Odd phrases sometimes pop into one’s mind from one knows not where.

The race was a long one and I had, quite early on, injured myself - I was moving fairly slowly as a result. Ever considerate of other runners, I tried to avoid obstructing the way of faster competitors. It was late at night and I was moving slowly and labouriously along the path. I saw a shadow move on the path and, thinking it a runner coming up behind me, moved over to allow him or her to pass easily. I carried on and nobody did pass me. I turned around and there was nobody there. It was only then that I realised that what I had seen had just been the shadow of a tree. Obviously I didn’t need to move over to let a tree pass. ‘Trees,’ the phrase popped into my mind, ‘are people who don’t run much.’

True, perhaps true. But perhaps . . .

We wandered into the partially completed whare wananga, the great wooden beams glowing dully in the gloom. From out of the recesses of the building came an old Maori man - he had been working on the intricate carving of some gnarled pillar. He seemed quite happy to be interrupted. He stood there dressed in skimpy shorts and a bizarre pair of ornately tooled cowboy boots, the great shock of his white hair forming a nimbus around his head as he closed his eyes, his head cast back as if he scanned some realm beyond the shadows of the beams above his head.

And thus he told us stories - stories of the old times, stories that the ‘old people’ told.

And one of the stories was of the puriri tree. The puriri tree - the tree which, he told us, the old people had called ‘the tree that walks’.


Puriri tree

The puriri tree shares its name - and its lifecycle - with the puriri moth. The puriri moth is a large and subtly beautiful moth. Once, he told us, great clouds of these cream and pale green creatures would float aloft covering the sky in their nuptial flight, and their eggs would fall like rain upon the land below. This year, he said, he had seen four individuals - and two of them dead on the roadside. He had the body of one of them resting on the wood he was carving.

He went on to tell us more.

The puriri moth’s larval stage lives burrowing deep into the wood of the puriri tree. One can see the entrances to their homes - holes a good centimetre and a half across, doorways to a labyrinth of passageways gnawed through the tree. When the creature is living there, as he does for some five years, there is a door of silk and wood closing the entrance. When the caterpillar metamorphoses, in that so-common but so-astonishing process, from burrowing grub to winged citizen of the sky, and abandons its home, the doorway is left open.

Rainwater trickling down the puriri trunk runs into the holes left by the puriri moths. Slowly, slowly the water rots away the heart of the tree. Many are the hollow puriri trees that one can find in the bush; mere shells, their centres rotted away. When the strong winds blow, tearing in from the Tasman Sea or blasting up from the Southern Ocean, these undermined trees topple, brought low by the work of small insects and humble water.

But this is not death but new life, for the puriri tree has a peculiar ability. When it falls, from trunk or branch that lies now upon the ground it can send down roots. And above these it raises a new trunk, growing a new tree, a new version of itself, a short distance downwind of where it stood before.

For a million years the winds have blown across the land. Endlessly have generations of moths lived and fed and burrowed and flown and died. Endlessly have trees rotted and fallen and raised themselves: the puriri trees walking ever along the path of the prevailing wind from the west to the east, from sunset towards the shore where the sun ever rises above the sea.

The puriri tree - the tree that walks.


Puriri tree


Puriri tree rotting away


My painting Called Puriri Renaissance

For other tales from the old Maori carver (and a snap of the whare wananga) see The Kauri Run: or Why I Love New Zealand