Building on bones, Eric Medcalf

No Other Home Than This
John Andrews
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877517082

John Andrews must be a very curious man. This is a book that reflects a life of curiosity, of love for his profession, his humanity and his country. It reflects painstaking scholarship and a gift for written communication that will place the book on the shelves of many New Zealanders who might not ordinarily have read his work.

As a scientist he has observed in fine detail, noticed difference, tested hypotheses and published his findings. As a biologist his lineage includes Joseph Banks and Carl Linnæus. As a New Zealander he has participated in culture and found a home in the New Zealand landscape. He is also an historian whose previous works have reflected his interest in the history of his science and its people.

No Other Home Than This feels like the culmination of a life’s work and can be valued as part of Andrews’ contribution to the continuing development of this country’s intellectual culture. It is the product of fine scholarship: 364 pages, 31 of references, and a further 31 of footnotes. Andrews does not just discuss the history of New Zealand since settlement by Europeans but takes us back to the origins of the physical world and of humankind, the development of European culture, science, technology, art and thought.

Throughout, Andrews involves himself with the relationship of human beings with the landscapes in which we live in the company of other animals and plants – landscapes transformed by our presence in ways that reflect both our need to find the means of our survival as a species and our need to live in an environment that represents “home” as a place, both in its familiarity and its aesthetics of landscape and architecture.

As one might expect from a biologist, there is a strong emphasis on the flora and fauna (the “biota”) of New Zealand, and on agriculture; but the book is much broader than this, reflecting on ways we respond to the landscape and how these responses have been formed by both our cultural history as Europeans and our maturing identity as New Zealanders.

What is “home” and how much is it connected to “place”? We need familiarity, a sense of belonging in a place where we have a history, where we have walked and our ancestors’ bones lie in the ground. This anchors our excursions into a less familiar and less predictable world. We need a certain amount of predictability, some of us more than others, such is the diversity of human personality.

In varying degrees we become anxious in unpredictable situations. We look for the familiar in order to soothe our anxiety. When we travel we don’t just pack clothes but also photos of loved ones, and we notice things that remind us of home, comparing new landscapes with those familiar to us. As Laurence Olivier is reputed to have said when he arrived in New Zealand: “It’s a long way to come to visit Scotland.” We fill the gap between the known and the unknown; we attempt to find points of reference to make ourselves feel to some extent “at home”. We also use curiosity to take us into, and make sense of, the unknown. In that way we all act like scientists – we need to name, to experiment and predict, and we share our impressions with others.

The first European travellers to New Zealand were explorers, people with curiosity and a temperament that sought adventure and accommodated risk and difference. They were accompanied by scientists whose attitudes to the unknown and tolerance of diversity were part of their professional tool kit. Unlike them, the people who came later “were the stuff of migration and were in most instances ordinary people seeking a better life”. Perhaps significantly, they did not anticipate returning to their homes over the sea. They left their bones in the New Zealand soil and in that way contributed to the foundations of “home” for their descendents.

Andrews contrasts the attitudes of Pakeha settlers to those Maori who arrived many centuries earlier, thus connecting with his discussion of early humans adapting to, then adapting, the landscape in response to changing climate and population growth. He repeats Keith Sinclair’s assertion that Maori adapted to the landscape while Europeans “tried to dominate the land, to change it as quickly as possible”:

The Europeans had no intention of making a fully committed adaptation to their new environment: instead, they intended to create an environmental and cultural version of the one they left behind. Despite the physical distance that separated New Zealand and Britain, isolation, in the sense of loss of cultural ties and the opportunity to branch out in new directions, was largely illusory.

 

It strikes me that we get confused between home as a place that belongs to us and a place where we belong. This is the difference between what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm refers to as “Having” and “Being”. In his book To Have or To Be (1976), he calls them “two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character.”

It is not surprising that the colonising aspirations of the European were frequently driven by a desire to “have” in one form or another; originating as they did from an industrialised, rationalist and materialist Europe in which a large proportion of the population no longer had any direct relationship with the land through agriculture. It can be argued that the experience of being forcibly separated from the land in, say, the Highland Clearances or the enclosure movement, produced an insecurity, an alienation, that promoted having rather than being.

Maybe, also, this forced separation, and a denial of that loss (it is hard to grieve when one is hungry), made it easier for colonists to forcibly separate indigenous people from their lands. A denial of the pain of loss in ourselves makes it easier to deny that pain in others. As we become more secure, more “at home”, we become more tolerant of diversity.

Scientists observe and make sense of the world in which we live according to their  desire to understand the complexities of interrelationships and to name and organise. In general this approach serves the book well. Writers and poets also observe and make sense of the world and convey this in forms different to that of scientists. Maybe it’s because of this that I found the chapter on writers least satisfying. In itself it demonstrates that Andrews is widely read and has an appreciation of literature, but I found I reacted against the “scientific” structure he uses: an historical and thematic analysis of themes from the landscape and biota of New Zealand and the frequency in which these occur over 150 years of New Zealand poetry.

Although the book starts with a scene from The Piano, music, whether popular or art music, is unfortunately only given slight mention. The pieces constituting Douglas Lilburn’s early trilogy, Aotearoa, Landfall in Unknown Seas and A Song of Islands (1940-46), were written both in Britain and New Zealand, and convey the artist’s musical response to the landscape and the experience of New Zealand as a place distant from Europe. Stylistically they owe much to a northern European tradition and the landscape descriptions of Vaughan Williams and Sibelius.

In another genre, Dave Dobbyn’s Whaling and Tim Finn’s Six Months in a Leaky Boat convey something of the experience of being a New Zealander. Other popular New Zealand pieces such a Pokarekare Ana and Now is the Hour, although ostensibly Maori in some of their origins, have themes of separation and distance across water and have been embraced by Pakeha New Zealanders as reflecting aspects of their experience in these islands.

Andrews comes across as an easy and knowledgeable storyteller and I can imagine the book making a fine television series in the tradition of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Clark’s Civilisation and Attenborough’s series of natural history programmes. It would also benefit from a companion edition, much in the pattern of Michael King’s biography of Janet Frame, in which an abridged text would be accompanied by images providing examples of works of art, portraits and photographs missing here, which would add to both its appeal and use as a valuable resource for the intelligent and curious reader.

 

Eric Medcalf is a Wellington psychotherapist and reviewer.

 

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