by Dr. Christopher Ballard

Huli distinguish between irabu (ira: tree; bu: core), forest, and hama, open areas of settlement which are synonymous with forest clearance. Deep forests at higher or lower altitudes, in which there remains little or no evidence for human occupation, are identified as tayaanda and associated with non-ancestral and typically malevolent dama spirits. Huli forest management can be summed up, to some extent, as an attempt to reduce tayaanda and irabu to open hama space and then, within this cleared area, to recreate the forest in the form of managed or carefully bounded groves (te). The vegetation of the Tari region basins, shown in Figure B5, thus bears a heavy trace of human interference. 1 Basin floor vegetation is now dominated by gardens and grasslands, with closed and open canopy forest representing only between 2.4% and 6.8% of cover in the central Tari and Haeapugua basins, compared with 84% forest cover on the steep inter-basin limestone ridges (Wood 1984, Vol I: Table 6.4).

The grasslands represent fallows of varying lengths, in which a continuously interrupted vegetation succession rarely permits the development of woody regrowth. Shorter grass fallows are indicated by the presence of bolange (Ischaemum polystachyum), which is replaced over time on poorer soils by dangi (lmperata cylindrica), yagua ferns (Pteridium aquilinum or Diplopterygium sp. or Histiopteris incisa) and gambe (Miscanthus floridulus). A survey of 52 swamp margin gardens at Haeapugua lists the most commonly occurring species in this rich soil area (Figure B6). 2 On the swamps themselves, an initial cover of dunduyame (Leersia hexandra) gives way after cropping to fallows mixed increasingly with bolange, and over longer periods, with hongo bandu (Qllx sp.). The high-altitude grasslands found in theE Mama valley and between the mountains Ambua and Gereba are probably maintained by repeated firing (Haberle 1993). 3

The decline in soil fertility implied by this sequence of successively poorer grassy covers is a recurrent theme in Huli accounts of the earth’s inevitable demise, such as the one below which envisages the invasion of the swamps, the fertile core of the Huli environment, by grasses and ferns characteristic of poor soils:

Now the end is nigh … It is said that when yagua, dangi, balimu and gambe [grasses and ferns] come up at Urupupugua, Haeapugua … Dalipugua and Mogoropugua, if you see these you will know that everything is going to end.
Timothy, 17.4.91, 91/6A:376-42

Similarly, the degradation of forest communities on the basin floors is expressed in terms of the replacement of bai (Castanopsis acuminatissima) by bauwa (Casuarina oligodon oligodon). A small grove of bai trees in the centre of the Lebani valley is all that remains of the forest cover after extensive clearance for gardens and the depredations of major bushfires during drought periods. The most spectacular instance of replacement is the regrowth and replanting of an almost exclusive cover of bauwa on the surface of the Alua mudflow fan in the eastern Tari basin. In most other areas, however, human selection and planting have created a more complex pattern. At Pureni, on the western margins of Haeapugua, bai is dominant on the borders of the swamp gardens, while bauwa is the major tree species on the dryland slopes; here, bai is deliberately replanted to strengthen ditch walls and effect claims to land amongst the swamp gardens, but the quick-growing bauwa, which is weeded out from the swamp gardens for use as firewood, is clearly preferred on the degraded slope soils. 4 The bai:bauwa distinction appears to express a complex of related observations: a temporal succession from originary to successory, a marker of ritual activity (bai trees are amongst the more common species in te ritual groves) and a perceived decline in soil quality. But it is, of course, largely a figurative distinction in which the two species come to stand for much broader vegetation communities.

Tree species that are currently significant on the basin floors include Casuarina oli odon (bauwa), Ficus copiosa (poge), Dodonaea viscosa (lai), Glochidion pomiferum (mbuli) and Homolanthus sp. (embo); Figure B7 lists the most commonly occurring species in a survey of 52 gardens at Dobani parish in Haeapugua. 5 It is doubtful whether there are any stands of forest on the floors of the major basins that have not been managed to some extent. Even on the steep ridge slopes, where the overwhelmingly dominant species is Nothofagus, there is considerable evidence of disturbance by pigs and of selective culling of certain woody species for house and fence construction (Powell with Harrison 1982). The most interesting and complex form of forest management occurs in the numerous te, ritual groves found in every clan territory. These are the haroali tigi, small stands of forest formerly reserved for members of the haroali or ibagiya bachelor cult, and the gebeanda, ritual sites marking the settlements of early clan ancestors. Both types of site were strongly associated with notions of fertility. The bachelor cult sites were centred around the maintenance of bog-iris lilies (ibagiya or wiliaba: Acorns calamus) in pools set in managed groves stocked with tree species associated with lower altitudes.

Gebeanda ritual sites, which varied considerably in size and significance, usually contained a core grove of bai (Castanopsis acuminatissima) or guraya (Araucaria cunnin hamii) trees, commonly perched on ridgelines jutting out into the basins. 6 These are said to have been planted by the original ancestors who carried guraya seeds across the landscape. 7

The guraya, the tallest tropcial trees species, formerly towered over the surrounding trees and were visible across the length of basin floors. 8 Though the landowners at these sites are adamant that they never restocked or planted trees themselves at gebeanda sites, straight paths were maintained through the apparently self-seeding guraya groves by weeding out seedlings and removing even leaf litter along the course of the path (Plate 1). Almost all of the gebeanda groves were deliberately targetted and felled during the 1950s and early 1960s by the administration and the various missions, the timber being used to build Tari station and the mission houses and churches. No surviving mature guraya tree, however, is without significance as a marker for some form of ritual site. 9

The planting of trees, for a variety of reasons, is a widespread and fundamental strategy for Huli. Trees are generally significant as historical markers or mnemonics. As markers of use and precedence, planted trees play a major role in disputes over garden ownership; parents take considerable trouble to point out to their children all of the surviving trees that they or their ancestors claim to have planted and people maintain a mental register of their tree holdings in other parish territories or even other basins. Trees are planted to mark specific events such as births, oaths or unavenged murders, and the health of these trees thus becomes a matter of note, being taken to represent the condition of the individual or the relationship associated with the tree. Individual trees are singled out in oral narratives as proofs (walia) of the events of the narrative. 10 Lastly, the age and species composition of trees on individual clan territories is remarked upon as an indication of that clan’s success in warfare; a common tactic still employed during warfare is to overrun enemy territory for long enough to ringbark and destroy as many trees as possible. From some vantage points, it is possible to look out across basins and spot breaks in the height of trees that identify territories ravaged in wars over the last century. Tree species, size and location are all thus tokens of history for local residents.

An extract from The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea; Australian National University, Canberra, 1995). pp. 42-45.)

(Photo courtesy of Eric Lafforgue)

  1. Extensive descriptions of vegetation in the Tari region are given by Powell with Harrison (1982), Wood (1984) and Haberle (1991, 1993). []
  2. Appendix B3 lists those Huli terms known to me for grasses, herbs, shrubs, mosses, ferns and sedges. []
  3. Though I have not enquired after the origins of the name E Mama, a literal translation would be a (“garden cleared from forest”) mama (“[by or of] ancestors” I “anciently”). []
  4. The extent of the more recent mudlfow events on the Alua fan (Section B5.3) is clearly marked by the cover of bauwa Castanopsis and the absence of mature trees of other species. []
  5. Appendix B4 lists those Huli terms known to me for different tree species. []
  6. The natural groves of Araucaria hunsteinii found in the Lower Tagali valley do not appear to be vested with the same significance as .A.cunninghamii by Huli-speakers, though the former have ritual value elsewhere in Papua New Guinea (Enright 1982:384). []
  7. The attribution of the planting of Araucaria groves to ancestors is a common theme in the Highlands region (Healey 1988:117). A.cunninghamii also holds a particular significance for Wiru-speakers of the Southern Highlands who plant seeds of the tree (known locally as wiru) at new settlement sites to denote the “re-planting” of a community (Clark 1985:25). []
  8. .A.cunninghamii are capable of growing to heights of between 60 m and 70 m (Enright 1982:386). []
  9. Before it was logged in the 1960s, the gebeanda at Waloanda in Haeapugua basin apparently contained a range of other species, including .A.hunsteinii (yaluba), Castanopsis (bai), Nothofagus sp. (dagiruba) and various ritually important shrubs and cordyline plants. With the collapse of the bachelor cult and the proscription by the missions of the rituals associated with the gebeanda, both types of ritual grove have been heavily exploited for firewood and house timber and probably represent the bulk of the average 9% clearance of forest across the Tari area between 1959 and 1978 reported by Wood (1984: 158). []
  10. Certain trees are held to have been present during specific historical events, the most notable at Haeapugua being two ancient stumps near the resurgence of the Haeawi river which are said to have survived the ash fall (mbingi) of Tibito tephra. This is not entirely implausible: Read et al. (1990:200), in accounting for the composition of the Nothofagus-dominated forests of the Mt Ambua Doma Peaks area, raise the possibility that common size structures evident amongst mature trees might reflect the levelling effects of the Tibito ash fall. []