The Great Sacred Forest of Tane:
Te Wao Tapu Nui a Tane. A natural
pre-history of Aotearoa New
By Alan Clarke
Published by Reed Books
Hardback, 520 pages, 210 ×
280mm, B&W photos; B&W
illustrations, 2007, New Zealand
Reviewed by Sue Scheele
I was excited to hear of the
publication of a new book on
traditional uses of native plants by
early Mäori that promised extensive
coverage on all aspects. The best
references currently available are
Andrew Crowe’s book on native
edible plants and Murdoch Riley’s
huge resource on medicinal plants.
There is certainly room for another
reference that reflects in detail
the use and value of plants to the
survival and subsistence of Mäori
before the arrival of Europeans.
The publishers’ notes refer to a
30 year labour of love and that
is evident. Clarke has read and
researched widely and the book
contains an extensive bibliography,
with all important statements
referenced, and topics indexed. As
someone who has also delved into
the early literature on the subject, I
fully appreciate the complexities of
the task Clarke has taken on.
But I was left feeling frustrated.
This massive work which is sound
at heart is let down by seemingly
non-existent editing. Was there a
rush to finally get it into print? It is
as if sections have been drafted
over the years (as you’d expect),
but then cobbled together without
checking, reviewing, redrafting,
and integrating into a satisfactory
whole. There is too much repetition
of material, too many mistakes, and
too many convoluted sentences that
make the going harder than it ought.
There is an introduction, plus four
introductory chapters before the
compendium of plant uses that
Clarke states is the aim of the book
(p. 12). It is valuable to set the
scene, explain the nature of the
early New Zealand landscape, and
describe how the first arrivals dealt
with their new environment. But a
lot of information gets repeated in
these first chapters (150 pages) and
it gets rather confusing to follow.
Too often Clarke loses his focus.
For instance, in a book that aims
to concentrate on plants, there is
unnecessary detail on birds such as
kiwi and moa (Chapter 1). It’s hard
to avoid the thought that Clarke is
telling us what he has discovered
about New Zealand’s prehistory
(which is a lot), rather than keeping
a clear focus on the stated intention
of the book.
There is a sense that Clarke is
not quite on top of his material,
especially in his descriptions of the
botany and ecology of early New
Zealand. A close reading though,
suggests that Clarke does ‘know
the answer’ – but because of poor
review and editing, statements
creep through that are inconsistent,
inaccurate or just somewhat off the
The chapters on medicinal
plants, though full of interesting
information, are not well defined.
It’s hard to know what to find where,
with confusing headings such as ‘Post-contact Mäori medicinal plant
usage’ and ‘Later post-contact
Mäori medicine’. For instance,
Chapter 14 is entitled ‘Botanists’
records of medicinal plant uses’.
Yet the information in it comes from
a variety of sources – including
early missionaries, surveyors,
naturalists and doctors. The whole
section on rongoa (traditional
healing focused on the preparation
and use of plants) could have been
much better laid out, with some of
the chapters combined.
I would question some of Clarke’s
more general assertions, though in
fairness, much can still be debated.
For instance, I would not support
the “hit and miss” theory of finding
out how to process foods to make
them palatable, or remove toxins.
As Helen Leach has pointed out,
Mäori brought a myriad of food
processing techniques with them
from their Polynesian homeland.
So I suggest few people need have
died eating karaka kernels, before
steaming and soaking methods
were adopted to detoxify them,
as with some acrid yam and taro
A strength of the book is Clarke’s
understanding of te reo Mäori and
Mäori culture. He is authoritative
and comfortable when it comes to
the important sections on mythology
and the spiritual relationship of
Mäori to the natural world. In the
concluding chapter, he makes a
valid contribution to the ongoing
debate on tino rangatiratanga, and
Mäori control and access to natural
The type face is pleasant, and
the black and white drawings are
attractive, though the placing of
them has not been well checked.
For example, in the section on
forest crops, we see an image of ‘Mäori weapons’ (p. 163), and the
image of ‘Mäori and cloak’ on p.
158 would surely be better placed in
the chapter on fibre-yielding plants.
Is it a worthwhile buy? Guardedly,
yes. There is a lot of good stuff
in this handsome volume, a lot of
detail, and being so well referenced,
there is opportunity for a reader to
follow up on any area of interest. It
is just a shame that the publishers
have let the author down with less
than rigorous editing.