An Eye for Country: The Life and Work of Leslie Adkin
Victoria University Press with the assistance of Te Papa $49.95
ISBN 0 86473 31 9 4
Leslie Adkin – struggling farmer, amateur geologist, dilettante ethnographer and evocative photographer with an eye for country – was born in Wellington in 1888. His fascinating story intersects with many significant themes in our history.
His father, William, ran a drapery but won a ballot for a 100-acre section near Levin in 1889, which was unusual in that research suggests most leaseholders came from country, not town. Also uncommon for a small property was William’s decision to run the farm with the help of a manager until he took over in 1898. Even more unusual was the fact that on his mother Annie’s side Leslie was a fourth-generation Pakeha from a family of successful ironmongers who owned a large property on the Terrace where young Leslie spent much of his childhood. Leslie then spent his formative years moving between town and country but soon developed a preference for country life. The raw environment of a land in transition also stimulated his interest in the world around him.
Both his Methodist parents believed in the virtues of further education so they sent Leslie to Wellington High School. There the Cambridge-educated Aubrey C Gifford stimulated Adkins interest in photography, geology and mountaineering. Rector J P Firth was a disciple of Thomas Arnold and drummed into all his pupils the importance of character.
In a different age Admin may have gone on to university but in 1905 the expectation was that the eldest son would return to the family farm and engage in the most highly valued occupation in the colony. Much work was required to break in the rough bush farm at Cheslyn Rise”. So he joined in the exhausting activity of transforming bush into pasture. He compensated for the grind by developing a love affair with the Horowhenua plains and the jagged Tararua range which loomed over the coastal strip of farmland. Luckily for us, he took many pictures of this changing landscape and began work on the geology of the Ohau river.
Hard work and temperate habits learnt from his Methodist upbringing did not guarantee success. The farm soon proved too small for sheep farming and too poor for dairying. So Leslie struggled for the rest of his time on the property. Modest returns delayed his marriage to Maud Herd of Hastings until 1916 and eventually forced him to retire after World War II, leaving his son to convert the farm into a dairy unit.
Before his marriage and the outbreak of World War I Adkin engaged in class war against the striking Wellington wharfies in 1913. He served with his personal friend and war leader Bernard Freyberg in a dress rehearsal for grimmer actions overseas. Adkin seemed typical of Massey’s Cossacks” in his dislike of militant unionists and his enjoyment of the camp-like atmosphere provided for the specials. He also considered the alien ideology of syndicalism to be unpatriotic and appeared unconcerned about wielding batons against fellow citizens of the colony.
The delayed marriage produced many charming photos of a long courtship begun in 1913. Luckily for us, Adkin also decided to support the war effort by remaining on his farm and continued exploration of the seldom-visited Tararuas. (His brother Gilbert was one of more than 13,000 young New Zealanders killed on the Western Front.) The arrival of a daughter (Nancy) in late 1916 and a son (Clyde) in 1918 did not stop Adkin’s explorations and production of papers on geology late into the night. He came to challenge and later work with C A Cotton, still our most internationally recognised geomorphologist. Adkin’s work also helped engineers in constructing hydro-electric power dams in the Tararuas and he became a pioneer older at the Whakapapa field on Mount Ruapehu.
From the late 1920s Adkin extended his interests from the land to the first settlers and began work on a massive piece of ethnography entitled Old Horowhenua. This magnum opus was not published until after World War II but Adkin’s prodigious labours helped to stimulate interest in the archaeology of both the North and South Islands. Unfortunately, he fell under the influence of Percy Smith and Elsdon Best so that his views soon became outdated even though his thorough and highly organised scholarship produced much invaluable data on Maori settlement.
Ironically, his burgeoning reputation won him a job with the Geological Survey thanks to the intervention of Labour politicians whom he had opposed all his life.
Adkin’s relationship with the Polynesian Society was always troubled. Initially he understandably objected to Johannes Andersen’s eccentric demands concerning citation, but after he left the farm he invested too much emotion into defending his views, no matter how cranky. Adkin’s criticisms of Andrew Sharp’s denial of deliberate voyaging have been supported by more recent scholarship but his insistence on the contribution of an earlier Waitaha culture has been rejected. So too has his dating of Maori arrival as early as 300AD. The latest research in fact argues for around 1300AD.
Adkin always felt uneasy about his “amateur” status but rightly insisted that the diligent and hard-working amateur had an important contribution to make in addition to the “professional” archaeologist and geologist. He also suffered from a rather parochial paranoia concerning the emerging “Auckland” group led by the likes of Jack Golson and never displayed much sensitivity for, or interest in, the problems of his Maori contemporaries. The debates over the timing and nature of settlement were contested fiercely. From the point of view of an orthodox historian, the hostility of the various camps towards one another seems silly, given the very slight nature of most of the evidence from which theories were deduced.
As Adkin grew old and ill he became increasingly cranky even though the Museum of New Zealand, the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Geological Survey honoured him, though not the Polynesian Society who regarded him as an annoying gadfly.
When he died in 1964, Adkin had produced four books, over 50 papers and articles and countless photos. He split these treasures along with his diaries and letters among the three organisations which most helped him, creating problems for his biographer but leaving behind real taonga for the future benefit of all New Zealanders.
Anthony Dreaver’s crisp text is accompanied by over 200 of Adkin’s marvellous black-and-white photos that transport the reader to a very different country. Probably they represent his greatest and most enduring contribution.
This life raises some intriguing questions. Why did Adkin display so much curiosity towards the land he struggled with, when most farmers either hated the bush and concentrated on converting it to English-style pasture as fast as possible or, like Maurice Shadbolt’s Ned Livingstone in Strangers and Journeys, were “too bloody tired to care”? Did it have something to do with being a fourth-generation New Zealander who knew no other place? Even my own second-generation grandfather, who never travelled overseas, shared this passionate commitment to this place (the Waitemata harbour in his case). Sir Thomas Mackenzie, co-founder of the Forest and Bird Protection Society, also fits this model and to a lesser extent so does ornithologist Sir Walter Buller (Buller’s beloved Lake Papaitonga also fascinated Adkin). Unfortunately for this theory, however, Herbert Guthrie Smith, author of the classic study of a Hawke’s Bay sheep station, Tutira, was an immigrant.
Perhaps it was that a scientific approach to the past represented the easiest way of coming to terms with a landscape which, when compared with Europe and Asia, appeared short on buildings and obvious human modification. There were no ancient cathedrals, temples or quaint villages nor any ancient written history. Orthodox historians who relied upon written documents found all this bemusing. So the easiest way to read the new and apparently empty land was to study its geology, flora and fauna and Maori earthworks and artefacts. Biographies of Buller by Ross Galbreath and of Edward Tregear (co-founder of the Polynesian Society and advocate of the Aryan Maori) by Kerry Howe, and Peter Gibbons PhD thesis on J C Andersen, support this contention. Surveyor-General Percy Smith’s fascination with human settlement can probably also be explained in this way; he still awaits an urgently needed biography.
In two of the best sentences in the book Dreamer writes:
In New Zealand’s postwar prosperity the land’s surface was flattened and minced by giant disc, bulldozer and dragline as aerial topdressing pushed the farm frontier into previously unusable territory. All of New Zealand, it seemed, was to be a green carpet, threaded with power-lines and stitched together by tarsealed roads.
Environmental historians have argued that the English landscape has been changed more since World War II than in all previous eras. Whether or not this is true for New Zealand is a moot point but there is no doubt a huge transformation occurred which we are inclined to overlook. This rapid burst of change helps explain why Adkin put so much energy into saving artefacts and relics of the ancient Maori past. Yet, although he became an ardent conservationist of material culture, he did not bother to defend the environment against progress. Dreaver needed to tease out this contradiction more.
Adkin’s tale also reveals much about the extraordinary contribution made to both the museums and the intellectual and scientific life of this country by so called amateurs and dilettantes. Without the likes of Adkin we would know much less about our past and the changes induced both by times for the geological and human scale of change).
Yet, while this contribution deserves celebration, it also bequeathed problems. Such self-educated scholars tended to attach their work to vast theories rather too readily. They saw giant forests which too often had little to do with the trees growing in them. As children of empire they also had a weakness for metropolitan theory and paid far too little attention to the views of the indigenous people. These failings help to explain their frequently acrimonious relationship with professionals and academics. On the other hand, the enthusiastic amateurs sometimes exposed academics who failed to see the wood for the trees or who devoted rather too much energy to pursuing successful careers and treated those from outside the inner circle with undeserved derision. Again comparisons with Buller, Tregear, Best, Andersen and Guthrie Smith would prove instructive in understanding the amateur contribution better and in gaining a firmer grip on the amateur/ professional divide.
Overall then this is a good biography in what we could call the Auckland style. That is, it is very focussed and leaves no stone unturned. Dreaver’s mentor, Sir Keith Sinclair, would have approved. Better still, it attempts to relate the detailed story to broader themes. I still hope, nevertheless, that Dreaver finds time to follow up on some comparisons suggested earlier. Feminists would certainly like more on the extent to which Adkin’s gaze and approach were masculinist.
I was also surprised that Dreaver did not use James Belich’s useful notion of “Smithing” to answer his own question: “Why did Adkin protect the ‘tradition’ of Smith and Best, rather than of the Maori people who were its heirs?” Belich, along with Howe, Galbreath, Gibbons and others, shows that Smith’s and Best’s contrived histories and invented traditions were elaborate justifications of colonisation and occupation, matters of little concern to a man who fixed his gaze on land, environment and relics. Pushing Maori into museums contained and controlled them and made relationships comfortable and easy. Coping with the demands of the living was quite a different matter. Adkin was a very unusual small farmer in displaying so much interest in the land, but much like the rest in seemingly being unaware of the cruel irony that the farm on which he struggled to make a living had been acquired from Maori for a pittance.
These quibbles aside, Dreaver has made an important contribution to our historical literature. It is also a delight to find a history teacher producing a book of this quality. His impressive effort underscores the need to keep specialists with research experience teaching in our secondary schools rather than surrendering to generalists knowledgeable in educational theory but little else. I recommend this book to readers and hope that Dreaver continues to work on the history of our country.
Tom Brooking is a senior lecturer in history at Otago University. He is writing a book on the New Zealand landscape.