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Source: Department of Conservation

Maxine Fraser is a local Waikato conservationist. She has been working with trees for more than 40 years. Conservation Week 2021 is an opportunity to celebrate our local conservation heroes and the work they do. Maxine, here’s to celebrating you.

Local Waikato conservationist, Maxine Fraser, has been working with trees for more than 40 years. She grew up on a small sheep farm in the King Country where her childhood was marked by the natural cycles of nature: mushrooms gathered in season with her mother, helping her father with lambing, and growing fruit trees and vegetables from seed.

“Strangely, I didn’t grow up with trees,” says Maxine. “Mum and I would go out grubbing thistles, and the goal was to have clear paddocks as trees were considered campsites for animals. But I loved the outdoors and often accompanied my father up the hills.”

Maxine has, however, given herself to the work of trees. Conservation Week 2021 is about celebrating our local conservation heroes and Maxine is well known in the Waikato across many organisations and groups. She has been involved in Claudelands Bush, Te Papanui restoration and taught classes for trees on farms. She has helped reconstruct Waiwhakere Natural Heritage Park and is a founding member of Tui 2000. She has been involved with the Tamahere / WERT eco-sourced native plants nursery and in 2015 she was honoured with a Civic Award by Hamilton City Council (HCC) for services to the environment.

So how do you grow a tree? Start by finding the seed.

It was while studying for a Languages degree at the University of Auckland Maxine began to enjoy walks in the Waitakere Ranges. It was on one of those walks she had a moment that changed the way she looked at plants.

“It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. When a friend pointed to a fern and announced, “That’s a Blechnum” I realised it had its own name. It wasn’t just a fern.”

Those ah-ha moments, like breadcrumbs, like the golden thread that leads us to our purpose, kept appearing.

Next, you germinate the seed.

“I was a student librarian and I was shelving books about mountains. That was it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do – visit some mountains.”

Maxine read books about the outdoors and eventually it led to  time in England where she completed her Post Grad in Science Librarianship.

“I returned to New Zealand via Europe  – after first smelling thyme as ground cover in France, enjoying forests in the Dordogne and Yugoslavia. I travelled through the Middle East and its arid landscapes, where it was hot enough to dry figs and raisins outside” she says.

“After crossing the prosperous Punjab and the crowded Ganges plain, I was finally heading up to the place of my dreams – the Himalayas. Treks through small villages in the foothills led through different vegetations – one containing Daphne odora, which I’d grown up with, where it was an understorey shrub. The canopy was Rhododendron – another familiar tree from childhood.”

Then, prepare the container to hold the seed. 

On returning to New Zealand, Maxine worked in various science and industrial libraries in Auckland. Tramping on the weekends and bush camping in the holidays, she found herself still searching for that elusive something.

“After a chance conversation with a library user, I attended a meeting of the NZ Tree Crops Association,” says Maxine.  “That evening, the guest speaker outlined the virtues of fine timbers. I had no idea trees were such interesting things! So I joined up on the night and have remained an active member for the last 41 years.” It was after visiting a tree farm in Nelson that Maxine threw in her well-paid university job and entered a new phase of land-based practical learning.

“It seemed to be the dream I’d been waiting for.”

Take the sprouting seed and place it in the container.

A year later Maxine returned to the Waikato to be near her elderly mother.  She studied farming techniques at Wintec and joined the local branch of Native Forest Action Council.

“By now in my 40s, my priority, my mission, became to save the world by planting trees,” says Maxine. “Soon after I met a shy scientist, Tony, who wanted to do the same. We married, had a baby and somehow we still found time and the energy to buy a small farm on the slopes of Mt Pirongia.”

Maxine and Tony covenanted a beautiful patch of nikau and rimu forest with the QEII, and established a subtropical home orchard.

“We ran a few beasts, observed the use of trees on farms for shade, shelter and fodder, and grew several timber species. Our son grew up with trees.”

Incubate your seedling and watch it grow.

Reducing his hours at Ruakura, Tony took on more voluntary environmental work, which was his primary passion.

“Tony ran gully bus tours around Hamilton during the Festival for the Environment; started the Te Pahu Landcare Group with the support of DOC; and regularly submitted to territorial plans. He was also appointed as the QEII Rep for the Waikato.”

Sadly, seventeen years ago Tony was involved in a bad road accident and died a few weeks later from the injuries.

“I shifted with my school-aged son back to Hamilton, settling on a steep half-acre, highly modified gully, ripe for restoration.”

Then, gently plant your seedling into the ground.

“And right now, besides my own gully work, I attend regular working bees for two other HCC-owned gully systems – Mangaiti at Rototuna with Rex Bushell, and Mangaonua at Silverdale with George Lusty – as well as monthly work at Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park and the WERT nursery.” 

When asked what she’s most proud of, Maxine turns her attention to a feeling.

“I’d call it satisfaction and wonderment. When you’ve been clearing overwhelming weeds, like jasmine or Tradescantia, and within a few weeks the forest responds with new growth and vigour – that’s the reward, just seeing it being its best self.”

Water your seedling daily…

…and guard its place in the earth. And with time and patience, and a daily devotion to the growing of things, your seedling becomes a tree, planted, grounded, firmly established in the environment.

And its very existence is enough in itself. Its journey to this point has been long.

“I’m a strong believer in trees – all trees,” says Maxine. “My philosophy is one of a new nature, blending tree crops and native forest restoration into a forest-garden model. My wish for the people of Waikato is to grow more native trees and fruit tree crops in their backyards, schools and empty lots.”

And when asked how she has kept close to nature during lockdown, Maxine replies:

“I walk around the block wearing my mask; I sit by the riverbank, observe birds and listen to the wind. And,” she says “I spend time in my gully and forest garden, tending to growing things.”

Take a moment to celebrate and enjoy nature this Conservation Week, 4–12 September 2021. It can be as simple as stopping to listen to birdsong, walking with the whānau or finding a fun online conservation activity to try: