The high ground, Simon Upton

Whose High Country? A History of the South Island High Country of New Zealand 
Roberta McIntyre
Penguin Books, $45.00, 
ISBN 97801430084125

At the risk of irretrievably mixing one’s metaphors, it is dairy farmers who are today on the sheep’s back. As the owners of New Zealand’s only truly global-scale trading company Fonterra, they have national level political clout and a global commercial profile. As the owners of much of the best grazing land in New Zealand, their land management practices are decisive for water quality in many catchments. They have huge leverage over local tiers of government. And, as the scale and intensity of dairying has expanded, some individual dairy farmers have become very rich with multiple holdings in New Zealand and, increasingly, significant investments in places as far flung as Brazil, the USA and Russia – not to mention some rather nice coastal properties previously associated with the urban elite.

Yet a book examining the economic, cultural, ecological and anthropological significance of the dairying low country is unlikely to be written. Dairying has always been conducted on freehold land over which there is neither an expectation nor a desire for public access. It is conducted on a largely flat landscape from which every vestige of indigenous habitat has been expunged. The environmental pressure it imposes on aquatic ecosystems is largely invisible (except where significant water bodies are in question). And it is overwhelmingly New Zealand owned.

How different it all is from pastoral farming in the South Island high country, the focus of Roberta McIntyre’s new book. With the Crown continuing as lessor over vast areas of land and ever-changing attitudes towards the nature of leasehold tenure, the high country has been deeply politicised from the outset. Underlying public ownership has kept alive a vigorous expectation of public access. And the sheer visual drama of the landscape has excited both the environmental passion of urban campaigners and foreign purchasers alike.

The ineradicable “profile” of the high country has produced a voluminous literature – nostalgic, poetic, polemical and scientific by turn, and amply mined in McIntyre’s densely footnoted book. Let me salute, up front, the endeavour this book represents. In McIntyre’s own words it is “a synthesis of key information, and an analysis … an overview”. Finding its genesis in a report commissioned by the Department of Conservation, the book has been expanded from the core historical narrative of the years between the beginnings of European pastoralism to WWII, to embrace the Polynesian era from the 12th century and the recent upheavals of tenure review and conflict brought about in an era of globalisation and intensified competition between conflicting “users”.

As a result, the book’s tripartite structure has a somewhat bolted-together feel as it alternates between thematic and chronological treatment of its material. It reads as an historical account that has metamorphosed into something much broader, covering material which one senses is outside the author’s core expertise (how else to account for her frank statement that the importance of scientific papers to her enquiry was “unexpected”?).

The result is a text that frequently becomes simple reportage of conflicting viewpoints juxtaposed one after another with very little attempt at synthesis or analysis. There is something indigestible about a succession of paragraphs that commence “Rodney Patterson estimated … Peter Townsend contended … Harry Broad rejected … Neal Wallace remarked … Alan Mark commented … [and] Gerry McSweeney contended … .” On the other hand, this exhaustive harvesting of opinions is hard to avoid when, as McIntyre explains in her introduction, her aim was to “maintain an independent stance without being captured by any one interest group in particular.”

In that aim, it has to be said she succeeds – and that is no small feat. As the book proceeds towards the tenure reviews and public access campaigns of the last 15 years, the sheer weight of public and political contention becomes apparent. To wade into the crossfire of ecological, landscape, access and economic arguments being prosecuted by groups like Federated Farmers, Forest and Bird, Public Access New Zealand and Federated Mountain Clubs, takes some courage. If the book finishes without conclusions, it is a reflection of the unfinished nature of the debates that settlement of the high country launched 150 years ago.

In short, the book is compendious in a positive and useful sense: McIntyre has culled a vast amount of material. If at times the comprehensiveness of her reportage can flag, some of the anecdotes are delightful. I particularly liked the tale about the bush and mountain warfare training programme in WWII, in which instructors told their trainee bush fighters to “try to visualize the deer as Japs”. By bringing together so much well-referenced material, McIntyre provides an essential directory of the high country debate that has persisted from our nation’s very founding.

What still needs to be written is a more thematically focused account of the interaction of tenure and ecology over the decades. For New Zealanders are faced with a conundrum. Their forbears set in train an ecological experiment in real time across the entire extent of our landmass. It is an experiment that cannot be turned back. All we can hope to do is learn to live with the forces we have unleashed.

Because (unlike lowland dairying New Zealand) the high country still bears some traces of its former state, the temptation is stronger to attempt to freeze the frame. But ecological imbalances have unleashed dynamic forces. And economic globalisation has given remoteness a scarcity value that was unimaginable a century ago. So interest in these lands will only intensify.

To that must be added the reality that it is highly unlikely that a government bureaucracy – whether DOC or any other – will be given the resources to “manage” those ongoing ecological changes, even if it had the skills and incentives to do so. Equally, high-country farmers can count as few saints amongst their ranks as any of us. So to rely on some inherent benevolence on their part would be naïve.

But the handful of people who live and work, day by day, in these lands have knowledge that outside experts cannot ignore. (The contribution of absentee owners resident in Remuera or San Francisco is another thing again.) In her last chapter, McIntyre gives voice to several of the remaining indigenes, exasperated by the conflicting claims outsiders make about their places of work and domicile. If the high-country farmers were listened to too much in former times, when their knowledge of the land was in inverse proportion to the rents they extracted from it, their significantly weakened economic and political position today should not be grounds for discounting the accumulated experience of long-term owners.

Land degradation – and recovery – takes place over timescales that do not match the rhythm of elections or the evolving enthusiasms of academia. If the answer to the question “whose high country?” is “all of us”, we need to be thinking about solutions that match inter-generational values. Families can be quite good at those.


Simon Upton owns a small piece of New Zealand’s low country where he plants trees and grapples with sustainability issues.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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