The sins of our fathers, Brian Turner

Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua
Geoff Park
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734573

In his excellent address to the New Zealand Landscape conference in 2003, included in Theatre Country under the title “A Moment in History”, Geoff Park writes that the painter Colin McCahon “repudiated the picturesque landscape-painting tradition and its derivation from mastery over land, lands as property, as scenery to visit.” He refers to McCahon’s “lifelong attachment” to land “via a heart connection”. Park says McCahon “made us realise that ‘whenua’ … both placenta and land” in Maori terms, means that “that heart connection is itself part of the landscape when the landscape is home.” Park goes on to say that, as the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) asserts, New Zealand is still losing “nationally significant landscapes to development because … ‘as a nation, we have yet to define or perhaps even understand what landscapes mean to us’.”

The EDS’s assertion is debatable, but it’s worth noting that McCahon was a Pakeha, and then asking whether Park gives anywhere enough acknowledgement of the considerable numbers of Pakeha who share McCahon’s sentiments in respect to attachment. Park takes instruction, helpfully, from “nature” writers like Wendell Berry, Jack Turner, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez and Aldo Leopold when writing of the need for humans to think and behave differently. These authors are part of an impressive, extensive group of Americans that also includes the likes of Hoagland, Matthiessen, Pollan, Dillard and Stegner. Oddly, there’s no reference to Pakeha conservationists and writers like Peter Hooper, Philip Temple, Neville Peat, and others. It would be good if more New Zealanders were familiar with their work. Hooper’s fine extended essay “Our Forests Ourselves”, then his splendid trilogy of novels A Song in the Forest, People of the Long Water, and Time and the Forest, published in the 1970s and 80s, deserve to be better known. Hooper is just one of a number of our writers who haven’t registered with or are ignored by Park, who frequently derides the colonists from the “home” countries and their descendants when pointing to their failings.

All through Park takes the line, Maori good guys, Pakeha bad. He is nothing if not ultra-Orwellian. Park glosses over the fact that Maori were transgressors, too. That’s unless you think, say, introducing the rat and dealing to the mega fauna were a mere bagatelle. It is a myth to imply that native peoples the world over haven’t messed up much of what’s generally understood by the phrase “natural environment”. Relative to the Pakeha, Maori were ecological paragons, Park implies. Well, one could say that the amount of havoc humans cause is mainly a function of their numbers relative to the area they occupy, what their mores are, and the technological equipment they have with which to do mischief.

Park is correct that many of those who arrived from “Home” 150 years or so ago were arrogant, misguided plunderers and destroyers. And the lowland forests and wetlands were dealt to first. He writes of the colonists’ “rectilinear” fixation, of the “developing”, of it being “God’s work”. Maori were treated badly, disdainfully, dismissed as primitives. Few understood what the land and waters meant to Maori mythically, spiritually, and so on. This was just another example of what has happened everywhere since humans began their migratory advances. Come to think of it, Maori tribes committed a few atrocities here, too.

To Park, many Pakeha remain impenitent, insensitive sods. But reminding people of the sins of their fathers, especially if one goes on and on about it, eventually makes them feel as if they are up for a never-ending moral mortgage held by a bunch of holier-than-thous. And is he saying anything those of us born and brought up here, and a goodly number of recent arrivals – anyone who can be bothered to take an interest in environmental matters – don’t know and agree with?

For decades now, in circles in which I move, people have been asking how it’s best to act, morally and ethically, in respect to the “natural” world. They have been wrestling with finding ways to involve all New Zealanders in trying to alter the consciousness of the so-called “progress and development” zealots who continue to rape the place. It’s a pro-democratic approach, driven by a belief that all need to see land as – to borrow from the great Aldo Leopold – a community to which we belong, rather than a commodity. Also to emphasise that humans are a part of nature, not separate, have duties and responsibilities towards the land and other creatures, and that we have to act as stewards like never before.

The pity is that a large proportion of both Pakeha and Maori nowadays don’t share such desire, are unwilling to sign up to, say, long-term holistic behaviour. Nevertheless, a substantial number – including members of Fish and Game, and Forest and Bird, groups that Park seems to disdain – have long been among the most effective and resolute recreation-cum-conservation activists we have. They focus on protecting and enhancing ecosystems both for their own and for people’s sakes. Contrary to what Park sometimes asserts, these and other suspect “conservationists” aren’t wedded to excluding people, except in a few cases temporarily, as a last-ditch effort to save species from extinction.

Park thinks it’s a pity that kereru can’t be hunted these days when once they were plentiful enough to sustain it, then bemoans the presence of trout, and the pleasure many find in pursuing them. This spiteful attention paid to trout seems barmy when one looks at the effect all manner of other introduced species have on our ecology. Humans hunt for pleasure as well as food. (I remember a Maori bloke I know smiling, licking his lips and saying he hadn’t had “an illegal Tegel lately”.) Of course I am aware some see hunting as morally repugnant. Such often prove hypocritical.

Fish and Game is one of the key conservation and recreation organisations in New Zealand. I recall Dave Witherow, an evocative writer on the outdoors, soon after he arrived from Ireland 30 years ago, becoming embroiled in a campaign to try to save the exquisite Whaeo River in the Bay of Plenty. Subsequently he and I appeared before tribunals on behalf of Fish and Game. We were seeking conservation orders on the Ahuriri River, the Pomahaka, the magnificent wetlands of Lake Tuakitoko. Orders were granted. Witherow’s five-year study of the Mataura underpinned Fish and Game’s successful application there. The purpose? Protecting the ecosystems we loved for the benefit of both people and wildlife in the long-term.

I recall the efforts put into the Save Manapouri, Clutha and Aramoana campaigns … and so it has gone on, on the Rakaia and elsewhere. Fish and Game has spent millions on campaigns in respect of rivers and lakes – they’ve even bought wetlands in an effort to protect them for future generations. Recently I attended a meeting where Fish and Game councils voted to spend a million dollars on a major living rivers campaign.

But you’ll not get to know about any of this reading Theatre Country. Park conveys the impression that these groups – mainly Pakeha, but not solely by any means – are the enemies of our ecology and out to subvert the “rights” and wishes of Maori.

Which brings me to the issue of rights and what we mean by such. Park seems to accept without question that all Maori claims are valid, that their view of what the Treaty means and meant, and what they are entitled to by way of “customary” practices, should be agreed to and acted upon. (In this regard it could be argued that Pakeha have been here more than long enough to have customary practices identical to those enjoyed by Maori, and that it is morally wrong to discriminate between them on ethnic grounds.) Park often refers to Article Two but rarely, if ever, talks of Articles One and Three. In short, he seems to prefer not to look at the whole, assumes certain “native” rights are a given, and avoids any discussion about all signatories’ duties.

Then there’s the matter of what we should have a right to own, and whether such rights should be available to some and not others in a democratic society. Should we really regard fish and birds as “resources”? Should we, in all logic, believe we have a right to assert ownership over flora and fauna, air and water? Mostly Park seems happy that we should and supports Maori claims along these lines. But then, at one point, he quotes Snyder’s nicely euphonious reference to “the insouciant freedom of wild creatures”. This makes him wonder whether birds (kereru in this case) can be owned. Perhaps it is time to say that claiming to own flora and fauna is an arrogant, outmoded belief.

I’m right behind Park when he points out that species obey natural, not artificial boundaries laid down by humans, but I think he misunderstands the intentions of those who more recently have set aside parks and reserves. It’s mainly been a case of protecting something, albeit often in a less than ideal way, rather than nothing. It has proven very hard in New Zealand to persuade landowners to protect natural values. So when he says all New Zealand “conservationists are preservationist, species-centric” with an “exclusionary approach to nature conservation”, my response is to say, “Baloney”.

Alas, many right-wing Pakeha thunder about the sanctity of private property rights while seldom referring to their duties in the widest sense of the term. It’s hard to convince the population that the economy must serve the environment and not the other way round. As Park rightly implies, many latter-day descendants from the imperialists continue their abuse in the name of God and so-called progress. They, in Park’s words, haven’t “moved beyond” the “urge to efface and displace”. Some genuinely believe it is necessary, for the economic good of the nation – of course.

Park says that the Pakeha view of New Zealand that dominates still is of the country as a “museum of eighteenth-century British ideas”, and that Pakeha can only feel “belonging” in a country altered to resemble where their ancestors came from. This is just not true any more. And I doubt that anywhere near as many continue to see “landscape as we might see a framed painting, or the stage of a play – as ‘picturesque scene’.” Nor do very many of us fail to sense the life forces, spirituality, the mystery and the power in the land that’s said to be so pervasive and integral to many Maori. Much of my own writing of the past 30 years is imbued with those elements. The strength and depth and nature of one’s attachment to place – call it belonging if you wish – isn’t simply, or solely, measurable by taking the length of time humans have lived in a place. Or if it can be, how long is long enough?

I remember being with two Maori guys on a hillside above Lake Wakatipu 15 years ago. They told me that much of inland Otago and the lakes and mountains were unfamiliar to them. I was reminded of this when Park quotes Scott Sanders’ definition of landscape as “a stretch of earth overlaid with memory, expectation and thought … what we allow in the doors of perception” that brings, one might say, tingles of joy from new revelations. By and large it’s the mountaineers, fishers and hunters and farmers who know the inland southern parts best, and most of them, in recent generations, have been Pakeha.

Theatre Country is a big, dense book. Its 16 essays – including one on the kerfuffle surrounding McCahon’s “Urewera Mural”, and a piece discussing the misinterpretation and unintended consequences of Wordsworth’s poetry – contain copious amounts of historical information and loads of marvellous evocative observations and insights. And, of course, he’s quite right to assert that too many still see our outdoor surroundings as little more than “scenery” as if viewed through a lens.

I respect and admire Park’s knowledge and share some of his outrage. Much of the content of Theatre Country needs to be more widely known and discussed and challenged, in many cases, vigorously. Part of the difficulty with it is that the essays have appeared previously in a variety of places, and for a variety of audiences. That is one reason why they contain much that is repetitious by way of argument. The whole collection cries out for conflation and issuing as a better-organised, more concise, homogeneous entity. At two-thirds, say, of the length, it would make a better work.

When Park says that nature is still seen here as “in some way outside us”, “separate”, and, as John Fowles put it, “lost both to us and in us”, I think Park is right. Ironically, and sadly, nowadays that applies still, to too many Pakeha, and to many Maori as well.


Brian Turner is a poet and sportsman, who has spent most of his spare time since the 1940s in the outdoors.


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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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