The field boss of the Far North Conservation Corps remakes the Northland Forests

Peter and Sabrina

Peter Griffiths was a big man with a kind of balletic poise. He filled the corrugated iron shack he'd built just out from Takahue with the presence any big man brings to a small space, but the difference was a refinement of gesture and thought. It was a physical and intellectual en pointe, rising up on his toes to emphasise any verbal crescendo, his thumb and forefinger pressed into an ellipse that moved precisely up and down to further refine the emphasis, like he was doing needle-point.

As a sideline he made knives from old circular saw blades, fitting native-wood handles, but his main job was heading up the Far North's Conservation Corps, a group of 12 youths taken from the unemployment lists, finding them useful work, testing them in the bush..

"Roger talked to me by phone about what you are doing, and I think your trudge - " rising onto his toes, leaning forward, the thumb and forefinger sewing a considered new definition into place " - your trudge Geoffrey - is important."

Having a shower out the back from a bucket of water heated on the gas ring. Sitting down clean. Drinking the beer. Having a smoke. I was thinking that the trail itself was maybe less important than the chance it gave you at the end of the day - the entry it naturally brought with it - to get into other people's lives and experience their goodwill. It is a fundamental human luxury, and it is ages old. It is in the fairy tales. It is the hospitality of an inn when the way through the tangled forest outside - pace Herekino - has been dark and inhospitable. It is at its most pure in rough dwellings. It is the relief of falling for a while into good company. Of eavesdropping the gossipy web of a community you have entered for the first time: the local Dalmatian, aged in his 70s, who'd had hit a miscreant so hard - and Griffith's hand traced the sheer dynamic joy of it - that he was still rising when he hit the pub wall; the other old local famous for a small private forest with growth rates that'd left the big commercial concerns, who'd studied his techniques, dumbfounded.

Gale nodded. "He has difficulty walking, but he does everything. The pruning, pest and fungal control. He even pisses on the trees."

And the smell of food. As we talked, a meal was cooking - Griffiths, the pasta and chili mince man, was cooking on two gas rings, and Sabrina Raad his partner, was doing the salads and a special vegetarian main for Roger Gale.

Sabrina Raad was working at the Bushland Trust out of Kaitaia, bringing back into the public domain with planting and tracks two unusual dune lakes in the sand behind Waipapakauri. A pair of clogs stood beneath the TV set. She was Dutch, had come north a few years back as a possum shooter, and met Griffiths. She loved plants - a gardener - and Griffiths was no slouch either. Gale mentioned the forest flower he hadn't recognised, I obliged with a replay on the digital, and Griffiths took time out from the wok to pounce.

"It's the forest floor lily - Anthro - Anthro . . . " He was already leafing through a reference book, found the photograph, and completed the phrase. "Anthropodium candidum."

I was lying back on my second glass of home brew thinking: I have fallen in amongst more foresters, and it was true. After the meal, Griffiths launched onto why, and how, the big forests could be brought back to a use beyond the poaching and pot growing that was now so rife.

"The northern forests are safe. Even Waipoua. You remember the case. That guy that got lost and he was three parts blind, deaf, and quite old. Three weeks later was it? Out he staggers. There's no such thing as dying from exposure up here. In Australia, you go to sit down in the bush, and you look around, and then you look again, because there's a bull ants' nest, or a trap-door spider, or a redback, or one of 30 varieties of snake that can kill you, or nettles that can bring you into a condition of agony. And here? Onga onga - in terms of direct assault, that's it.

"You've got safe forests, and you need the development of a culture for those forests, but it can't be foreign to what we have now. When I was 18 at Hutt Valley High School I'd come across from Australia, and this is what struck me. Everyone went tramping with their mates. It's deeply entrenched in kiwis to flop around in the bush.

"You've got to fit in with what we are, and with what is real. And you know what I want? I want these forests used again.

"Now DOC. It's no longer interested in doing field work. They're doing the possums, they're counting the birds, they've got the expertise, but apart from that there's very little going on. I want DOC to act as standards management, but for the local communities to put up the people and run the forest enterprises. They put up the people who work as concessionaires of DOC. These guys are tied in to search and rescue, firefighting, and environmental protection. They're trained to deal with tourists. They have good PR skills. The concession specifies that they can charge for track maintenance, for guided tours that bring people through and put them up at the communities or the marae for the night, for scientific, and photographic and hunting tours, for pest control, but they're not DOC, they're members of a guild.

Griffiths was thinking on his feet. Rising up, sewing it into place. "The Foresters' Guild," he said. "I'd have them in a distinctive uniform - a fishing, shooting, good clean bloke image. That's it. I want the good keen bloke reborn as a professional. I want a three-year course and something for the kids to aspire to. My kids. The ones that we pick out of the long-term unemployment lists, do a 12-week course, and then drop back on the rubbish heap. I want colour coding so when someone's an apprentice, you can see he's an apprentice, and then when you see someone wearing the orange - that's really something. Something to point to in the street, and people say: 'He's a forester. He's a Bushman First Class.'

"Orange!" said Sabrina.

"Orange," said Griffiths. "Because of attention to safety you'd have to make the uniform orange."

"I don't think orange is good," said Sabrina.

"Okay - I don't care," said Griffiths.

"I think," said Sabrina, "it should be like a green coat in the forest."

"Look. Anyone can buy a green Swandri," said Griffiths.

"Well." said Sabrina. "Purple then."

"I don't care about the colour," said Griffiths.

But we were tired as dogs after a hard tramp, and it was time to bed down. We followed Griffiths down to the bach Sabrina Raad was building at the bottom of the land. It wasn't quite finished, but it was roofed and rainproof with a mattress on the floor, and a hammock slung from the beams - room enough for two to sleep. Gale took a look at the bare particle board floor, and said:

"That's not sealed. It'll be giving off a gas."

He turned to me. " The hammock might keep you far enough off the floor, but I'd open the windows." Then he went outside, arranged his sleeping bag there on a ground sheet, pulled a plastic sheet over the bag, climbed in and closed his eyes.

"That's just Roger being Roger," said Griffiths as I unrolled my sleeping bag onto the hammock inside. "He's a vegetarian, there's gas coming out of the floor, there's a load of things he won't eat because of the chemicals in it, and he's the toughest guy I know. I've been out on jobs with him, and he's laid his heel right open at the back. He takes out a needle and thread, sews it back together and just keeps working. He's steel, I love him.

"He's the best pakeha bushman I know. Don't judge by Herekino. Any bush around here - it's so hard in there when you're off the trails. It's the density of the canopy. Diffuse light. The lack of pattern in the topography. The way the ridges that look defined on the map go wide and soft. The depressed saddles - they're the confusers - you don't know which way down is, and which way up is. You can miss a knob by five metres, come down in the wrong catchment, and over a long traverse that five metre miss can turn into miles."

I lay there in the tight net of the hammock, thinking over those words. The next day I planned an easy forestry road walk by myself to cover the distance from Diggers' Valley Road, through Takahue, and on to the next forest - Raetea. Te Araroa's route meant a traverse of some untracked bush inside Raetea, but Roger Gale had agreed to come through that next forest too.