Matrix and destroyer, Bill Sewell

Lake, mountain, tree: an anthology of writing on New Zealand nature and landscape
Philip Temple (ed)
Godwit
$34.95
ISBN 1 86962022 4

Landscape writing – like landscape painting – is as familiar as it is inoffensive. It’s Wordsworth’s Lake District, Robert Frost’s New England woods, and perhaps even Les Murray’s rural New South Wales. Nobody but the terminally urban would take fright at it. And precisely for that reason it doesn’t seem to tickle the more influential literary membranes.

This is a problem that Philip Temple in his new anthology is all too aware of and, in his introduction at least, confronts head-on, even pugnaciously. “It has,” he says, “become fashionable in literary circles to ignore or condescend to the natural environment. It has been post-modernly uncool to see mountains over malls, to weigh forests more than French fries, to hear the louder sound of rivers under te reo.” These are fighting words indeed, the attack reinforced a page or so later when (with some justification) he pours scorn on “wannabe writers” who “practise the playful scales of trendy creative writing courses” and questions the Maori monopoly on a spiritual relationship with the land.

So in the face of a condescending attitude towards landscape writing and the politically correct fiction that Pakeha have no more than an economic interest in the land, Temple sets out to show that landscape has long been and still is central to New Zealand literary experience, and that moreover it has a “transforming influence” on New Zealanders of any ethnic origin. Temple is an explorer, mountaineer, conservationist and passionate South Islander, and is ideally placed to put together such a collection. As a writer he has a respected track record in the area: his championing (and anthropomorphising) of the kea in various books and his excellent New Zealand Explorers (1985), for example, have both provided him with valuable background material. And, as you might expect, the organisation and emphases in the anthology very much reflect his biases – although, to be fair, he does include a generous selection of writing by Maori, and Auckland is allowed to feature at least twice: in John Logan Campbell’s description in Poenamo (1881) of the still undeveloped isthmus and Kevin Ireland’s poem “The Literary Exile”, in which Rangitoto / rises like an upper lip”.

Of course, for Pakeha at least, the understanding of the landscape has changed over the last 150 years or so, and Temple arranges his anthology along roughly chronological lines, and in four sections of unequal length, to tell “the stories first of strangers, then of settlers, later of seekers after place and, finally, of those who know it”. Reading through the anthology from beginning to end, as I did, does indeed give the sense of a story. It is at first a story of wanton exploitation by settlers, almost as a self-assertion against the landscape’s hostility and isolation, then of unease at the effects of that exploitation – in particular the disappearance of native fauna – which is paralleled by an apprehension of the sublime in nature; then a growing familiarity with the modified landscape and in Maori, a reclaiming of what has been lost.

The narrative represents, in fact, a part of our history in microcosm. It is Lady Barker delighting in the vandalism of a tussock burn-off; Alphonse Barrington wet, frozen, hungry and probably in no mood for the picturesque in the Otago Alps; Alice in Jane Mander’s Story of a New Zealand River feeling the isolation close in as she journeys upriver into the backblocks. It is T H Potts regretting the disappearance of the native quail and WH Guthrie- Smith lamenting the spread of exotic weeds and the scouring of the land from grazing at Tutira. But is also Freda du Faur, the first woman to scale Mt Cook (in 1910), filled with longing at “this wonder of white” of the Southern Alps, and the Boy in Bruce Stewart’s “Papa” who finally conquers the Tararua Range, “All those wild horses”. And it is also Cilla McQueen quite at home on the Aramoana mudflats and “step[ping] into the sky” of their reflection; and Owen Marshall equally at home in our messy rural hinterland, “a place in the hills where no one wins farmer of the year”.

Beyond the history, however, what you get is a taste of some of New Zealand’s very best writers and writing, and an understanding of how fundamental to that writing the landscape is. This isn’t true only of our acknowledged “landscape writers” – largely poets like Dallas, Bethell, Glover, Campbell and Turner – but also of writers whom you don’t perhaps associate with landscape. There’s Janet Frame, for instance, in her short story “Swans”, which conjures up so well one of those uncomfortable, windy, unswimmable and cold South Island beaches that children are so often disappointed by. Or John Mulgan’s breathless account in Man Alone of Johnson’s escape over the Tongariro Desert into the Kaimanawa Ranges. Or Noel Hilliard’s evocation of daybreak in Power of Joy as experienced by a small boy who has camped out overnight:

Now the grey was going from the valley and the pale blue of the sky was the richest of all colours except for the boiling gold on the hilltops where clouds of mist were slowly turning and the sun would come.

In two respects, then, Lake, mountain, tree succeeds: it is representative of at least one part of our history, and it includes some exquisite writing; and in those respects it meets the editor’s own criteria. But such an anthology also has to be gauged against each individual reader’s perception of the New Zealand landscape. In my own particular case, though I have since come to marvel at our alpine landscapes, my earliest memories are of frosty July mornings on a Poverty Bay farm, and also of the excitement of a warm if boisterous Wainui Beach in Gisborne. I don’t think the anthology really captures either experience, and both are common to more New Zealanders than the alpine one. The landscape Temple presents is for the most part a South Island one, and where it is not, its atmosphere is still rather too rarified. In addition, I believe that because New Zealand is now a highly urbanised and suburbanised country, it would have made good sense to include urban and suburban landscapes – not the high-rise, the subdivisions and the motorways, but the spaces between them: the reserves, the wastelands, the creeks and grass verges where children play and adolescents prowl. These have just as much claim to inclusion in an anthology such as this, and have been written about, lovingly and evocatively, by writers such as Maurice Gee.

This brings me to the inevitable omissions. Of course, every reviewer will bitch about both the scope of the anthology and the selection of authors. Temple himself mentions in the introduction that he had to whittle down an initial shortlist of 250 items to around 90, and that “a parallel anthology could be compiled from those left out”. Few would take exception with that. That is the nature of anthologising, and you’re sure to make enemies in the process. But while the reader might be able to forgive the omission of a particularly cherished obscure writer, for other omissions Temple must be called to account. And some of them are astounding, especially when some of the material he does include is either lacklustre or repetitive.

Why include no less than five 19th century pieces on native birds, when two of them – W H Potts’s lament for the extinction of the New Zealand quail and Mr Explorer Douglas’s quirky and orthographically adventurous description of the kiwi – would have sufficed? Why do Dinah Hawken the disservice of featuring one outstanding poem (“Hope”) and another so limp (“Can I Do It”)? It is a mercy the latter is the penultimate and not the last poem in the book (which is Laura Ranger’s charming “The Sea”). And why reprint Fleur Adcock’s petulant “Stewart Island”, when we have already been made well aware that our landscape is not a benign environment?

But more importantly, why is Maurice Gee not represented, when he has painted the West Auckland, Wellington and Nelson landscapes so convincingly in a series of novels? Why is the opening to Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay” not featured, surely still one of our most luminescent descriptions of seaside New Zealand? And why are there no extracts from Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather, which perhaps more than any other piece of New Zealand writing conveys a small boy’s ownership of a summer North Island beach (“Consider, if you will, Te Parenga … “)? And what about Allen Curnow, who has written so powerfully about the pohutukawa tree in “Spectacular Blossom” and about Karekare, his personal stretch of the West Auckland coastline? And where is the Sam Hunt of poems like “Portobello Sunset” or “Postcard of a Cabbage Tree”? These are not simple lacunae, but aching gaps. The exclusion of such pieces might be justified by the anthologist’s personal taste, but they are certainly not outside the criteria he establishes in the introduction: they are the shared testimony of those who know our landscape. Moreover, their absence means that readers who approach this anthology as neophytes will come away with a distorted view of our landscape writing.

But make no mistake: this is still a significant publication. It’s high time that our natural surroundings were so thoroughly documented and celebrated in such an accessible anthology form. And for me personally, it has been a great pleasure to wander again through T H Scott’s “plant of the spaces”, the tussock, and sobering to hear – amidst the bombast of James K Baxter’s still compelling “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” – the sound of the “avalanche / that shakes the rough moraine with giant laughter”, and be reminded that “[f]or us the land is matrix and destroyer”.

Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

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Posted in Literature, Natural History, Review
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