The Totara Log

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


A valuable log sits on the riverbed after a flood.

Submitted: September 06, 2018

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Submitted: September 06, 2018

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Although it’s seven or eight kilometres to the sea as the crow flies, I could hear it roaring, which is a sure sign we’ll have rough weather within two or three days. And sure enough, to quote the Arboreal Oracle, ‘It fair pissed down!’ The ubiquitous three-day drizzle can dump a lot of rain in the high country and as I crossed the bridge on the way home I could see that the river was surging over the dam, all brown and foamy. I poked my nose out just before dark to make sure my cattle were on the top flat and they weren’t. The roar from the river was unusually loud, so, to ensure I had a decent night’s sleep, I wandered down to check on my stock.

The Arboreal Oracle’s turn of phrase was spot on! The cattle were standing on a little island, but the water I needed them to push them through wasn’t flowing very fast, so I had no trouble driving them to safety - except that my torch crapped out. By morning the rain had stopped and after a couple of days, the river was getting back to its normal flow. The following weekend as usual after a flood, I checked the fences for damage and made repairs which amounted to biffing a few bits of debris off the wire.

I also checked the river. It’s one of only three in the country where the landowner owns to the middle of the watercourse, all of the others are public property. Anyway, left stranded on the gravel beach was a big Totara log. The tree had been long dead, it had a few root-stumps left and a few branches but the trunk was wonderfully intact and undamaged. It was big, nearly eight metres long and more than a metre in diameter with hardly any taper. Some of the sapwood looked dozy but I knew the heartwood would be sound as a bell!

Totara heartwood is very durable, which is why early settlers split it for fenceposts and house piles. It splits like a carrot! Survey pegs were also cut from Totara, some fashioned on the job or they were made from cut timber. My old house was built using four inch by four inch pitsawn Totara, not nailed but doweled. A sign it was built by old tradesmen.. But to Maori, the tree has major significance. When someone important dies, they say, ‘A mighty Totara has fallen!’ Most of their important carvings are Totara as are their waka - canoes.

Mick was reasonably close with the bulldozer, so we pulled the tree-cum-log into my paddock. Even for the D6 it took some effort but after about half an hour we had it sitting up on runners in my paddock. My intention was to offer it to local Maori, and if they didn’t want it, I’d get the sawmill to cut it into chunky-size timber and give it to the woodworkers guild in town. Meantime I cut the roots off it, and took off the branches, one of which I saved to make my own simple carving.

The following weekend I was off north for a family occasion and arrived home on the Sunday afternoon around three o’clock. I heard a chainsaw buzzing away and at first took no notice because we were unpacking and the boys were lively after being cooped up in the car for three hours. I was suspicious the chainsaw was operating down by the river and awfully close to our boundary, so I hopped into my truck and drove down to investigate.

Despite cattle being in the paddock, the gate was swinging open and there was a car with an almost fully-loaded trailer parked beside the Totara log! A man was swinging an axe, splitting the rings he’d cut from the log. Happiness didn’t reign in my heart! I parked my truck in the gateway so he didn’t have an exit, and strolled up to him. My first question was to ask who he was, but he just eyed me. I trod carefully because he was still holding his axe. I figured that he’d have to be pretty bloody arrogant to just make himself comfortable on private property and start cutting firewood out of a log he’d found lying there! Anyone would know that his chainsaw could be heard from miles away.

‘What would you do if you found me in your kitchen frying a steak I’d taken out of your fridge?’ I asked him.

His look was disparaging. I kept my eye on the axe.

‘I’d call the cops.’ He replied firmly.

‘Well, how’s this any different?’ I asked pointing to the demolished log. ‘Any reason for me not to call the cops?’

I couldn’t decide if he was just plain stupid or putting on an act. He just looked me up and down, so I checked again where the axe was. But he said nothing.

‘What do you think gives you the right to just drive into my property, and how the hell did you know the log was even here?’ I was a bit exasperated.

‘I was just looking for some dry firewood and came down the track and saw the log.’ He said as if there was no problem.

‘So you just opened the gate to help yourself.’ I no longer feared the axe.

‘Well, there’s no sign on the gate.’ He justified.

‘What? So you’ve got a sign on the gate at your house saying, ‘Welcome?”’ I asked.

‘No.’ He replied. ‘Why?’

‘The same reason I haven’t got one saying, “Private Property”, a closed gate means you’re supposed to say out, a bloody sign shouldn’t be necessary.’ I explained the obvious.

He remained unresponsive.

‘Look,’ I said finally, ‘the sawmill’s just up there to the left, knock on the house door and ask for Keith. Just tell him you’re desperate for some dry firewood. He’s got a supply there and he’ll send you a bill.’

‘But I’ve got my chainsaw…’ The guy said half to himself. He wanted to utilize his chainsaw?

I swore a bit and told him where he could stick his chainsaw. Sideways!

‘Well,’ I said wanting to get rid of him, ‘please yourself what you do, but my truck stays where it is until you unload that trailer. I’ll lock it up and walk home, and you can stay the night if you want, but if I have to walk home, I’ll call the cops when I get there. OTY.’

Meekly the guy unloaded his trailer while I watched, and then I let him out of my paddock. I shook my head as he drove past. If I hadn’t caught him, to take away all the potential firewood, he’d have to make at least four trips! Anyway, happily, I never saw him again but he did take my advice to call on Keith. But the Totara log was buggered! What wasn’t split into firewood was cut into rings ready to be split! It was only fit for firewood! What a waste! I couldn’t face burning good wood like that, so I ended up giving it away to someone who, I knew, didn’t know the difference! At least they were grateful!


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