Going Bush: New Zealanders and Nature in the 20th Century
Auckland University Press, $39.99,
If I have read about 50 pages and still not been drawn into an author’s world, then I usually put the book aside. However, persistence with Kirstie Ross’s Going Bush offers some rewards. The first 50 pages are hard work, mainly because they seem largely irrelevant to the idea of “going bush”. I had to read the book twice before understanding why. Going Bush is based on Ross’s MA thesis, Signs of Landing: Pakeha Outdoor Recreation and the Cultural Colonisation of New Zealand, and displays the problems inherent in presenting academic fare for popular consumption – the result is sometimes indigestible.
At the outset, Ross explains that Going Bush:
consciously pays little attention to high culture and its productions, in favour of observing nature as popular culture and everyday practices of New Zealanders. Cultural prescriptions about the landscape are delineated through civic and vernacular culture, annual rituals, popular knowledge, social relations, leisure, parks, gardens and in print and visual culture of daily life.
This is encapsulated in the subtitle New Zealanders and Nature in the 20th Century. Her assessment of attitudes to nature alternate with chapters about going bush. The first, “Knowing Nature”, describes nature study in schools between the 1890s and WWI, as well as an evaluation of Arbor Day during this period. The second chapter, “Landscapes for Leisure”, traces the evolution of outdoor recreation. But the two themes seldom converge, making this a curiously bifurcated read. For instance, Ross makes the case that “civic leaders promoted afforestation as a tool to elevate taste and develop a ‘national character’ ”, but the nature these children mostly studied was flowers and vegetable growing. And the trees they planted on Arbor Day tended to be exotics rather than natives – to create a replicated English landscape, rather than embracing the bush so recently removed. Ross concludes that Arbor Day failed to capture the public’s interest; yet, a century later, individuals, conservation groups as well as local and regional councils are all enthusiastically planting natives in both urban and rural settings.
Ross writes with more conviction when describing the growth of outdoor recreation in the 1920s and 1930s. She also presents useful evidence of official encouragement of tramping by the Railways Department, which organised “mystery hikes” for a brief period in the 1930s; and by the Internal Affairs Department, whose minister, Bill Parry, established the Physical Welfare Branch to promote healthy outdoor recreation among young people.
As an academic, Ross is primarily interested in describing cultural perceptions of outdoor recreation rather than the actual activities. So we learn, for example, how the public viewed with concern the casual, sometimes innovative clothing of young women trampers; yet there is no mention of their considerable achievements in the hills. Ross also misses a grand opportunity to illustrate the prevailing prejudice against trampers, in failing to mention the furore caused by the “Sutch search”. More than 100 searchers spent a fortnight in 1933 looking for Bill Sutch and his three companions (who included a woman) in the Tararua mountains. Eventually, the trampers found their own way out of the bush and commented that “we were never lost – and we were never found.” An accurate, if tactless, quip that prompted disapproving letters and editorials in the press.
Having found the track in the second chapter, Ross wanders off it again in the third, entitled “Bitten Fiercely by Tree-mindedness”, a phrase used by Bill Parry to exhort children to plant trees on Arbor Day. Here Ross resumes her assessment of attitudes to nature exemplified by civic rituals, this time the 1940 centennial celebrations. Her findings show that Parry’s plea fell on stony ground, as the schoolchildren and Young Farmers Clubs expected to lead the planting largely ignored the call.
The fourth and final chapter of this slim volume follows on from the second. It shows how the growth of outdoor recreation culminated in the creation of national parks in the 1950s. Once again Ross recovers her stride and writes with clarity and conviction.
It was while walking round Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewera National Park as a teenager that Ross discovered the joys of tramping. But it is unclear that she has done much in the mountains since. Going Bush is more evocative of research libraries than the great outdoors. As her bibliography reveals, this book is built on the slender supports of academic research. Conspicuously absent from the list are the many accomplished authors who have described the bush with the passion and insight of experience. Because of this, Going Bush is, ironically, unlikely to hold the interest of outdoor enthusiasts.
The strength of this book is its illustrations. Ross has a discerning eye for a telling image and has assembled an excellent range of historical photos, posters, advertisements and other ephemera. Regrettably, her parsimonious publishers have chosen to economise by printing every illustration in black and white, effectively emasculating Ross’s best efforts to produce a visually rewarding book.
Chris Maclean is a Waikanae reviewer.