Having just turned 70, Humfrey Newton of Onekaka has good cause to celebrate. His foresight to plant trees over his entire lowland property he calls Onekaka Woods is now paying off as he selectively mills and sells high grade timber off his land.
Perhaps most impressive is how well his trees have actually grown. Humfrey shows me a picture from his handworn copy of New Zealand Timbers by N.C. Clifton, showing a forester standing beside an optimum growth 18-year-old Tasmanian Blackwood which the caption says has a trunk diameter of 31cm.
“Some of my blackwoods reached 50cm diameter at the same age and are still growing steadily,” he explains, treading down the undergrowth to take me to his largest blackwoods which are now over one metre across.
There’s no doubting this man’s passion for his trees as he takes me from grove to grove. Many of his Californian redwoods are now well over one metre across too.
* A chance encounter with the original travel man
* How old whalers traded in harpoons for binoculars in conservation effort
* Exploring Tahiti’s wild side and soaking in friendly vibes
“Good clean oak is easy to sell,” he says at the next grove. “Some say the oak we grow in New Zealand is inferior, but it’s just as good as what you get in England.”
Humfrey puts his “near world record” tree growths down to a variety of factors; extremely fertile soil, sheltered and sunny aspects, consistent rainfall.
Farm foresters now make a point of visiting his block of towering trees along the highway, and admire his splendid bamboo groves too. All the blackberry and gorse have gone, driven out by the lack of light as the trees have grown up.
One technique employed now involves getting in local tree surgeons Jesse Eckert or Tom Bassett-Eason to take off the entire branching top, which encourages the tree to grow more heartwood, before getting in mobile saw miller Tim Eckert to turn the trunk into flitches, planks and boards. Customers can choose a tree and specify exactly how they want it milled up.
There’s no point in hurrying anything along. Humfrey’s strong driving principle is one of sustainability and a strong regard for the environment. His no-frills lifestyle, anti-consumerist even, has all been part of his guiding ethic.
So what drove him in his early 20s to take such an unconventional path? A professional career was pretty much on the cards for the young Humfrey Newton, his Christ College education preparing him admirably for the law degree he was about to embark upon at Canterbury University.
But it was not to be. Bought up on a farmlet just out of Ashburton, the sudden death of both his parents, first his mother from melanoma and then his father from a stroke just one month later, was too great an upheaval for the 17-year old.
“I was never a serious student, the choice to be a law student was just to get the school’s career adviser off my back. I got a ticket to London instead and did whatever work I could find in Britain, then moving to the continent where I got a lot of work in rural France. Later he got a contract to move cars and trucks from Munich to Tehran and Damascus.
“It all opened my mind to what was important. By the time I came home, I just wanted to plant trees.”
When Humfrey turned 25, he came into a modest inheritance which he used to buy a 7.5 hectare block of scrub and rough grass straddling the highway at Onekaka in Golden Bay.
I still have my interview notes from the first time Humfrey took me around his property over 35 years ago. Recorded are how he “gestured expansively through the thriving grove of young English oaks which he had planted 10 years before. He told me he’d planted all sorts of tree varieties, exotic and native, but his leaning was for timber trees, which in turn influenced how and where he planted them.
He had his battles along the way, always defending what he believed in strongly. For eight years the old Golden Bay County Council tried to force the demolition of the old corrugated iron shack he lived in beside the highway.
“It was a correspondence war and I just eventually wore them down. They just gave up in the end. The trees hide it now anyway.”
In another spat with that same council, known locally as the “hedge incident”, the county clerk (Warwick Bennet) resorted to turning up with a chainsaw himself at 6am one morning in Takaka’s Waitapu Rd to thwart any further attempts by Humfrey to protect a row of rare hedge trees destined to make way for a parking space.
In the massively splayed branches of an old man pine on his property, Humfrey built a proper treehouse, access being up three flights of chunky stairs. “The first time I saw that tree, I thought it was meant for a tree house,” he recalls.
That lofty room had a double bed and French doors out onto a balcony. Much of the timbers he used to build it came from the 1903 Building in Nelson, literally snatched by Humfrey from under the wrecker’s ball.
At some point he became a furniture maker, that evolving with the necessity to make money.
“I started by making planter boxes for a landscape gardener, then the same client wanted three garden seats. No one was more surprised than me that I became a furniture maker,” he tells me, pointing to one of his trademark garden seats. His chunky wood butcher art style evolved and refined over the years, fostering an entire genre of copycat style Golden Bay woodworkers.
Renting a cavernous old warehouse in central Nelson, Humfrey for a time even moved all his tools, machinery and wood stack over to try it in the city. “Onekaka Woods, Nelson Branch” he called his workshop in New St.
Retreating back to Onekaka after a few years was inevitable. He utilized the extensive network of watercourses that flow through his property by getting in a big digger to scrape out a sizeable pond.
Then, with the help of his two sons, Tom and Mark, plus local builder Neil Baker, he built his simple “two up, two down forest cottage” over 1998/9 on the pond bank, neatly occupying the only clearing on the whole property. The veranda is leafy and his jetty connected to his veranda still extends out over the pond.
Understandably, life is a little more laid back these days. His partner, Diane Dacre, a former teacher and lecturer at Design and Arts College in Christchurch, shifted in some 20 years ago. The couple still operate a wood economy, harvesting all their firewood to heat their house and to cook with from their own trees.
Over the last almost four decades, I have interviewed Humfrey three times. But doing this latest interview with both Diane and him gave me the feeling that sometimes the best things can happen later in life.
Humfrey puts where he is at now more succinctly: “Very satisfying”.