THE FOREST OF STONE

The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools,
but the gentle touches of air and water
working at their leisure
with a liberal allowance of time.
                                                            – Henry David Thoreau

On a hot, humid morning, one hundred and eighty million years ago, a volcano standing on the edge of a primeval forest of primitive conifers on the eastern coast of the supercontinent of Gondwana, erupted with shattering violence. The blast wave from the eruption spread out from the volcano’s conical slopes. Traveling at the speed of sound across the surrounding country, it flattened everything in its path. Trees were snapped off at ground level and flung down into haphazard rows. The heat of the blast instantly incinerated the foliage, their ashes blown into dust. The blackened plain was stripped to bare soil. Chunks of pumice and  incandescent blobs of lava rained down on the devastated landscape. The sun was blotted out by a roiling plume of pulverized rock, dust and poisonous gas, lit by jagged bolts of lightning, which reached the stratosphere and was torn away by the jet stream to encircle the Earth.

Worse was to come. Mudslides raced down the volcano’s sides, engulfing everything that remained in a cloying, anaerobic blanket. These lahars, as geologists call them, completed the work begun by the volcano’s blast. The flattened trees, the tree stumps, even the very soil of the plain, was buried under a thick layer of mud. The volcano continued to erupt. Lava flows covered the landscape. Rivers rose and fell, spreading sediment and gravel across the plain. Gales blew for thousands of years, carrying dust and grit from distant mountains to accumulate in deep beds of loess.

Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

But as the millennia ticked slowly by, the radioactive core of the planet began to cool. The volcanoes ceased to erupt. Their magma pipes solidified into plugs of solid rock that would one day form otherworldly clusters of symmetrical, vaguely conical mountains. Things settled down a bit. The Earth continued on along the elliptical path of its orbit around the sun. And time began seriously to pass.  

One hundred and eighty million years later, I awoke on the edge of a primeval shore of blackened reefs, pounding surf and a thin mist rolling off the sea onto a landscape frosted with ice. The air glowed pale pink above the coves of Curio Bay, fading up to a

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Primeval.

rich blue as light from the rising sun filtered into the sky. Inside my truck, a rime of frozen condensation decorated the windscreen. The temperature felt well and truly subzero.  

I started the engine and lay with my sleeping bag pulled up tight around my neck while the heater thawed out the interior. Below the isthmus where I was parked, the sea sloshed back and forth into a narrow slot in the reef. The water spilled out over the surrounding rock like an over-flowing bath. I could see penguins hopping into the water and swimming briskly out through the waving forests of kelp to their fishing grounds. The ocean steamed like a young man’s dreams.

Later, after a reborative latte, hot and hot, full of sugar, and served up with a plate of toast, butter and jam, I set of along the cliff top though groves of rustling flax to the southern end of the bay. I descended a steel staircase to the reef, exposed by the receding tide, and walked out into the forest that had stood there so long ago.

The trees lay in the haphazard rows where they had fallen. Their stumps protruded from the soil beside them. It was as if I was standing there alone in a sylvan glade, with the sunlight filtering down and the sound of birds echoing around. The only difference was that this was a horizontal forest. Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

On that distant day when the forest had been overwhelmed by the lahars, the fallen trees, the tree stumps, and even the soil was buried in a layer of volcanic ooze devoid of oxygen. As oxygen is required in order to make organic material decompose, the buried forest had simply lain there, inert, encased in its sterile cocoon of mud. As time passed and the volcanic conniptions above had quieted then ceased, a process began which would completely replace the stem tissue of the trees with minerals. This process. known as permineralization, retains the original cell structure of the parent tissue, but replaces it with silicates such as quartz.

The permineralization, or petrification, process can only occur underground and takes millions of years to complete. The rivers which flowed across that ancient landscape were rich in the minerals required to petrify the tissue of the buried forest. As the mineral-laden water permiated through the layers of mud, the minerals began replacing the lignin and cellulose in the plant tissue, forming a kind of stone mould which retained the shape of the cells down to a microscopic level. Elements such as chromium, manganese, carbon, iron and copper created different hues in the petrified tree trunks.

The tree stumps

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Petrified Trees at Curio Bay.

underwent an identical process, which preserved and petrified them in the ground where the trees had stood. Even the soil, which is, of course, organic material, became petrified. But while this unhurried, gentle transformation was taking place at a cellular level, another bigger, more ambitious transformation was going on around it. The rocks where the trees lay, the volcanoes and, indeed, a big chunk of Gondwana itself, was on the move.

The the lump of continental crust that would one day be known as Zealandia lay on the eastern side of Gondwana. For millions of years this massive supercontinent, itself a remnant of another former supercontinent, Pangea, had wandered the globe: a gigantic raft of rock floating on a subterraneann ocean of magma. Eighty million years had passed since that summer day when the volcano had erupted and buried the trees. As the eons ticked by, ranges of mountains were eroded by wind and frost, ice and water. Their sediments were washed into shallow depressions in the continent’s surface, accumulating layer upon heavy layer and pressing down on the crust beneath. As the weight increased, the crust began to stretch and become thinner. Continual faulting and rifting created a basin into which the sea flooded. Elsewhere on Gondwana, the continental blocks that would one day become Australia and Antarctica were also in the process of separating from their mother continent. But out on the eastern coast, as the inland sea grew wider and wider, New Zealand and Australia would now forever be separated by an ocean.

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Petrified Tree Stump.

Around seventy-five million years ago, Zealandia was completely separated from the remains of Gondwana. The seafloor between the two continental blocks continued to spread apart, pushed by upwellings of new rock on the fault line between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. On this slow-moving porridge-pot of rock, constantly subsiding and cracking and bubbling, the tiny chunk containing the petrified trees rode. By forty million years ago it was roughly in the position it occupies now, albeit still buried deep in the floating crust. As New Zealand came to a halt, a new tectonic fault grabbed it like a slewing truck, sliding half of it northwards to form the North Island. As the Pacific plate shoved against this new fault, the rocks surrounding the ancient, lithified trees were thrust upwards to the surface. The scene was set for the trees to re-emerge for me to stand on, one-hundred and eighty million years after they had been buried.

…with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film.

There was one final stage of the process. The surrounding rocks needed to be stripped away from the petrified trees, stumps and soil. For that to occur, some decent erosion was required. And for that, you need some big, energy-laden waves. Luckily, plate tectonics had sorted that out as well. The Gonwandan remnant that made up Australia and Antarctica had been split apart by tectonic action separate from that which had been working on Zealandia in general and New Zealand in particular. As Antarctica wandered off from Australia like a runaway child, oceanic currents began to circulate around it. These currents, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, effectively isolated Antarctica, upon whose shores tropical forests had once flourished, from the warmth of Australia and South America. The continent froze.

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Erosion.

Frigid storms wracked the cold waters around Antarctic, generating huge seas whose waves, propagating outwards, smashed into the southern coast of the South Island. The energy contained in the waves began eroding the rocks surrounding the petrified trees, exposing them to daylight once more. They chipped and gnawed at the coastline, creating Curio Bay and nearby Porpoise Bay, and carving out the fretwork of cracks and fissures in the rocky platform where the trees lay.

I stood there now, watching the waves surging up onto the rocks. A flock of seagulls, looking like the black and white keyboard on an eighties synthesizer, fluttered and fussed just out of reach of the waves. Pools of water, left by the receding tide, lay around the trees. The sun glittered on their trunks and branches. The woodgrain stood out as clearly as a piece of new timber on a wood-turner’s lathe. The stumps were also plainly visible, their outer skin of bark and sapwood distinctly different in texture from the heartwood within. The surrounding soil, lithified just like the trees, formed carpets of raised grey nodules between the stumps.

I lingered there among the old trees for ages. Well, that is to say I lingered for an hour orZQ6vg4cbTN2JPclpGPCZhA so at least: The term “ages” being a highly relative term when I considered just how long the trees had lain there and the stupendous journey that they had been on. I couldn’t escape from the image they conjured in my mind of a quiet stand of forest, with a warm mesh of dappled sunlight filtering down, with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film. I imagined the camera panning around me as I looked up into the towering canopy, with a flare of light coming into the wide-angle lens.

But then, alas, I was jolted back into reality by the wash of a wave coming over the rock platform and the arrival of a the first tour group of the day. I toyed with the idea of zapping them with my imaginary phaser but decided against it. So with my tricorder in my hand, I climbed the steel steps back up to the present day and set off north to find some trees that were still living.

Sgt. Dan the Creamota Man

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. 

When I was a kid, back in the seventies, our wintertime breakfast of choice was Creamota, a sort of sweet, creamy, rolled oat porridge made at the Flemings mill in Gore. The Creamoata mascot was Sergeant Dan, a plucky amalgam of a boy scout and an ANZAC soldier. There was the Stirring Times Creamota Recipe Book, in which Sergeant Dan showed you how to cook all manner of yummy things using, of course, Creamoata as a base ingredient. You could get Sergeant Dan recipe cards, so mum could make such things as Sergeant Dan’s Sweetheart of Wheat Custard, and join a club called Sergeant Dan’s Creamota Corps. It was a simpler time back then, a time when you actually cooked your porridge on the stove, in an aluminium pot guaranteed to give you Alzheimer’s in later years. There was none of your thirty-seconds-in-the-microwave nonsense.

The old Flemings Mill, Gore.

The Flemings Mill still dominates the skyline of Gore. I could see it as I drove into town on State Highway One, past the giant statue of a leaping trout and the billboard advertising the Gold Guitar Awards. The wide main street had angle parking and the kind of deeply-verandahed shops typical of colonial towns, where the sun and the rain beats down and perambulating shoppers need shelter from the elements.

I parked in front of a solid, two-storey Victorian edifice with the legend H&J Smiths Progressive Stores emblazoned in plaster above its pedimented windows, and set off to find some lunch. Along the street there was the usual assortment of corporate frontages and local retailers, as well as a few empty shop, like missing teeth in a worn smile. Changes in retail patterns wrought by the likes of malls and online shopping have been hard on rural towns all over the South Island. But still, Gore’s main street had a cheerful, if somewhat tattered confidence, and in the bright, cold southern light it felt friendly and prosperous.  

And then I thought, “Well fuck this”…

I took a window table in Café Ambience and sat doodling over my notes as I watched the people passing by outside. The café was warm and crowded. The windows were a little steamed up, which added to the feeling of coziness, like a farmhouse on a winter’s day. My quiche and salad were superb and, in typical farming fashion, was a big enough meal to sustain a shearer through to afternoon smoko. The café had wifi, of course, so I checked out what was happening on Facebook and did a Google search for information about Sergeant Dan.

Back out on the Gore-Mataura Highway, the town’s unimaginatively-named main street, I walked up to the Railway Station, a solid two-storey Edwardian building of brick and limestone. A white-painted statue of a Romney ram stood on a plinth beside the station. The statue pays homage to the role played by the Romney sheep breed in the economy of Southland.

Originally bred in the Romney Marsh region of Kent, in South-east England, the first recorded shipment of Romneys to New Zealand was in 1853, when nineteen ewes and a ram were sent aboard the SS Cornwall to a stud in Wellington. A dual meat and wool breed, Romneys were soon recognised as a breed perfectly suited for New Zealand’s relatively cold and wet climate. Southland, with its boggy soils, cold winds and steep hills, was ideal Romney country and the breed became the  Southland

Stubborn, thick-willed and stupid, even by sheep standards, Romney’s are often referred to as “boof-heads” because of their woolley faces and obdurate attitude. As shepherds, working with the noble Merinoes, we looked down our noses at Romneys, considering them, and all other sheep breeds for that matter, as inferior. As my old boss Peter Kerr used to say, “There are only two kinds of sheep, Merinoes and others.”   

But regardless of whether or not we smug shepherds approved of them, by the nineteen eighties, Romneys made up fifty-five percent on the country’s flock.

Across the railway tracks from the Romney statue stood the imposing bulk of the Flemings Mill, a mural of Sergeant Dan adorning the front wall. With his wide-brimmed slouch hat, shouldered rifle and shining boots, Sergeant Dan stood to attention, peering out over the town. Originally created in 1915 by Charlotte Lawlor, who worked for the advertising agency that handled the Flemings account, it seemed to me now, with the cynicism of age, that Sergeant Dan’s protruding belly, large buttocks and rouged cheeks were a little at odds with the rugged, tractor-driving, can-do, soldierly farm boy persona we attributed to him as kids.

Sgt. Dan.

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. As it happens, the Flemings mill, Creamota, and Sergeant Dan are all things from that foreign country known as the past. Flemings was taken over by the Australian food giant Goodman Fielder in 2006. Creamoata, along with several other Flemings products familiar to all Kiwis, Thistle Rolled Oats, and Sweet Heart-o Wheat, were absorbed into the Uncle Toby’s brand and disappeared. The Gore mill itself closed in 2008.

But, I was happy to see, the name of Sergeant Dan lives on in Sgt. Dan Stockfeeds. It was emblazoned on the side of a truck that was loading bulk pig food, or something, from an auger protruding from the front of the building.The mill that once produced the breakfasts of countless Kiwi kids now grinds up Primo Calf Meal, Porki Pig Complete Mash, Velvet Plus Deer Nuts (childish snigger) and something called Goat Pellets. There was some sort of neat symmetry in all of this.

Standing there beside the railway tracks, in the bright, cold Southland sunshine, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia. I thought of those long-ago winter days of hot breakfasts cooked by mum on the stove while she made our school lunches and we listened to 3ZC on the wireless. And then I thought, “Well fuck this”, walked back to my truck and headed west towards the uttermost end of the earth.

Extracted from The Greenstone Water, by fajB.