A life of many layers

Alumni, Alumni achievers, Development, Headlines — By on October 12, 2016 2:05 pm

Alumnus Dr George Mason has gifted $5 million to establish a research centre for the natural environment in the Faculty of Science. Tess Redgrave talks to George about his life, work and love of the outdoors.

At the top of the drive to George Mason’s home on the sea-facing slopes of New Plymouth’s Omata are two small Māori carvings.

The left panel depicts a Māori warrior defending Kaipopo Pa, which once occupied the surrounding area known as Waireka (“sweet water”). Below are carved tools such as a “ko” that were used by pre-European Māori for cultivating crops, including kumara.

The carving on the right shows the modern-day agricultural activities of Waireka Field Station – part of Dow AgroSciences, the descendant of Ivon Watkins Dow Limited, where George was once the research manager. This carving shows the sun supplying energy for photosynthesis and depicts the land’s geology and volcanic ash soil. On the panel beneath, the carver has etched a six-sided benzene-ring structure, used as a pre-cursor for plant protection chemicals that were tested at the research station.

“I asked a local carver to create the carvings because I wanted to tell the story of the land here,” George tells me, as we walk together down his long drive. “It gives much more meaning to a landscape when you are able to find ways of interpreting it.” Behind us Mt Taranaki stubbornly hides behind cloud, while in front we have a sweeping view of the Tasman Sea and the Sugar Loaf Islands.

As I spend the day with George at his 1960s architecturally-designed home, lined with native timber and boasting a magnificent fireplace of Mt Aspiring mica schist, I sense that his deep desire to understand and tell the stories of the environment he finds himself in is at the heart of his life.

As a young Auckland University College botany and geology student, George learnt how to interpret the landscape on wide-ranging field trips to places like Te Urewera, the then-called Mt Egmont and Bay of Plenty’s Mayor Island, returning home to write up his findings in the University Field Club’s journal Tāne.

Since then he has combined a stellar career as a research scientist and leading innovator in New Zealand’s agrichemical business with an active interest in botany and geology, particularly in Taranaki – his home for 60 years. Among the many accolades he has earned is the New Zealand Plant Protection Medal, a rare “Old Blue” award from the New Zealand Forest and Bird Society, and a life membership of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust.

“George’s interest, combined with his scientific knowledge, has made a huge difference to Taranaki’s environment,” says former New Plymouth Deputy Mayor, Lyn Bublitz. “At Pukeiti his expertise in weed and pest control has helped enormously to conserve and reestablish the original forest.”

Even now, at 86 years of age, George keeps a close watch on his beloved Mt Taranaki, which he first described on a field trip in 1950 as “offering the most perfect example in New Zealand of an altitudinal zonation of vegetation”.

George Mason at the summit of Mount Taranaki

George Mason at the summit of Mount Taranaki

When I ask if he has been to the summit, his reply is swift. “Over 100 times. We’d climb up there and then find a way to ski down. But I can’t do it anymore.” His voice softens.. “I’ve had four knee replacements and my shoulder’s not good. But I can keep an eye on what’s happening up there through the webcams.”

George has funded a couple of the cameras that are constantly filming the changing mountainscape for the website of the Taranaki Alpine Club, of which he is a life member. (He also chaired the Egmont National Park Board’s Scientific Committee for many years.) “I check out what’s happening on the mountain every day,” he says.

Just as Auckland University College’s Field Club borrowed the Māori name Tāne (God of the Forests) for their journal, so George Mason follows the traditions of Tāne in his efforts to conserve the health of our environment. It is fitting then that the University’s new initiative within the Faculty of Science to foster novel sustainable strategies for our environment and our native species should be named after him as “The George Mason Centre for the Natural Environment”.

“His gift will be transformational,” says Dean of Science, Professor John Hosking. “It will allow us to address some of the country’s significant conservation and environmental issues in a multi-disciplinary manner. Recently the government announced a goal to be predator-free by 2050. Achieving this relies explicitly on basic science that is yet to be developed – the sort of difficult, multi-disciplinary science that the George Mason Centre will enable.”

“My feeling now is to share what I have got,” George tells me, as we sit in his living room. Paintings of some of the hundreds of New Zealand and overseas outdoor regions he has visited, tramped and skied through hang on the walls, while his bookshelves are bursting with tomes on plants, trees, travel and wine.

In 1995 George, who is a bachelor, set up the George Mason Charitable Trust with a focus on funding education and research in the natural sciences. Through Puke Ariki Museum he supports students with links to Taranaki or undertaking environmental research in the region. He has already supported 30-plus, mainly postgraduate, students in their studies at Auckland, Massey, Lincoln, Otago and Victoria Universities. Scholarships for exchanges between Auckland and the University of California (UC) Davis where he did a PhD, have also been supported. A plaque at UC Davis Arboretum describing New Zealand plants in their Gondwana collection bears George’s name.

“But my alma mater [Auckland] will continue to be the main recipient of my funds,” he confides in me. Earlier he mused that putting his name to the University’s centre for the natural environment was “like coming full circle back to my roots”.

George grew up the youngest of four children, at Bayswater on Auckland’s North Shore. His home bordered Ngataringa Bay where his father, the foreman of a Freeman’s Bay Engineering Company, had floated an old ammonia tank close to shore and turned it into a swimming pool.

George’s father died when he was 11, and during World War Two it was his responsibility to look after the family’s “Victory Gardens”, growing flowers and vegetables on a vacant section next door. “I got interested in collecting and sowing seed,” he remembers. “I was working as a grocer’s delivery boy and when I dropped purchases off at people’s homes on my push bike, I would sample some of the plants in seed and pinch some seed for my own purposes.”

In 1944 he went on a scholarship to King’s College in Otahuhu. After four years, he enrolled at Auckland University College to do a BSc, with botany as his major. He also studied chemistry, geology, physics and finally geography, while working part-time.

They were “exciting days”. In particular he remembers the University’s Field Club and the wonderful “after-degree” field trips science students went on each summer: “There wasn’t strict management over places as there is now. We’d be dropped off by a fishing trawler on somewhere like the Poor Knights Islands and left to camp free for ten days or more”.

Another trip took them into Te Urewera to Lake Waikaremoana. “A bus was hired from Auckland Bus Co,” reads the report in Tāne of the 1949 trip, “and throughout the holiday it bore the designation sign ‘Cemetery Gates’”.

Further on, the report records an “evening passed in a riot of dancing, singing ‘Stripping the Willow’ and general confusion, punctuated spasmodically by suppers and eventually fading out with a game of winks. That night 3 hardy souls slept under the stars.”

“Exams were over and it was a great high time to have fun,” chuckles George. But the trips had a serious side and always there were reports published later in Tāne of an area’s botany, geology and zoology. “They were really student scientific articles,” says George, who was secretary of the club and editor of Tāne in 1950.

In 1952 George graduated with his BSc and began on a Master of Botany and Plant Ecology, working part-time as a chemist at the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board. His thesis on the Salt Marsh Plant Ecology of Shoal Bay was supervised by renowned botanist Professor Val Chapman. “After that my mother said: ‘You’d better start earning a living.’ But it was pretty difficult to find work for a graduate botanist.”

Instead, in 1954, George got a job in New Plymouth as an assistant chemist with Ivon Watkins Limited, a firm pioneering hormone-type herbicides like Weedone. His role was field-testing plant protection chemicals. In his spare time he was out climbing, botanising and skiing on Mt Egmont.

In 1956, Ivon Watkins helped George go to the US to UC Davis to study the mode of action of certain herbicides on the physiology of plants for his PhD. “I was looking at how we could selectively control certain types of weeds and yet not harm a crop.”

Despite offers to stay in the US, George returned in 1960 to Taranaki as chief research officer to Ivon Watkins, which morphed into Ivon Watkins-Dow soon after. George’s job title changed along with it to research manager as he developed a reputation “as an inventor, problem solver and innovator” able to formulate the best of pesticides with the greatest efficacy and minimal loss. He has 12 international and 10 local patents. “The judicious use of herbicides is critical in the restoration and maintenance of the New Zealand conservation estate.”

He gives the example of Little Barrier Island, where herbicides are used in an ongoing campaign to remove introduced pampas grass and climbing asparagus. George remained with Ivon Watkins- Dow until 1986 but when the parent company wanted to cut back to core business, he decided to take a retirement package at age 56. Two years later he and one of his research staff, Dr Peter Hayward, set up their own development company called Taranaki Nuchem Limited (now Zelam). They were soon producing a portfolio of new crop protection products for local and overseas markets. One of Zelam’s most successful inventions and resulting technology is for wood preservation, leading the industry away from arsenic-based preservatives.

“New Zealand is a highly efficient producer of Pinus radiata,” says George. “But the wood is susceptible to stains, rot and insect borers so we wanted to work out how we could increase its value and protect the wood by using fungicides and insecticides that were already recognised as plant protection chemicals. Our innovation has now led to Taratek” – one of Zelam’s successful products, sold internationally.

When George set up his charitable trust in 1995, he put two thirds of his Zelam shares into its philanthropic funding base. When Zelam was sold in July last year, funding became available to set up the University’s Centre for the Natural Environment.

“Delighted doesn’t begin to describe it,” says the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, of George’s gift. “This will give us the flexibility to attract world-class researchers to New Zealand.”

“It’s a wonderful legacy for George,” adds Trust Chair, John Auld. “He is an applied scientist with a thirst for knowledge and a thirst to pass it on.”

George is curious, but unattached, as to how exactly University researchers will use his funds, although he does have one little retirement project that could do with some help. He has been developing a selective insecticide application for varroa mite control at his three-acre hobby orchard near where he has some beehives. He also grows three varieties of tamarillos and has patented one called Goldmine. “It has orangey red skin and is golden in the centre,” he enthuses. “I’ve picked a bag for you to take home.”

As my day at George’s lengthens, we move to sit in his bespoke sunroom overlooking the sea. I worry that he will be getting tired of my questions. “No, no,” he says. “I love to talk.”

mount-taranakiGeorge has traced his early ancestry to Naseby – a gold-mining town in Central Otago where he has funded the naming of plaques on trees planted by settlers. He spent his 80th birthday on one of many rhododendron-collecting trips to China.

He has worked with Indian peasant farmers in the Himalayan border region and explored Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. He loves classical music and is a wine connoisseur. “It’s simply a part of dining,” he says of his daily imbibe of a light pinot or a range of whites.

George could talk for hours and I would happily listen – he is warm and easy to be with – but it is time to go. At the top of his drive Mt Taranaki comes into full view, clear of cloud, its white winter coat shining in the afternoon light. My thoughts turn back to Tāne magazine and George’s 1950 entry on Mount Egmont vegetation.

“Higher up still the mountain is wholly encompassed by rock and shingle which appear even from a short distance to be quite devoid of life. But on the summit of Fantham’s Peak (6,240ft) more than a dozen species of flowering plants survive the intense cold of winter under a blanket of a feet of snow.”

Can we restore our unique natural environment?

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