Cloud obscured, Harvey McQueen


Beyond the Scene: Landscape and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand
Janet Stephenson, Mick Abbott and Jacinta Ruru (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877372810


I’m clear about the origins of my identity. Banks Peninsula is my heartland. My forebears are buried there, and it’s where I grew up. For my poetry anthology, These I Have Loved, I hardly hesitated in choosing the cover image – Akaroa Harbour. With its old volcanic plug of Onawe Peninsula at its centre, the place assumed mythic dimensions in my boyhood being. But I can imagine the soul-searching that the three editors of Beyond the Scene went through when they considered their cover. They’ve settled for the soar of Taranaki, or Mt Egmont, as it was called when I went to school (the names are part of their point). It’s partially cloud-obscured, and the design presents it as diminishing in size.

There have been many landscapes in my life, and in themselves they’ve always represented something beyond the eye’s reconnaissance, including what I brought to the view. And it is more than “I”, it is “we”. So the title of this book made sense before I even opened it, and the sub-title further grounded it – landscape and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The distinctive perspectives included here made me more aware of a collective, intergenerational, and, even in conflict, cross-cultural dimension. The collection is based on the notion that the personal is shared, the apparently unique is universal, the specific is part of a whole. Jane Bowring says landscapes “are soaked in memories, personal and collective, and they are a constant point of reference to who we are, our perspectives on place, and how we portray ourselves”.

The first section, “Belonging”, looks at three landscapes. First, Dr Ailsa Smith of Taranaki tuturu, Ngati Haupoto descent, explores how the songs of lament of her great-grandfather Te Kahui are a storehouse for the tangata whenua: “No other group of people in New Zealand’s social history will have such an opportunity for developing a oneness with the soil as Maori did in their transition from their East Polynesian origins.” Nevertheless, there is diversity in that oneness, for they reflect the local landscape, seascape and skyscape.

The Te Arawa account of the origins of the Maori universe has Tane the forest god separating the primal parents. Te Kahui’s waiata has the act performed by Tangaroa the sea-god. Taranaki’s proximity to the sea gave local Maori a different perspective, just as “the looming bulk” of the mountain did. “Landscape is as much emotional as physical”, and the landscape features “dump their history upon you at the mention of their names”.

Smith concludes by asking whether “other populations living here” can have the “same human connectedness to the natural environment”. South Waikato farmer Gordon Stephenson says yes, they can:

Our landscape, here at Waotu, is one where, for us, every feature carries a meaning, a connection – its own history. Having lived here for forty-five years, I suppose we are now part of the landscape, albeit rather more ephemeral than the hills and valleys. It is somewhere we love. And it has influenced us and changed us as we have changed it, just as is true of any long-lasting and loving human relationship.


There are people who plunder and pillage the land. There are others who value and cherish it. Farmers come in both camps, and fortunately there are many like Stephenson living here. His contribution illustrates a fulfilling relationship with his environment. It’s a piece deserving of a wide readership for its positive common sense. Horrified when, in 1971, a town business group bought an adjacent forested block and milled it, he bought the “devastated forty acres and added it to our farm”. This began the seeds of what became the Queen Elizabeth II Trust: “I can look with pleasure across the paddock to the first registered QEII covenant, secure in the knowledge the bush is safe forever (unless Taupo plays up again).” And, like Smith, he stresses that sky is part of the “landscape”.

David Eggleton chooses big country for his location – Canterbury in 16 poems. “Where thousands of moa once stalked, cows now move to stand,/ big bladders on legs, bagpipes of udders in sway.” First, the physical location: “frost-heave lifts flakes of rock” which “tumble” as stone, “till, caught by river rapids, they bank up as shingle,/and, an eternity later, river-bed dust blown sky-high”.

Upon the pre-colonial landscape, the settlers measured and counted their way. It was “a frontier/ a found blank wasteland they would remake”. The Greek gods wrestled with indigenous heroes for naming rights. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. Eggleton’s series of poems captures the essence of that conflict – rarely is it entirely conquest – and development. And so through colonial struggles and dreams to the present era when “the corporations, the speculators, the anonymous investors … join the primary producers” in “the conversion of farms to dairying land”.

The second section is called “Encounters”. Here Bowring describes Buller’s romantic plans to turn Lake Papaitonga into a picturesque spot, completely ignoring prior Maori use and dependence. Elsewhere she describes the “role of artifice in the suppression of memory” in the brochure settlement of Pegasus (where the plans make no provision for a cemetery) and redevelopment of the Sunnyside site in south-west Christchurch.

Wardlow Friesen and Robin Kearns explore the “politics of difference” in two contrasting South Auckland suburbs, Otara and Dannemora. Their photograph selection assists their analysis of how two migration waves (1950s to 1970s Pasifika, and 1990s to 2000s Asian) “have led to different sets of residential, retail and religious landscapes”. Davinia Thornley contemplates films “that record the multiple histories that Central Otago has supported”. She differs from Stephenson when she says there is “a lack of belonging in Pakeha culture”.

I’m not sure I buy this argument. It fits some films, but in my view it reflects, in her case and the examples she has chosen, a townie’s attitude, rather than a country-dweller’s. It could be that certain types of film are good at portraying unease.

As the camera captures and explains landscape, so does art. Linda Tyler looks at the diversity of the Auckland landscape, as portrayed by artists “imagining the built environment”. The natural landscape has become “a cultural construct”, as illustrated by Robert Ellis’s painting “Motorway/city”. It would, however, be unfair to Tyler and Auckland to describe the city as mere “urban spaghetti”; Auckland is many things to many people, as her selection of artistic representations shows.

In the final section, “Prospect”, anthropologist Lyn Carter tracks the evolving cultural meanings of Ngai Tahu rock drawings. The other three pieces in this section are written by the editors.

Jacinta Ruru says that, historically, law has been “embedded in monocultural Pakeha colonial constructs”, but recently new directions have emerged. She describes this change as it affects Pikirakatahi, Mt Earnslaw in the Mount Aspiring National Park. Mick Abbott looks at the heritage walks of the Otago Peninsula. Lichened walls tell a story; where people once settled and lived is now mainly a place to be visited and imagined. Janet Stephenson’s essay on Akaroa has a quotation from an inhabitant, “this place gets into your blood”. Her distinction between the “surface landscape” and the “embedded landscape” is helpful in that, by asserting “the multiple values on a single site”, it explains how it is “impossible to divide people’s notions of landscape from their interactions with it”.

As they say in their conclusion, the editors consciously set out to avoid the “scenic”: “knowing landscape only as scenery … promotes a limited relationship” and erodes “landscape’s stores of memories, meanings and melancholies”. Their argument is that “over time, landscape shapes culture and culture shapes landscape”, and the contributors “provide many perspectives on how this leads to a gradual shift from non-belonging to belonging”. The argument has an element of faith: “coming to belong involves people rubbing shoulders with place, each adjusting over time, like rocks in a river jostling and smoothing each other to a mutually comfortable shape”.

New Zealanders keep seeking a defining moment of national identity embedded in location – Norm Kirk with a Maori boy at Waitangi, Whina Cooper with a small child on the land-march. But such an identity is more than an event or a place, it’s the sum of all its parts, an ever-changing assemblage. By looking closely at a few selected areas with their particular reverberations, this collection assists that ongoing discussion.


Harvey McQueen is a Wellington poet and reviewer. 

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review
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