Making it all irreversibly ours,  Simon Upton

On a calm summer’s evening, the view south from my conservatory takes on the enfolding calm of a pastoral idyll. In the moments before sunset all the blemishes and ragged edges that mar the rural landscape are washed out, creating an Arcadian scene. The prospect, framed by Mount Pirongia 30 kilometres away, takes on much grander dimensions. The mountain seems infinitely remote as each winding hedgerow and ridge-line is illuminated by the steeply slanting western light and the intervening valleys are filled with a deepening chiaroscuro.

Immediately below my vantage point summer ryegrass shimmers knee-deep in paddocks locked up for hay. At their distant margin runs a ribbon of swamp —  pussy willow edged with hawthorn and barberry. Immediately beyond, dominating the near distance, a shapely grassed ridge catches the most intense lighting. Spread at park-like intervals across its flanks are century-old plantings of Asian pines, copses of eucalypt and oak. Beyond lies a seemingly endless succession of ridges, alluvial flats and poplar groves. Slivers of the Waipa river glint momentarily in the dying light.

Only hours before this was all merged in heat haze. Now the eye is drawn through an intricately constructed landscape to the distant hills —  bush-covered still above Karakariki then grazed on a hundred distant planes towards Te Pahu where limestone outcrops and forest remnants provide relief. Finally against the southern horizon rises Pirongia —  massive, low slung, its ancient basalt flows shrouded in indigenous forest except on its highest reaches where rocky bluffs catch the last colour of the day.

At such a time the scene is truly Claudean. The closely furled copses of remnant kahikatea acquire a strangely Italianate quality; the sweep of the plain takes on the patina of the Roman Campagna. With the hill country erosion, scrubby sheds and gorse-covered sidelings subdued in the fading light, it is a Virgilian scene. All that is lacking is the crumbling ruin of some ancient temple.

But less than 200 years ago a very different pastorale would have greeted the evening stillness. A different mosaic would have patterned the land. On the lower hills and ridges, bush; in the wetlands and swamps draining into the Waipa, pure stands of kahikatea. Clumps of kahikatea too on the alluvial flats and river terraces with fern and numerous clearings for kumara cultivation. This was the garden of New Zealand — a populous and intensely cultivated place with many pa sites along the river and on prominent spurs. Hochstetter came this way in 1859, noting the fertile flats “diligently cultivated by the natives”. Sadly I know of no photographic record of the pre-European plain. Save for the bush-clad slopes of Pirongia in the distance, only a vivid act of imaginative recreation can restore the scene. War, confiscation and European settlement saw to that. That it was deeply cherished by Tainui there can be no doubt. King Tawhiao’s lament, spoken in the wake of the confiscations, captures as closely as we can the scene looking back in the opposite direction from the top of Pirongia towards Taupiri mountain where the Waikato leaves the central Waikato basin. Again, it is a culturally saturated vision:

I look down on the valley of Waikato
As though to hold it in the hollow of my hand
and caress its beauty
Like some tender verdant thing.
I reach out from the top of Pirongia
as though to cover and protect its
substance with my own,
See how it bursts through the full
bosoms of Mangatautari and Maungakawa,
hills of my inheritance.
The river of life each curve more
beautiful than the last.
Across the smooth belly of Kirikiri Roa
its gardens bursting with the fullness
of good things,
Towards the meeting place at Ngaruawahia.
There on the fertile mound I would
rest my head
and look through the thighs
of Taupiri.
There at the place of all creation
Let the King come forth.

Some months ago in my Dominion column I offered a personal view of my cultural identity. I found myself irritated by the declarations of maturing nationhood that politicians and others with an eye to the millennium were eager to pronounce on. I felt uneasy with the conflation of nationhood and cultural identity that is all too conveniently made by those who would prefer not to think about the cultural crosscurrents in which we live.

Sporting triumphs, immigration debates and republican stirrings all in different ways stir people to declare their New Zealandness. But whether it tells us anything about cultural identity is another thing. I broached the question thus:

The fact that I am one of 31/2 million people spread rather indulgently around these quite large and geologically youthful islands gives few clues about how I see the world. You would need to ask me whether I was a New Zealander of Maori or European (or mixed) descent to get some useful insight into how I identified with the world around me. If my answer were Maori, then my sense of nationhood (in a human sense) would be steeped in 800 years familiarity with these lands, their flora, fauna and seasonal variability. It would also be anchored in a sense of community and culture that has evolved in the Pacific over a much longer time. But I have no doubt that as long as the Maori language survives (and that is without question the cultural imperative facing us) at least one group of New Zealanders will have a completely intuitive grasp of what national identity means for them.

Against that I described my own identity in these terms:

I am happy to label myself an English-speaking European, resident in the southwest Pacific. Not being surrounded by 300 million closely settled cuzzie-bros who wouldn’t recognise a deserted beach or a barbecue if they stumbled upon one, I don’t understand every nuance of European living (in all its diversity). But their culture is my culture. I am not Polynesian. And I am certainly not Asian. I am European.

It doesn’t, of course, mean a culture that resides exclusively in Europe. It has transported itself to the Americas as well as here. But its myths, symbols and intellectual crosscurrents are rooted in the experience of the peoples of Europe over, say, 2500 years. It is not a question of being able to talk knowledgeably about the nave of Amiens Cathedral, the Thirty Years War or the Scottish Enlightenment (would that more could). It is the unconscious embrace of ways of thinking, speaking, visualising and making music. And if, as a European New Zealander, you want to understand why you think or speak as you do, your search will lead you back to European roots. No one is obliged to genuflect in the direction of Europe. But it is rather bizarre to deny it. Yet many do.


Most correspondents, conflating nationality with identity, rose to the wrong debate and questioned how I could possibly deny being a New Zealander — something which would be rather difficult for me to do with family roots here back to the middle of the nineteenth century. But Marilyn Waring rose with great acuity to the challenge implicit in my account of cultural identity. She was no European, but a pakeha — a privileged and well travelled one with the resources to leave Aotearoa to sample European culture and in doing so experience inconsolable homesickness in confirmation of her pakeha identity.

Waring described being pakeha by recalling a conversation with a young woman,

…beginning with my inability to describe my identity and where I come from without speaking te reo, the language indigenous to the tangata whenua of Aotearoa/New Zealand. I spoke of topographies and colours, of long and wide uncluttered spaces, of a texture of feathers and fauna not found anywhere else, of the remnant of dinosaurs called tuatara, of kakapo and kiwi, of kauri and puriri. I again resorted to that non-European language… And when I moved to speak of the music and fashions of my generation’s culture, I resorted to the lyrics of two other local Waikato lads, Neil and Tim Finn, who began a song on an album released at the height of Split Enz fame in Europe, “I was born in Te Awamutu”.

Most intriguing, I thought, was Waring’s endorsement of Gertrude Stein’s line: “People are the way their land and air is.” And it is in that identification of a people with its physical setting that some of the most enduring — and disturbing — elements of my “Europeanness” are rooted. For if there is one unmistakable — and irreversible — consequence of the European invasion of New Zealand, it is the radical transformation of the physical environment. Despite the fact that most New Zealanders live in cities, few would claim that the urban setting is the soul of our national existence: even as the rural economy declines in importance and provincial parts depopulate, it is the rural hinterland and outposts that lie close to the centre of our imagined national identity.

Clean, green New Zealand — the overworked and dubiously truthful cliche — is a rural New Zealand with bush providing a backdrop on the most inhospitable contours. That rurality is the legacy of a northwest European agrarian settler culture. And it is irreversible. Even where the bankers and the soil’s underlying fertility have joined forces to foreclose on hapless graziers, pastoralism is giving way to a meticulously tended northern hemisphere forest species, pinus radiata.

There’s no getting away from it. New Zealand is one of the neo-Europes, a temperate latitude land the climatic range of which favoured the array of old world species that accompanied the spread of European settlers to North and South America, New Zealand and the cooler, rainier parts of Australia. New Zealanders of European descent are part of a diaspora that transplanted not just a common technological culture, but a whole ecological mosaic into totally strange surroundings. The type of ecological catastrophe that ensued depended on the particular rainfall, soil fertility, flora and fauna of the lands they invaded. New Zealand’s lengthy geological separation presaged a particular vulnerability at the hands of humans and their entourage of domesticated and scavenging dependants. All this is recounted with wonderful clarity in Alfred Crosby’s classic, Ecological Imperialism.


The disruption of ecosystems by European settlers has been devastating. And it is irreversible. That is most obviously true in respect of the virtual elimination of certain forest and wetland communities and the extinction of so many bird species. But it is also true of our daily experience of landscape and the passage of the seasons. Deciduous broadleaves are conspicuous by their great paucity amidst New Zealand’s plant taxa. Whether we are dealing with the northern kauri or puriri forests or the dense podocarp forests that blanket so much of New Zealand, they are dark and green the year round — temperate rather than tropical rainforests. Even in the south where pure nothofagus forests are in the ascendant, sombre foliage prevails year round with merely a tinge of autumnal yellowing. There is none of the harsh brilliance that marks northern temperate forests at the equinoxes. The rhythm that transforms the stark winter tracery of lifeless woods into billowing summer effulgence provides a profoundly alien counterpoint to the subtle seasonal pulse of our native forests.

Most New Zealanders can decipher the more blatant portents of seasonal change in the bush if they’re lucky enough to live near some — the flowering of the kowhai, the fruiting of the karaka, the crimson summer pohutukawa. But in terms of sheer acreage and proximity to where most New Zealanders live, the northern seasonal rhythm proceeds like an inexorable passacaglia. Our pastoral grasslands economy is based upon it and the oaks, planes, poplars and willows that frame it transmit visual associations that owe more to the ancient contours of the English west country than the loosely shaped outwash of the youngest and most violent rhyolitic volcano on earth or the post-glacial debris from one of the world’s most recent orogenies. If people are the way their land and air is, we’ve done much to transform it in a way that has pushed the indigenous biota to the margins of our view. Only a wilful misreading of the landscape can sever the cultural associations that flow from the neo-Europe that has been implanted on these lands. The pakeha landscape is a pastoral idyll imposed with great violence on a completely different and ancient ecology.

I can best illustrate this by returning to the landscape I know best — my home. As Waring recalled, we both come from Ngaruawahia — or, more precisely, I come from a small farm on the banks of the Waipa on the southern outskirts of Ngaruawahia while she came from Taupiri, five kilometres downstream where the Waikato river strikes momentarily westwards through a low gorge separating Taupiri mountain from the Hakarimata range. “Coming from this place,” says Waring, “certainly informs why I think and speak as I do and it’s a considerable distance from any land mass regarded as European.” She recalled that, growing up in the shadow of Taupiri mountain, she ate kai, wore potae, mimi-ed behind the trees and watched (as any motorist on that stretch of state highway 1 must) tangi at the end of the road.

Perhaps Waipa primary school in Ngaruawahia just six years later was different. Despite a large number of Maori kids, I don’t recall any easy interweaving of Maori and English language — despite the powerful influence of Turangawaewae, the annual coronation celebrations, the regatta and all the other ceremonial that makes Ngaruawahia such a publicly potent centre for Tainui. But, more remarkably, it was — and remains — the imprint of the European landscape that dominated me. The same Hakarimata range Waring and I could both see each morning on our way to school was the sole intact landscape member — and even then the insidious depredations of browsing goats and possums were already well advanced.

I spent my childhood climbing the Hakarimatas. They rise precipitously 1000 feet above the Waikato basin and form a bush-clad backdrop to Ngaruawahia township. The (now severely degraded) forest contains some of the southernmost kauri in New Zealand and one or two other climatic and altitudinal rarities. About 10 years of age I was consumed with a passion for ferns and used to wander for hours in creek beds and along vertiginous ridges searching for rarities (at that stage everything was “rare”). It was a frightening place in some ways. Rising well above any other land, the Hakarimatas are exposed to the weather. Wind, seemingly slight down in the town, can howl menacingly at the crest of the range.

Despite its significance to Tainui, the range has been ill-cared for by its guardian (the Crown). Ugly quarries have gouged huge scars in its lower flanks. Land clearance from along the lower margins has occasionally claimed bush on the steeper slopes. The forest mantle is still unbroken along its crest, still as it would have looked when Tainui first entered these lands centuries ago. But the view from the small clearing above Ngaruawahia township could not be more different. Ngaruawahia in name is Newcastle in form, laid out in broad formal streets to be the centre of commerce that Hamilton became. Turangawaewae on the river’s edge is surrounded by neat suburbia. Beyond, the Waikato plain spreads for miles — green, manicured, hedged, with dark black-green coniferous blocks of macrocarpa and pine standing out against virid dairy pasture. Low-rise stumps distinguish the central business district from the sprawl of Hamilton that, 20 kilometres distant, is starting to metastasise across the plain. But otherwise it is a pastoral landscape — an intensely cultivated scene that is repeated wherever temperate European pastoralism has established itself.

The Waikato river snakes across the plain, a living artery shorn of its capillaries as contributing streams and wetlands have been drained and confined. The pulse of the seasons is now subdued and synchronised to the rhythm of nine hydro dams. Only remnants of the kahikatea forests of the Waipa flood plain remain. Willows line its soft, collapsing silt banks. Swamps which once supported kahikatea, pukatea and maire tawake now shelter pussy willows, their margins choked with gorse and blackberry.

Only at the very edge of the view does the ancient indigenous landscape still hold its Gondwanaland inheritance. Some mature forest still clings to the hills between Karakariki and Ohautira. On the southern skyline the basalt cones of Karioi, Pirongia and Maungatautiri still maintain their forest canopy, their vulnerability to possum and goat invisible at this distance. Remnants of forest remain to the east on the Te Miro-Pukemoremore-Maungakawa hills and at Tauhei. But even these are largely cleared. It is, overwhelmingly, a neo-European landscape devoted to animal husbandry and country living —  cows, sheep, racehorses and 10-acre blockdom. “A considerable distance from any landmass regarded as European”? The Te Awamutu Tim and Neil Finn grew up in styles itself New Zealand’s “Rosetown” — home to luxuriant beds of hybrid teas, fussy gazebos and rest-homes. Cambridge — where Waring lived as an MP — is botanically one of the most overpoweringly European villages in New Zealand with its wonderful old beeches, flowering chestnuts, oaks and planes.


All of this I grew up with — a pastoral provincial scene which had squashed the indigenous topographies and colours, feathers and fauna to the very margins of the basin. But it was not until I read Geoff Park’s incomparable Nga Uruora that the human dimension of this ecological upheaval fully registered with me. Park returns to six coastal or lowland sites and conducts an investigation — part forensic, part psychic — into the human ecology of the place. He exposes, painfully and painstakingly, the collision of visions that drew European settlers to the same productive river mouths and harbour margins that Maori had inhabited for several centuries. Park’s cultural archaeology provides a succession of revelations as the crass imprint of colonial settlement is pared away to reveal a much subtler, evanescent story.

Its high point — the chapter devoted to the riverbend sanctuary at Tauwhare on the Mokau river — brings the reader as close to the intimate connection of human and natural values in the pre-industrial, pre-colonial world as it is surely possible to approach: his description of the burial kahikatea in whose branches the dead were once laid to rest. As Park muses: “I cannot look up at them without pondering that old wisdom that left them here, the people in the long quietness of death high in the mossy reliquaries of their branches … The people here become part of the forest, feeding the kahikatea, kahakaha and kowharawhara that feed the kereru which glide across the river.”

It is a feat of imaginative reconstruction that seems barely possible at the close of the twentieth century and we are indebted to him. But it leaves me not with some warm, fuzzy sense of connection with the land but an overwhelming sense of my cultural distance from it. It is almost as though Park has crossed hallowed ground to bring us this glimpse. It is privileged knowledge rooted deeply in a culture that to survive has had to make enormous concessions to the settler culture my forbears imposed. It is difficult enough to get inside fully intact cultures: it is an order of magnitude more difficult where — as in New Zealand — the physical setting of that culture (not to mention its people) has been mutilated almost beyond recognition.

That is why I say I am a European. My attachment is to a landscape that has been recast as a neo-Europe. And where that neo-Europe has taken on indigenous colour — the forested margins, the coastlines, the surviving avifauna — its human resonance is beyond my recall. My mind is pounding, not with ancient karakia but with Mozart, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Vaughan Williams. Culture is not just about place — the external points of location. It’s about the irreversible embedding of human ecology in the land. The emotional response to landscape that Europeans brought to these lands will not be simply switched off in just a few generations. It will certainly undergo a metamorphosis as the generations pass. But with the visible impact of European pastoralism around us (let alone the urban landscapes of California or Singapore) we cannot unhitch our cultural wagon.


But what does all this matter? Who cares whether I identify as European or anything else? That depends on whether you view cultural identity as a matter of political rather than private importance. And that is the ominous note in Waring’s challenge. She concluded:

Aroha Mead says citizenship is about identity. There’s something privileged and arrogant about refusing to embrace being pakeha and a cowardice too. I cannot avoid the conclusion that if generations of your family have been born in Aotearoa/New Zealand, to choose to call yourself European is to deliberately and consciously choose to continue the process of colonisation, not only of the tangata whenua but of all others here, too. Cultural identity is a cutting edge debate, inviting a personal decision which varies with experience and information, for those who are willing to embrace cutting edge debates.

I am not sure that cultural identity is any more a cutting edge debate than it ever has been in the sorry history of particularist and exclusionist accounts of national identity. The idea of cultural identity inviting a personal decision is seductive and on the surface perfectly innocent. Waring has made very clear personal decisions herself.

Not only did we both grow up near Ngaruawahia; we also both went on to private Anglican church schools in Hamilton. Both of us sang in chapel choirs. Both of us became taken up with a European musical tradition that still defines much of my being. By defining her identity in terms of Taupiri and the topographies, colours and species of the indigenous remnants of Aotearoa, Waring has clearly made a personal decision to define herself in terms of one set of cultural and emotional responses. If that were all there were to it, I could simply reply, each to her own and observe that, for me, four to five generations is too short a spell for me to pretend to an untroubled and perfectly indigenous response to a landscape that, as I have suggested, remains (and is likely to remain forever) transformed by the industries and the visual leitmotifs of European settlement.

But that is not all there is to it because Waring raises the potent issue of citizenship. Citizenship is an artefact of political association. And to mix political identity with cultural identity is to carry us down a road that has many dark turnings. The insistence that members of a polity identify with a particular cultural norm is the antithesis of any liberal notion of association. It springs from notions that, in their most extreme manifestations, have demanded the loyalty of blood and tongue with scarce regard for dissent. There’s a heavy-handed, coercive assertion of cultural and national identity in the claim that dissent from Waring’s pakeha-ness is to exhibit privilege, arrogance and cowardice. Waring’s language opens the door to some of the most deadly atavisms of the modern world.

I suppose it would be possible to manufacture a myth of cultural identity around the Treaty of Waitangi. But the (cultural) weight of British legalism that gave birth to it underwrites for me a rather different form of political association: an association rooted in consent rather than loyalty. Under the treaty, two peoples agreed to equality of citizenship within a sovereign state. At least that’s how I understand article III. My citizenship does not depend on identifying with some politically or culturally censored conformity. Insisting on a new pakeha identity simply inverts the assimilationist agenda with which colonial New Zealand sought to co-opt Maori. If biculturalism is to be anything workable it must be a celebration of two cultural strands that will, however they may over the generations be woven together, retain their own resilience and integrity.

And of course that resilience depends on much more than an affinity with landscape and place. When I talk about cultural identity, I have in mind that complex association of myths, symbols, language and moral dilemmas that course through European literature and letters. I hear in mind the huge musical tapestry that links Dufay to Debussy. Above all, I have to acknowledge the explanatory and deconstructive power of scientific inquiry as it has flowered over the last 500 years.

To be descended from a family that came to these shores on a flood-tide of nineteenth century migration with all its cultural arrogance and mercantile greed is, unavoidably, to carry that inheritance with one. It can, and will, be attenuated and transmuted with time and separation. But it cannot honestly be sloughed off or disowned as something foreign. New Zealand may be a young nation. But its immigrant peoples bring with them very old accumulations of cultural wisdom and prejudice.


As a conservative, I have a fair regard for received wisdom. And when it comes to received wisdom about the land, the accumulated wisdom of several hundred years of Maori settlement is a vital resource for all of us living here. It shouldn’t be romanticised. Maori were colonists too. In that, I share their heritage. Until they came to understand the ecosystem into which they had inserted themselves they caused massive ecological dislocation. But the means of destruction at their disposal were much more limited than European means. And survival depended much more on sustaining the food chains that were here for aeons before people arrived: food chains that European settlers severed at will.

If there is a common point of contact between the two peoples, it must be the realisation that both of us face a uniquely problematic relationship with the land. For these were the last large islands to be reached in the world by land-based mammals — (save one or two tiny bats). That the first mammals to arrive were humans who had evolved over a million years in totally different settings was to have incalculable consequences for an ecology 70 million years separate from other continental land masses.

This is the truly unique thing about being a New Zealander. We are the only people in the world face to face with plants and animals with which we are not, in any time frame we can comprehend, co-evolved. This is not a new idea, but it remains almost beyond the limits of my comprehension. If ever there was a land where people are not the way their land is, this is it. Both Maori and Europeans are seafaring peoples who have come here in the last blink of time bringing with them technologies adapted to very differently structured ecologies. There has been a good deal of conjecture and experimental psychology directed at trying to discern human responses to landscape and archetypal archaeological niches. It has been suggested that we are savanna woodland or forest margin dwellers. That landscape persists to this day in the most ancient known repository of human remains, the African Rift valley.

Whatever the validity of these conclusions, it is indisputable that people, in a very deep ecological sense, are not a part of New Zealand’s ecology. That is why we find it so hard to deal with conservation issues that by their very nature stem from an anthropocentric impulse. Unlike dwellers of the North European plain, the Central Asian Steppe, the Indian Deccan, the African Rift valley or the Australian continent, we in New Zealand are not dealing with a land that bears the imprint of human habitation for countless millennia. A few short hundred years separates us from a time when these shores were as distant from human experience as quasars were to our grandparents.

As Tim Flannery so tantalisingly observes, there are probably plants still living in New Zealand today that were browsed by moa. We are living amidst the ruins of the last pre-human sanctuary on the planet. It is tempting to believe that it is our extraordinary misfortune to have arrived just 500 years the wrong side of a 70 million-year journey. But of course the technology needed to colonise these last outposts of land — and human ignorance that a world without mammals (let alone humans) could even exist — was a guarantee of its destruction.

Maori and European New Zealanders live face to face with the dilemma of their humanity as few others do. Whether we are arguing over the cultural significance of kiore (the Polynesian rat) or Kaimanawa horses, we are engaged in one of the most troubling debates about the nature of human existence on this planet. Whether I am looking into a Claudean sunset or Tawhiao’s garden vale, I cannot get away from the fact that it is a part of the human condition to recreate the world in the image of our species. New Zealand’s ecological “otherness” offers us a challenge to our understanding of what it is to be human that is truly profound.

One can only wonder at the world the first Maori seafarers encountered when they stepped ashore some time in the early centuries of this millennium. The devastation of the Kaharoa eruption would still have been evident in the Tarawera/Bay of Plenty area. From refugia at the margins of the devastation zone the descendants of strange and ancient plant and bird communities would have been well advanced recolonising the wasteland as they had countless times before. It is that extraordinary juxtaposition of geological restiveness and biological archaism that fascinates us. If any humans in historic times have ever glimpsed Eden it must surely have been those who first made landfall here, in Scott Fitzgerald’s words “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with our capacity for wonder”.

As Geoff Park sagely observes, while we need to know the remnants that survived it, we cannot seek to reverse the relentless overwhelming of the natural landscape that Europeans have wrought. We live in a neo-Europe with the remnants of Gondwanaland at the margins and in the interstices of an alien grassland ecosystem. But a growing understanding of the utter disconnectedness of human residence here is a salutary reminder to Europeans of how much we do not know and how important the few centuries of Maori settlement are if we are to make our peace with the land.

Yes, we are the way the land and air is. But it is a much more complex and culturally saturated story than renascent nationalism can describe.


Simon Upton is a National list MP and has had two stints as Minister for the Environment and one as Minister of Conservation. 

Author’s footnote: I am indebted to Mr Kamira Haggie and Dr Geoff Park for their illuminating observations made in the course of my research for this essay. Responsibility for the conclusions reached, however, rests solely with me.

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