Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Top of the tree: Winning book's long climb

It has taken seven years in the wilderness for two nature lovers to produce a book capturing the uniqueness and beauty of our native trees, as Phil Taylor reports.

An image of Tawhai - silver beech (Nothofagus menzeisii) from 'New Zealand's Native Trees', winner of this year's NZ Post Book of the Year honour.  Photo / Rob Lucas, published by Craig Potton Publishing
An image of Tawhai - silver beech (Nothofagus menzeisii) from 'New Zealand's Native Trees', winner of this year's NZ Post Book of the Year honour. Photo / Rob Lucas, published by Craig Potton Publishing

Dr John Dawson didn't get his head down till after midnight and though he was up before dawn as usual, he looks none the worse for wear despite his 84 years and a slightly dicky leg.

And why not - in his field he is a rock star. It is the morning after the retired botany associate professor and his friend, horticulturist and photographer Rob Lucas, became the toast of the publishing set, carrying off the gold medal for books the NZ Post Book of the Year award for their beautiful, immense tome, New Zealand's Native Trees.

It is 576 glossy pages long, has 2300 colour photos, describes 320 species and sub-species and combines the heft of the textbook with the artful appeal of a coffee table trophy publication. It pulls off the feat of telling the stories of our unique forests in language we can all understand.

Having won its category - the illustrated non-fiction award - it then knocked out the other category winners to take the supreme award.

It was the heavyweight in every aspect, weighing an impressive 3.36 kilograms. (The publisher is working on a more manageable "field" version).

"Yes, I suppose it is our magnum opus," says Dawson over coffee on Thursday morning, just as chuffed by the award as he is bemused by the attention.

He bought a dark suit specially for the awards and admits to having been hopeful and anxious waiting for the announcement.

"We didn't know about the top prize. I thought we had a good chance but when they were working up to that [announcement] you think maybe they will say something else."

Not being a fan of ceremony, or a suit-wearer, Lucas stayed home in Wellington. Things had "got a bit crazy" after the announcement, so Dawson didn't get to ring him on the night.

It is their seventh book together and Dawson says probably his last, but maybe not for the youthful Lucas, "a child of only 72".

Dawson says they planned to celebrate Lucas' birthday this month at their favourite Chinese restaurant, but now it would be a double celebration.

The professor and the photographer, whom Dawson describes as "friendly, practical with a Kiwi-bloke sense of humour", have an enduring mateship. Dawson says he was asked recently whether they had ever argued, and he couldn't recall a cross word despite all their time together deep in forests. While Lucas composes his photo and waits for the light, Dawson wanders off in search of the next photo opportunity.

The book is the product of more than seven years toil during which the authors drove 100,000km in a four-wheel drive vehicle and hiked and grovelled through dense bush for countless hours.

He and Lucas' explorations are driven by plants, unlike one of Dawson's sons who is a mountain climber. "I have no wish to climb mountains just for the sake of them," Dawson says.

Lucas, a horticulturist who trained at Wellington's Botanical Gardens, came to photography through practical necessity. He left the gardens to become a polytech lecturer on pestology (the study of pests) but couldn't find photographs of the relevant insects to show students.

"He thought, damn it all, 'I'll buy a camera and take some myself'." And that," says Dawson "is where it all started."

The pair met in the late 1980s when Lucas came to Victoria to show his insect photos. Dawson recalls realising that Lucas had the best of both worlds - "an artistic eye as well as a scientific eye".

Dawson, who was born in Eketahuna and explored the beech forests of the nearby Tararua Ranges in his youth, believes there is a growing interest in our native forests. A course on New Zealand flora he gave towards the end of his university career was very popular. "I think there is a general feeling now that the native plants are things of great interest and that we should look after them."

Because of our isolation there are unusual things about our plants, he says. Probably because the ocean moderated the cold of the last ice age, New Zealand's native forests survived and some trees can be traced back 80 million years. In contrast, the ice age transformed the forests of much of the planet. Pre-ice age fossil fields under London, for example, show the area once had forests akin to those found in Malaysia today; Oregon once had rainforests like those in Mexico.

Forests have countless stories to tell, including about the "strange directions of evolution". Botanists argue about the cause but Dawson has noted changes he believes may be plant adaptations to counter the "trashing" they received from grazing moa, the extinct giant flightless bird exclusive to New Zealand. A lot of plants produce small hardy leaves lower down, and normal more efficient leaves above moa-reach.

New Zealand has few spiky plant varieties, quite possibly because the country didn't have the soft-snouted predators to keep at bay that Australia did. But one spiky plant we do have had its spike at the tip of a long strand. It may be, says Dawson, that was an adaptation to reach past the moa's beak and poke it in the eye.

The convenor of the judging panel, Chris Bourke, described New Zealand's Native Trees as "a once in a generation publication.

"From the detailed and authoritative research, accessible and comprehensive writing, detailed yet expansive photography, near flawless editing, design and layout this is a quality book from start to finish.

"It is a perfect reference book and its impact on the community and on generations to come, is self-evident."

The New Zealand Herald's reviewer said: "This book is a document that helps us understand what we've got, and that may help us protect what is under threat."

Nothing is missed, no leaf unturned. Every species is profiled, from forest giants to those that "rarely or barely reach tree status".

The authors aimed for a book that is relevant and precious to as wide an audience as possible, that could be the reference for all those involved in nurturing and replanting our forests, through to those "who just love our native forests and wish to get to know them better".

* New Zealand's Native Trees, by John Dawson and Rob Lucas, edited and designed by Jane Connor, published by Craig Potton Publishing. RRP $120.

- NZ Herald

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