Geoff Park (1946-2009)
I heard about Geoff Park long before I actually met him. David Young and Peter Horsley had told me about him, so I already knew about his energy and passion for plants and landscape, and the unusual (for a scientist) artistic, historical, and spiritual lenses though which he viewed them. But it was a good while before I discovered what a vital presence he had been in the conservation scene for decades.
Geoff was a botanist by training. He grew up in Pinehaven, near Wellington, then a new suburb tucked away in the forest on the eastern side of the Hutt Valley. His father had hoped Geoff might follow in his footsteps and become an architect – and indeed he could have, with his artistic eye and humanist sensibility. But Geoff was claimed by botany from an early age. He roamed the forests with his botany mentor, Tony Druce, cramming as much through his eyes and ears as he could.
Geoff’s BSc was in botany and geology; his MSc (Hons) 1st Class in ecology and soil science. Whilst finishing his MSc, he became involved in the conservation movement through Ecology Action. Joni Mitchell may have sung: “They paved Paradise; put up a parking lot”, but activist Geoff managed to prevent the destruction of a tract of bushy paradise by the new Hutt motorway. After his PhD (at Australian National University in forest ecology) he was hired by Botany Division DSIR. Doing regional surveys, he saw at first hand the impact of development on forest remnants. He joined the Biological Resources Centre, under the Department of Lands and Survey (later DoC), to do something immediate and practical about the destruction.
Geoff and I were introduced by Lauris Edmond one evening in 1995. I met his wife, Lindsay, too, and was invited to their house in the bush at Kaiwharawhara, full of wonderful art. So it was Geoff whose advice I asked soon afterwards when my Museum Project Office colleague Barry Read and I were working on a concept for the Treaty exhibition, and wanted to know what primeval New Zealand was like. Geoff was heading off on a trip, but he could see me on his way north, so long as it was early. At 6.30 am, Geoff stood in my living room, looking north across the Pauatahanui Inlet, and pointed out the ancient karaka grove on the hillside opposite. I stared across the harbour to the peninsula called Motukaraka, and saw it with new eyes.
Geoff’s masterwork Nga Uruora was published a few weeks later. Begun while he was at DoC, it is sui generis.
A few years later, Geoff became my colleague at Te Papa, as Concept Leader Natural Environment. By then I was the Publisher for Te Papa Press, so there was always a reason to meet at Nikau for lunch every few weeks. Those conversations were magnificent. Geoff had become interested in the Romantic idea of landscape, the poetry of Wordsworth (mercifully it was Ian Wedde he quizzed about Wordsworth, not me); the impact of the Claude glass on how landscape was represented in visual art; in Walter Buller at Papaitonga; in the ideas that led to the establishment of scenic reserves (ever the student of conservation politics). He talked about all these things whenever we met. I would take notes, and think about how it could be turned into a Te Papa Press book, and walk back to work with my head full of ideas for poems.
I took Geoff sailing for Waitangi Weekend last year. The conversation (still running along familiar themes) continued across the Firth of Thames to Te Kouma and back. We took my dinghy in along the shoreline at Galatea Bay, and I was so entranced by Geoff’s commentary that I managed to drive my little outboard into the reef whilst looking up at the trees, rather than keeping an eye on the depth. The sheer-pin broke, and it was a long row back to the boat. But the lecture continued.
One wet February evening, in the hospice, I saw Geoff light up when shown an old photograph: Geoff with his varsity mates at Totaranui in 1968, bathed in golden light, everything still ahead of them. Sitting up in his chair, surrounded by family and friends, he was holding in his hands a couple of argillite flakes from Durville Island. I had brought them to the hospice for him a few days before. The stone had taken on a patina by being so lovingly held. So in March, when I said my last goodbye to him, I slipped a small flake into his top pocket.
Farewell, dear friend and thinker; generous and true lover of the landscapes of this place.