25 July 2015

Old barns of Wisconsin

It seems I’m not the only photographer to develop fascinations!

During my recent trip to Wisconsin, my lovely friend and extremely talented photographer Trudey introduced me to some of hers, the first being the beauty of old barns, and I quickly became just as fixated as she is with the wonderful old farm buildings to be found throughout this farming state.

Many are decaying, some almost totally collapsed, and most are simply too expensive for their current owners to maintain or repair. Yet it is this very state of deterioration that makes them fascinating: the peeling layers of old paint and the textures in the old wooden boards; the shafts of light sifting through the holes in walls and roofs; the tendrils of greenery curling through cracks and crevices; the interesting differences in structural materials and architecture that could tell a lot about their original builders, if only I knew how to interpret them; the sense of social history and of interesting untold stories; and the lingering ghosts of past farm workers.

Trudey and I went on a road trip from her home near Green Bay to the far west of Wisconsin, to visit some of her family in the very beautiful Eagle Valley. The route should have taken about four hours’ driving but it took us nearly seven as we stopped along the way to photograph and admire many charming old barns and sheds, granaries and silos.

Left shows the detail of the barn above, and right shows more detail of the brick silo below

About two thirds of the way there it started to rain. The cloud cover was low, wreathing the hilltops with wisps of mist and reducing visibility almost to zero on the ridges of Eagle Valley. Yet, if anything, this increased the attractiveness of the barns, making them appear quite eerie and exemplifying the idea that these pieces of Wisconsin’s history are slowly fading away.

22 July 2015

The eagles have landed

In 1782 the American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) became the official bird emblem of the United States because of its majestic beauty, great strength, long life, and because it's native to North America. It appears on the Great Seal of the United States, is stamped on the reverse of several American coins, and its image can be found in a multitude of locations, situations and media throughout the United States.

I’m a passionate birder so you can, no doubt, imagine my delight that I got to see Bald Eagles on my very first day in the USA

My friend Trudey had been following these eagles right from the time the three eaglets were born, about a week apart, back in March, and had shared some fantastic eaglet photos on Facebook so I was hoping I would be lucky enough to see them when I arrived. The birds had fledged, in stages, about two weeks prior to my arrival, so were no longer on the nest but were still spending most of their time in the immediate vicinity of the nest, in a park alongside the Fox River near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

We visited the park several times during the first few days of my visit so I was fortunate to get photographs of the three fledglings in various places and poses. I only saw one of the adult birds and that one only once, but I did get a closer look at two adult Bald Eagles being cared for at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary near Green Bay.

Bald Eagles are fascinating birds but rather than repeat all their cool facts and figures here, I’ll let you read them for yourself on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

I feel very privileged to have spent several hours watching these magnificent creatures and I hope you enjoy looking at these few of the hundreds of photographs I took of them.

11 July 2015

Auckland trees: some historic beauties

Here in Auckland city, unless they were lucky enough to survive European settlement – and, sadly, very few did – most native trees don’t have a long history, as they were only planted after settlement got underway with the arrival of the first immigrant ships in the 1840s and 1850s. For exactly the same reason there are very few exotic trees in Auckland that are more than 160 years old. So, for my last tree blog before I depart New Zealand’s shores I thought I’d share a few of the local trees that are older than most.

Coral tree (Erythrina caffra), Old Government House, Auckland central
Although some sources say New Zealand Governor Sir George Grey planted this South African coral tree in the 1850s it seems more plausible that it was planted in 1861 or soon after, as that was the year Grey came to Auckland from South Africa to begin his second term as Governor and he lived in Old Government House, in front of which this tree stands, until parliament was moved to Wellington in 1864.

The tree’s identification has been the subject of some debate over the years: in his 1971 unpublished report 'Historic and Notable Trees: Northland and Auckland', S. W. Burstall labelled it Erythrina phlebocarpa, and the plaque at the base of the tree names it Erythrina indica. However, the Notable Tree Register says they’re both wrong and it is, in fact, an Erythrina caffra, also known as a coast coral tree, a Kaffir boom, and a South African coral tree. Whatever its name, it is a magnificent specimen, tall, elegant and most beautiful when covered with bright orange flowers in the springtime.

English oaks (Quercus robur), Old Government House, Auckland central
Also at Old Government House, in the grounds that border Waterloo Quadrant and Princes Street, can be found many large old oak trees. Burstall says the largest of these were planted in the early 1850s by First Secretary to Governor Hobson, George Graham but the origin of the acorns from which they were grown is much disputed. Burstall states that they ‘were collected from the Royal Oak, Boscabel, Shropshire, in which Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester, or from the Great Forest of Windsor. Some oaks are said to have been planted from seed given to Bishop Selwyn by Queen Victoria’. However, in her book Notable Trees of Auckland, Elizabeth Francke reports as follows:

Writing in 1885, James Baber stated that the acorns were sent from Sydney. Another source gives Herne’s Oak, the famous tree of Windsor Great Park, as [the] parent, while yet another claims that the acorns came from Queen Anne’s oak, also of Windsor Great Park.

Regardless of their origin, they are now magnificent trees. I like what early New Zealand writer and intellectual Edward Tregear had to say about them in a letter to the editor of the Evening Post (28 December 1894, page 4):

When a young man, I saw oak trees planted in the grounds of Government House at Auckland. What summer visions of beauty are those trees now. Thirty years ago the townships of Cambridge and Ngaruawahia, in the Waikato, were mere desolate wastes of sand. Now they are homes of loveliness, with their avenues of umbrageous greenery and whispering aisles of refuge from the glare of day. Benedictions on the heads of men who plant trees. There is an unselfishness in planting trees that others may enjoy the shade which is a moral strengthening and a mental refreshment, lifting us awhile out of the sickening struggle of the daily life of the nineteenth century. "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." I am, &c Edward Tregear.

Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), Parnell Rose Gardens, Parnell
This sprawling tree is acclaimed as the largest pohutukawa in Auckland but, as with so many of our old trees, its age is uncertain. Burstall reckoned it was planted in the 1850s and listed three notable early Aucklanders as potential planters, Sir William Swainson, Robert Gillies or Sir Logan Campbell, all of whom resided on this piece of land in the early years of Auckland’s settlement.

However, there is also a possibility that the tree pre-dates European settlement, as Logan Campbell’s obituary in the Auckland Star (‘The Father of Auckland’, 22 June 1912, page 5) seems to suggest: ‘With his own axe he cut down the scrub and hewed out paths along the edge of the cliff from one side round to the other. He planted macrocarpa, Pinus insignis, and other shade trees, and here and there left native trees to themselves.’

Firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus), Gillies Ave, Epsom
This is one of several trees in the Auckland suburb of Epsom that were probably planted by G. B. Owens around 1865 and, according to the expert, Burstall, this is the largest firewheel tree in New Zealand. It’s an Australian native, a member of the protea family. The Firewheel is a shapely evergreen tree but its most stunning feature is the flower that gives it its name, a pendant umbel of bright red stalks that looks more like a Christmas tree decoration than a blossom.

Sadly, this particular tree appears unloved and under-appreciated, perched rather precariously next to the driveway of a block of flats. My apologies for the poor photos – the block of flats sits on a very busy road so it was difficult to get a better angle on the tree.

Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Owens Road, Epsom
These two stately trees are also reputed to be some of Owen’s 1860s’ plantings, as he originally owned this particular property, and the road is named after this prominent early settler. English-born George Burgoyne Owen (1819-1893) was an apprentice in the Sheffield cutlery trade before sailing first to Sydney and then to Auckland in the 1840s. According to his obituary in the New Zealand Herald (25 September 1893, page 5), Owen purchased a cutter, the Saucy Kate, and ‘ran her in the coastal trade (principally kauri gum)’, before settling in Auckland as a storekeeper and general merchant. We are fortunate indeed that he was an enthusiastic tree planter: many of the large old trees in this suburb were planted by him.

Norfolk pine (Araucaria heterophylla), St Stephens Ave, Parnell
The last in this short list of Auckland’s historic trees is also the tallest. It was 102 feet tall in 1970 so is probably considerably taller now. It’s located in the grounds of Selwyn Court (formerly Bishops’ Court), home to Bishop George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878), who served as the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand from 1841 to 1858 and as Primate of New Zealand from 1858 to 1868. Our expert, Burstall, reckons this stately Norfolk pine looks old enough to date from the very early church days in Auckland so may well have been planted by Bishop Selwyn himself (or, at least, by his gardener).

A. W. Burstall, ‘Historic and Notable Trees: Northland and Auckland’, Forest Research Institute, 1971

Elizabeth Francke, Notable Trees of Auckland, The Tree Council, Auckland, 2003

09 July 2015

Auckland walks: From the city to Mt Eden and back

Fancy a walk? Okay, then pull on those hiking shoes and grab some water ‘cause we’ll be pounding the pavements for about 9 kilometres and we’re going to head up a volcano so you might feel the heat.

At 196 metres, Mt Eden is the highest point in central Auckland so a great place for spectacular panoramic views over the city, its harbours and suburbs. And when we walk there, and back, from the central city, there’s a lot to see along the way, including a historic cemetery, two old churches, some street art, assorted historic buildings, significant places in Maori history, old villas and a huge park.

I’ve plotted our route on a map (just click on it to see it full screen) and numbered the points of interest along the way. These are just a few of the things that have caught my eye on past walks -- you will no doubt see other things that capture your interest and imagination.

1. A convenient place to start, and end, is at the corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Road, right in the centre of the University of Auckland’s huge complex of buildings. We could easily spend a whole afternoon exploring the university grounds … but that’s for another day. We’ll head up Symonds Street, past the towering blocks of student accommodation and offices and pause briefly for a look at Symonds Street cemetery. (For more on this fascinating place, check out my previous blog.) 

2. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
After a left turn at Khyber Pass Road, we find one of the historic highlights of our walk on the corner of Khyber Pass and Burleigh Street. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates from 1880 and is renowned for its wooden interior, one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, the only way to see that interior is to attend a Sunday service as the church is not open for public viewing.

3. Cityside Baptist Church
At the bottom of Burleigh Street, on the corner with Mt Eden Road, is another old church, not nearly so distinguished but with its own history and the most gorgeous little bell(-less) tower perched on top.

4. Snippets of Mt Eden history
After turning left along Boston Road, then right at Normanby Road, a glance to our right before we cross the railway line will bring a glimpse of some of Auckland’s street art, in this case the running squirrels of BMD. To our left is Mt Eden jail – not a place we want to enter – and further along Normanby Road, we find some historical links to Mt Eden’s past: the Colonial Ammunition Company's shot tower, the old bluestone building (now the CAC Bar & Eatery), and Normanby pub, to name a few.

The whau tree, from which this mountain takes its Maori name
5. Mt Eden
There are many paths up Mt Eden: sometimes I head up the dirt paths, sometimes I sweat up the steps old and new, sometimes I go up the roadway. It’s worth several visits to check the different routes as the trees and the views are all different. Maori named this volcanic cone Maungawhau (mountain of the whau tree), and archaeologists have discovered that as many as 3000 people lived on its slopes in the 1600s. We can still see the pits and depressions in the landscape, where kumara and taro would have been stored after harvest and houses would have nestled. And now we’re at the top, check out how deep the crater is. Impressive, eh? And look at the magnificent panoramic views – without a doubt, the best in Auckland.

6. Heading down
We’ll head back to the city by a different route. First, we veer off the road and down the steps bordering Government House. I used to think you might be able to get a sneak peek at visiting dignitaries from these steps but the trees are too tall and lush: many were planted as long ago as the 1870s.

We turn left at Mountain Road and our stroll takes us past some very lovely and very expensive real estate, some charming historic villas, past Mercy Hospital and a plethora of villas that now house medical specialists, and then alongside the splendid Spanish Mission-style buildings of Auckland Grammar School.  

7. Auckland Domain
After crossing Khyber Pass Road, we head up the appropriately named Park Road towards Auckland Domain. Today we’re just going to walk past the Duck Ponds and down the pohutukawa-lined Centennial Walkway but the Domain really deserves more time to explore. Check out some of its highlights in my earlier blog here

Once we exit the Domain, we simple head up the slope opposite, up Grafton Road, between the buildings, old and new, of the University of Auckland, and hey presto! we’re back where we started a few hours ago. I hope you enjoyed today’s walk.