Māori revered the forest for its beauty, spiritual presence, and bountiful supply of food, medicines, and weaving and building materials.
The forest is called by many names – ngahere, ngāherehere, nehenehe, ngahengahe, wao, waonui and waoku. In Taranaki, motu or motu rākau refer to a stand of trees or patch of bush.
Tāne created the forests when he separated his parents, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother), and let light into the world. As Tāne Mahuta he is god of the forest, presiding over its plants and birds. As Tānenui-a-rangi he is creator of the first human.
The mauri of Tāne
Māori believed that the life principle or mauri of a forest could be concentrated into objects such as stones and thereby protected and fostered. Stones were chosen for their unusual shape or appearance, and buried in significant places such as at the foot of well-known, bird-frequented trees. Lizards such as the moko kākāriki (common green gecko) and moko tāpiri (Pacific gecko) were often released to guard the mauri. Māori believed these guardians were immortal.
However, forces could conspire to deplete the mauri itself, and tohunga (priests) from other tribes could recite incantations to negate or steal it. Tohunga were called on to protect or revitalise the mauri.
The Rātā tradition
Respect for Tāne’s forest was shown by performing certain tikanga (customs). Their importance is reflected in the story of Rātā.
Rātā went into the forest, cut down a tree, and began to carve it into a canoe. When he returned the next day to continue his task, the tree was miraculously standing in its original position. He felled it again and set to work, but the same thing happened the following day, and the next. Finally, Rātā hid behind a bush and saw the hakuturi (forest guardians in the form of birds, insects and other life) replanting the tree. When he confronted them, they told him he had failed to perform the appropriate rites. He then did so, and the hakuturi released the tree.
Traditional environmental knowledge
The early Polynesian settlers hunted the moa to extinction and burned large tracts of forest. Over a period of about 500 years, indigenous forest cover was reduced from about 80% to 50%. In the 200 years since European settlement, it has dwindled to 24.8%. But Māori knowledge of forest plants, foods, medicines, building materials and other resources shows a deep understanding of the natural world.