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Friday, October 30th


New Zealand’s Green Pyramids

This is an image of One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand. While I did notice the terracing, I did not give any thought to what its purpose was, or if there was a purpose. The terracing was for me like part of the landscape, one chiseled by wind and rain, or by the finger of God. I would later learn that the terraces were excavated by manual labor for planting kumara (sweet potato). New Zealand’s own green pyramids carved into the land each step paved with varying shades of gold.

Terrace building into the landscape is actually an age old system for utilizing water and was used in areas where it was mountainous or hilly. The idea of a terrace was two-fold: it leveled the area for planting; and it incorporated the idea of swales to help infiltrate rainwater. (I’ve been learning about swales for planting our own vegetable garden because our back yard is situated on a slope. When it rains, the water rushes down the slope and takes everything in its path with it.)

Terraces and Swales

Swales are designed to manage water runoff, filter pollutants (or hold nutrients) and increase rainwater infiltration; and can even be seen in areas where the land is flat. In this video, Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design, is utilizing terracing for hillside paddies in Vermont! Who would had thought to come up with the idea to grow a staple food like rice in a cold climate. Genius.

While I wonder if growing rice in New Zealand’s climate and marshland areas could had been feasible (even today), the Maori however were not rice growers. During pre-European times most of their calories came from growing kumara, a food said to have originated in South America. While the kumara flourished in the islands where the weather was more suited to cultivating it, the temperate climate of New Zealand limited the kumara’s growing season and how it could be stored.

Food Storage

Kumara was grown in summer (December-February), and the tubers harvested in March. They could not grow in cold temperatures, so the tubers had to be stored (or preserved) during the winter months. Maori stored kumara and other related crops in subterranean pits to be planted out later but storing tubers underground was beneficial in other ways as it gave the produce more taste and hence a tastier crop the following season. There is some evidence that different tribes preferred a particular type of storage, some of which took the form of elevated covered food platforms, and others that resembled cellars dug into hillsides with easy access as kumara was a staple that was eaten during winter. It’s most likely then that Maori utilized two types of winter storage at the same time: subterranean pits for long term preservation; and a cellar or platform for regular access.

New Foods

The discovery of New Zealand by European explorers in the 18th century introduced into the country new foods, such as potatoes and other forms of sweet potatoes some of which were hardier and therefore easier to grow and store. In time, these new foods replaced many of the delicate growing kumara varieties in the Maori diet, much of which is now lost to us. While the loss of these varieties is a loss to understanding more about the culture and what could had been valuable contributions to food science; for Maori, it meant less time spent laboring in the fields and in food preparation—something we can appreciate today with our reliance on technology and convenience.