Of their sober neutral colours neither dark nor light.
These, composed of various shades and of nearly all colours, they knew well, both naturally and artificially. It was in this particular portion of their discriminating knowledge of the shades of colours, that I early felt the more deeply interested, and often indeed proved their correct descriptions of them, with no small degree of astonishment; for by it I was not unfrequently led, in my early botanizing, to note down and to obtain some new plants or varieties of plants. Even while writing this, I well recollect their statements to me (40 years ago and more), concerning certain plants,—as various species of rushes and of sedges, of scented Hepaticœ, of river Confervœ, and of sea-weeds, and particularly of a Chara, and of a curiously-coloured species of Conferva (possessing a steel-blue cast of colour), which I was led to seek in out-of-the-way holes, through casually hearing from an old woman of their different shades of colour. Hence, too, they discriminated between the different sorts of kumara, and of taro, when the plants were young and growing, by the hue of their leaves (and also of the various kinds of potatoe), and that when travelling along by the plantations, outside of the fence. Also, the varieties of New Zealand flax (Phormium), more than fifty in number, were detected by the hue of their leaves,—all being alike green, yet all slightly differing in the shade of that colour, and only three or four of them (at most) in the shape and size of their leaves. I have sometimes been amused, when travelling, in hearing the descriptive remarks (among others) which would arise from my party, on the baskets of cooked potatoes being placed before them, kindly yet hurriedly boiled on their arrival at a village. On the top of each basket, according to custom, was placed a handful of boiled greens (of sow-thistle tops, or of wild cabbage-sprouts), of such as
were at hand; and the remarks would arise simply from the difference in the colour of the greens,—some being well-done, and some (hurriedly) half-done; some freshly gathered, and some stale; the food having been quickly cooked for them by two or three different persons; the little baskets severally brought in; and, according to etiquette, none touched until all were in and placed (as, indeed, with us). It was owing to this finely-developed faculty that they knew so well, and from a distance, whether the annual summer luxuries obtained from the female flowers of the kiekie plant, and from the pollen of the raupo, were in season, and ready for collecting or not,—through the slight change in the green of the tips of their leaves,—and so saved themselves the labour of climbing, etc., purposely to ascertain.
And here I may mention another little botanical incident, which indeed not unfrequently occurred in our deep forest travelling. And to those present who may have travelled through, or even only entered into, an uncleared standing New Zealand forest in all its pristine glory, such a relation may almost seem marvellous. In those umbrageous forests the large trees are generally completely covered with all manner of plants growing thickly on their trunks and branches, as freely, or even more so, than if on the ground beneath. And there, sometimes, nestling among them, yet far away, high up, would be a rare fern or Lycopodium, or some small epiphytical shrub, as Pittosporum cornifolium, or a Loranthus, or a Viscum, or a still smaller plant of Peperomia; and yet all those (and many more) were severally made known to us below by their slight difference in hue; and so, through the quick and fine discernment of my Maori friends, I sometimes gained some desirable specimens. The obtaining of one such I would more particularly relate, as it is an excellent example of what I have just mentioned, and one never to be forgotten by me. It was my discovery (at the north, in 1841), of that rare pine, manoao (Dacrydium colensoi, Hook.). I had heard of it from the old Maoris, but none had seen one for several years, as they grew singly in the dense forests, and the young Maoris did not even know it! On one occasion, however, when travelling through the trackless forest near the coast between the Bay of Islands and Whangarei, we (or rather one elderly Maori then with me) kept a look-out for it. Now this “pine” in its foliage, etc., closely resembled some others of the class,—as the kahikatea, the rimu, etc.,—especially when at the distance of the top of a high tree, but the keen eye of the old Maori detected it at last (though I, and the other younger Maoris with me, could not make out any difference, owing to the distance). And then, for my pocket-knife, he undertook the ugly job of climbing the tree, and breaking off a branch for me. In this case it was more the peculiar shade of green of the foliage, though distant, than anything else
that distinguished the tree in his sight; the fruit of this species being very small and concealed, and not at all showy. Specimens from that branch I subsequently sent to Sir W. J. Hooker, and they were described by him with a drawing.*
It always seemed (to me) as if the old Maoris had a peculiar natural inclination, or bias, towards what I have called neutral colours. This, I thought, was shown,—(1.) in their sometimes choosing to line their large public reception houses with the small, light-brown, narrow stalks of the common fern (Pteris esculenta), all cut to one length, and placed horizontally and closely, and built up, or interlaced together, in separate panels between the pilasters of the building, with a very great deal of care and trouble:—(2.) again, in their sometimes preferring to line the roofs of their dwelling-houses and kumara-stores (i.e. the first layer of thatch placed upon the white rafters), with the large green fronds of the nikau palm (Areca sapida), which were regularly placed on while fresh, and their long narrow pinnate leaflets neatly interlaced; these, which were green at first, soon became of a uniform dark-brown colour on drying, serving remarkably well to set off to advantage the light-coloured rafters of kauri, or of tawa wood. This manner of roofing, chiefly obtained at the north, among the Ngapuhi tribe, where the totara timber was not so common as at the south:—(3.) in their dingy-looking kiwi-feather cloaks, and in their common, slightly-coloured, (dyed) flaxen ones:—(4.) in the brown parrot, and dark pigeon plumes, used largely for their war-canoes:—(5.) in the women wearing around their necks little satchets composed of the finely-mottled neutral plumage of the whio duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchus), and of the elegantly flecked, or pencilled, back plumage of the male putangitangi or paradise duck (Casarca variegata):—and (6) in their, sometimes, only lightly dyeing their prepared strips of undressed flax for their fancy baskets, so as to become of a dark dove, or drab, or even a light slate-colour; and then, in weaving them, to form many kinds of regular chequered patterns, by ingeniously turning sides to the said strips in the weaving; giving the whole, when finished, somewhat of a damasked, or mosaic, appearance, owing to the difference of the reflection in the hues of the one colour, arising from the more glossy upper skin of the flax-leaf regularly interwoven contrasted with the duller appearance of the under and slightly scraped surface of the same; hence, too, it was, that the skilled old lady-weavers were always mightily pleased with the in-woven damasked pattern of a common unbleached linen table-cloth:—and, also, (7) in their pleasingly weaving together the undressed leaves of widely different fibrous plants—as of New Zealand flax (Phormium), of
[Footnote] * Vide, “London Journal of Botany,” Vol. I., p. 301; and, Hooker's “Icones Plantarum,” Vol. VI., t. 548.
Astelia (sp.), of kiekie, and of pingao,—collected from opposite and distant habitats;—some from the deep forests (climbing the highest trees), some from sandy dunes and sea shores, some from cliffs, and some from marshes; and all torn into regular-sized shreds, and dried, and woven in various patterns, into one basket! often causing it to possess a very agreeable appearance from the various hues of colour; though, sometimes, the difference in the colour of some of the strands obtained from various plants was so slight as not to be readily distinguished at first sight by the eye of a stranger,—not without inclining the basket at its proper angle towards the light so as to reflect it.