter pose a daunting obstacle to any wandering ungulate, and in many cases are utilized to provide a more comprehensive privacy to adjacent homesteads, typically abutting a major thoroughfare.

Then, there is literally everything in-between – shelterbelts akin to those just described but that have been left to their own devices for several years, and are now growing out of their strict rectilinear shell. The tips of foliage break out of this rigid, human-contrived mold, escaping the topiary to form some intermediate monstrosity of tree structure, something to make the arborist think, “what has happened here?” I noticed a few such hedgerows along State Highway 3 earlier today, which have been sheared to a vertical plane from the ground up only to approximately the height of a semi-truck, and above this have been allowed to grow freely. These unfortunate souls, guilty only of having been planted adjacent to a major road, are caught in-between man’s purpose and their own inclination to reach for the sun’s rays, and the result is more or less an eyesore – nobody would witness these macrocarpa as mighty specimens to behold. But there is an important lesson in these bastards of arboricultural structure – the cypress will forever, until it dies trying, attempt to break free of topiary bondage. Regular hedging of this, indeed any species, is an endless and repeated task for any land manager, farmhand, gardener, or the like – the form is not natural, not how the plant wants to be – and so it must be constantly tamed, literally whipped back into shape, or those indefatigable fronds will simply, as their genetics prescribe, strive onward and up to the sun.

Many hedgerows have caught my gaze, my study, in these past few days, with every variation of trunk spacing, vertical height, and intensity of shearing utilized.  This breadth of shelterbelt application in the New Zealand landscape is very worthy of appreciation. My overall  takeaway, however, is that an intermediate planting and growth management strategy, where the individual form of Old Hespero is not completely drowned out, the branches allowed to spread as is their natural wont and desire, provides exactly the same utility, the same delineation of edge and separation of one parcel of land from that adjacent, as does the commonly seen box topiary described above. It is certainly less work to not regularly hedge a tree; this is a perpetual, even unachievable, task. The sheep that comes upon a spreading and magnificent row of mature cypresses still does not attempt to cross to the pasture beyond. When utility is matched, then, should we not also strive for beauty?

 

9.26.2019 – Pigeon Bay Reserve Campground – outside Christchurch

 

A rambunctious and meandering day ends with a peaceful seat astride a solitary picnic table bench, surrounded by a bayside grove of my good friends, the hardy macrocarpa. I am staying the evening at a campground called Pigeon Bay Reserve, about an hour outside of Christchurch along the northern perimeter of the grand circular peninsula that juts out from the eastern New Zealand coast astride the main city. Many notes and details of the day warrant reflection, but the campsite character seems a suitable place to begin.

 

 

 

In all of my wanderings across this grand country, I have yet to spend a night at a campsite so singularly defined by the Monterey cypress as Pigeon Bay – there are hundreds of trees along the water’s edge, where a seafront row of decaying caravans have settled into the mud in their shade. It is quite difficult, even, to imagine the place without them – a rocky bit of shoreline, with a gravelly beach and a small, grassy berm behind, nothing more. But with Old Hespero’s presence comes something much grander, an omnipresence that yields both refuge and comfortable prospect to the water beyond, still as glass in the waning dusk. The sun has disappeared behind the headland on the opposite shore of Pigeon Bay, and a certain calmness has settled upon the evening, as I sit writing and enjoying a steaming cup of New Zealand Breakfast tea. I have said before, to a dear, old friend, that I would rather be in the presence of a crowd of trees than a crowd of people, and that notion has never held more truth than in this moment.

A grove of macrocarpa to my left stand as a regal collection of their kind, planted dense enough to limit one another’s spreading branches and so to define a linear character to each, reaching straight up into the available sunlight – quite unlike many of the solitary gargantuan creatures I have seen on this voyage, stretching in every direction imaginable with no neighborly inhibition to their growth. This stand is more as a forestry grove would be oriented, designed with nature to yield long, straight, and unknotted timber. As living specimens, however, their presence is something different to my prior experience with New Zealand cypresses, something steady, even, and altogether defining of land and place.

 

 

And to my right, all along the bay’s edge, a band of cypress trunks root into the gravelly berm above the humble rock-strewn beach, unyielding in their grasp of the shoreline. In the shade of Old Hespero is where my nomadic dwelling rests, between two others that inhabit the area perhaps more permanently, the rust on their wheels a sign of many days gone by in the lee of these indefatigable macrocarpa. From the beach below it is evident how their stalwart roots hold the soil in place from the bay water at high tide, and again the question comes to mind – just what would Pigeon Bay be if not for dear Old Hespero? Not a worthwhile destination, I fear. In the presence of cypresses, standing tall and holding the land, quite literally – this is a place worth knowing.

 

10.1.2019 – Brighton Domain – Dunedin

 

My final moments with Old Hespero in New Zealand, on the rugged rocky shores of Brighton Domain, are ones that I will treasure always. A singular old specimen, gnarled and windswept, clambering and yearning for life out of the very rock itself, was the last macrocarpa that I shared time with in this land, a country I dare not say that I conquered, but one that I feel I now truly know – it’s wonders are within me, to hopefully share with others as time creeps ever forward. This one tree, cavorting with the wind and the waves as few species are wont to do, brought in the sunrise with me in my final hours living the nomadic existence of a van vagabond.

Before the dawn showed any inkling of its arrival, and the stars as bright as I have ever seen them overhead, with Orion gazing down upon me, through the darkness I walked – my faithful tin cup of coffee and PBJ + banana sandwich in hand – across the gravel drive and down the decaying wooden steps to Brighton Beach. I settled my foldable camping chair down into the sand, just feet from the deep, dark sea frothing and churning in the ebb and flow of the tide, sat down and began to wait.

It is quite curious, really, how the distant galaxies and novae of the vast cosmos are all akin to the one great star that fuels life here on Earth – many of these stars are much larger and more luminous than our own, but simple proximity acts to completely drown the light they yield in the presence of our sun. Never before have I taken such care and time to ponder the invisibility of these millions of billions of sister stars, ever present but beyond our capacity to see, as I did in the breaking dawn astride the ocean of Brighton Beach that day. As the darkness slowly receded and the sky above shifted from pitch blackness to a deep shade of blue, then lighter and lighter still, I watched Orion fade from my comprehension, and my faithful Old Hespero all the while came to life, green and vibrant, before me. With the stars winking out one by one, I was graced with the morning orchestra of the gulls and other seabirds, the first clear sign that a new day has begun. The vast empty blackness of the sea before me, too, began to show signs of the dawn, as early light cast the frothing waters into a new marvel for the eye – no longer the fearful, dark infinity of the night, but instead a calming presence, wave after white-capped wave cascading peacefully upon the sand.

I could not help but recall, in watching the majesty of the morning light emerging, the fabled composer, Chroma the Great, from my most cherished of childhood stories, The Phantom Tollbooth. It was truly a symphony of light and color unfolding before my eyes on that fateful dawning day, an awakening of the majestic morn. I shared the moment with none but the birds, and Old Hespero of course, for not another human soul came down to Brighton Beach to witness the break of day. I had the shelter and refuge of the sandstone cliffs at my back, and the prospect of the sunrise opening before me – is there no greater magic than this? And all the while, that lone rugged macrocarpa blustered in the breeze, emerging from the shadows of night to cajole and dance in the dawn. The sky never ceased to change, clouds passing by on the wind and catching a different hue to each imagined stroke of Chroma’s magisterial baton – first a deep grey, visible now upon the horizon, then a certain blueness against the darkness of the sky, on to a subtle rosiness hinted as the sun inches towards the horizon, and now – oh, behold! – a lustrous gold as she has indeed broken above the infinite sea, a warmth shimmering into the sky ray upon ray as the day truly begins. A spectacle, an orchestral vision of the ending night and the spark of something new – and so, with Old Hespero, did I share in the fiery glory of the rising sun.