John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Auckland's eco warriors come in many guises

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The late Professor John Morton. Photo / NZ Herald
The late Professor John Morton. Photo / NZ Herald

Among the lifetime achievements of Professor John Morton, who died last Sunday, a gully of regenerating bush on the North Shore probably won't rate a mention. But the real measure of people is sometimes in their backyard.

If you drive into Centennial Park in Campbells Bay today you will be on a road that grateful residents have named Morton Way. In the park you will see far too many old pines to my mind, but beneath them there is manuka scrub that is giving rise to rimu, totara and other natives.

Walk the tracks along the stream and around the valley and on weekdays you could come upon a group of volunteers cheerfully chipping at weeds and sharing views of the world. Many of them were at Professor Morton's funeral yesterday.

They were vastly outnumbered in old St Mary's Church by the Aucklanders who knew him as a scholar, scientist, theologian, environmentalist, writer, commentator, churchman, or maybe had just taken the nature tours he used to guide around the city shores.

I didn't know him well. Until two or three years ago I didn't know him at all except as a venerable identity who lived on the other side of the park and usually gave me a restrained greeting if our paths crossed.

It was more than I expected after attending a meeting of the bush society in his home shortly after moving into the bay. As an innocent newcomer I waited for a break in the discussion to offer the view that the bush would be vastly improved if the pines were removed.

The silence this evoked was heavy. Much later I received the park's history written by the professor and his wife, Pat.

Kauri forest had once covered the valley but the only trace that gumdiggers had left was the poor soil. The place became a park dedicated to the nation's centenary in 1940.

Some planting was done amid manuka so low that a World War II gun emplacement, now deep in the forest, had a clear view of the coast. The area had been largely left alone and become an impenetrable thicket by the 1970s, when the East Coast Bays council decided to clean it up.

Doubtless the council didn't know that Auckland University's professor of zoology, whose backyard opened into the park, had been watching the slow natural recovery of native plants in the kauri soil.

Early one morning in November, 1977, workmen started clearing the scrub. Pat and John Morton went into action, stopping the work and mounting a campaign to save the native nursery.

They won the battle and with their supporters formed a bush society to plant more seedlings, remove noxious weeds and build tracks and boardwalks through the wilderness.

The Mortons ran the society for many years and it still thrives under their inspiration and the energetic leadership today of another enthusiast, Dr Richard Hursthouse.

The "Prof" was a champion of native trees, a former chairman of the Whirinaki Forest Promotion Trust and the Forest and Bird Protection Society, but he appreciated all species in a suitable habitat, including humans.

In his book A Natural History of Auckland he wrote, "There are those who would replant nothing not pristine, even genetically pure. Yet urban Judges Bay is today an artefact haven: pohutukawa and oaks grow together ...

"Diversely beautiful too are the groves and avenues of Cornwall Park, the pasture of Ambury's farm, plantings as small as Eden Gardens or as large as the Regional Botanical Garden ..."

He hoped human architecture would improve to a point that people did not feel a need to conceal their homes with plantings.

But the foreshore was his first scientific interest. Out of the blue a couple of years ago I got a call from him inviting me to call on him and see something he thought might interest me. It was a quotation of a forebear about Auckland's chronic failure to protect its coasts from development.

Age was taking its toll. The professor's words no longer had the precision and mordant wit that used to enliven local events, and no doubt his lectures long ago.

I told him I had occasionally reported meetings of the Auckland Regional Authority back when he was briefly a member. I didn't add that I mainly recall the battering he took from Tom Pearce. The professor seemed to rile the crusty chairman simply by opening his mouth.

I didn't need to mention it, he did. He told me he held Tom Pearce in high regard. Morton had been elected on the same ticket in 1971 but changed sides to Labour in 1974 and lost his seat. Pearce, he said, drew him aside after the election for a word that could not have been more generous.

People are good.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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