Transformation, Simon Upton

Home in the Howling Wilderness 
Peter Holland
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869407391

This book is about what can be learned of the environmental and ecological understanding of pioneer farmers in the southern half of the South Island over the first half century of European settlement through a meticulous examination of the documentary evidence they left behind them. The book’s scope and ambition can be delineated with all the precision of a published doctoral thesis.

But this is no inaugural academic enterprise. As distinguished Emeritus Professor Peter Holland explains, the book is the result of a lifetime’s engagement with a challenge first posed to him as an undergraduate in the 1960s by the conclusion of a North American geographer, Andrew Clark, in his 1949 book The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals. In it, Clark claimed that the South Island lacked “any solid rural tradition … any peasant-like feeling of love for the land and the countryside” and speculated that it might all have turned out differently if it had been populated by a yeoman farmer class. Instead, it had been transformed by proprietors who saw only commercial value in it and had failed to develop “a strong resistance to practices leading to mutilation of the area in which they live.”

Anyone who has listened to farmers earnestly extolling the fact that they are born conservationists will know how much that verdict would have stuck in Cantabrian and Otago gullets. It also, apparently, proved indigestible for the young geographer whose childhood memories of his grandparents’ farm in Waimate were of a more rooted, less extractive relationship with the land. And so, in his words, “the contrast between memory and scholarly argument established the fundamental questions that have driven my research for two decades and … this book.”

After an introductory chapter in which the shape of the book is sketched, Holland turns first to the extent to which accumulated Maori knowledge was tapped, before settling into a succession of chapters that deal with the way settlers came to grips with weather, extreme events, native plants and animals, and the new plant and animal species needed for New Zealand’s agrarian revolution. These are followed with an account of the emerging problems of erosion, declining soil fertility and pests, both animal and vegetable. A discussion of how a growing body of settler knowledge was exchanged is rounded off by a final summary account of the learning process as revealed by the source materials to hand.

Although the author had access to diary and letter books from 41 separate properties, the bulk of the observations were culled from eight particularly extensive sets of records by resident farmers spanning properties from Southland and the Wakatipu basin through Otago and into South Canterbury. It is the unyielding recourse to documented evidence that provides the book with its rigour and its potential weakness. Holland openly states that he became “almost obsessive” about archival research. The result is a book which must be a model of scholarly investigation but whose readability, as a result, is impaired despite the handsome presentation by Auckland University Press.

The way in which settler observations are collated and presented in graphic form is exemplary. Comments on wind, temperature and rainfall are standardised and presented in a variety of figures that tell a story of growing interpretative confidence on the part of the residents. Figures distil a wealth of material whether it be the means and costs of killing rabbits or references to native and imported plant material. Even the book’s conclusion – a “representational model of environmental learning in early colonial times” – is rendered graphically.

The supporting text is often less compelling. As the book proceeds, one becomes increasingly aware of lengthy sentences which degenerate into lists that, in repetition, become heavy weather. We learn that “horse racing, rugby matches, school and church picnics, dances and soirées, school concerts and sports days provided welcome entertainment for settler families” and that settlers were active in “lodges, volunteer service organisations, school and church committees”. Evidence-based research compels comprehensiveness where literary appeal might have commended abridgment and summary.

Holland’s treatment of Maori raises interesting questions. He claims that “a relatively small amount of environmental information … passed from Maori to Pakeha [because of] the lower standing in settler society of indigenous environmental knowledge compared with that stemming from western science.” And he speculates that it would be tantalising to consider what the landscape of southern New Zealand might have looked like if settlers had worked in true partnership with iwi.

This conclusion may be more a comment on the limitations of a strictly documentation-based approach than on what actually happened. As a teenager, I listened spellbound to my ancient great-uncle recalling how his father had traded cattle with Maori in the area around Whaingaroa (Raglan) harbour and how his family had learned to swim stock across the harbour mouths from local knowledge of tides and bars.

This is my family’s oral history. The fact that it is not written down does not mean that it is of any more limited value than the Maori lore that Holland considers his settlers passed over too lightly. Had Holland sought to supplement his researches with the oral history of some of the old settler families still resident in the South Island, he might have drawn a more nuanced conclusion.

In any case, it might simply be that Maori knowledge wasn’t obviously useful to them. Maori had refined their knowledge for purposes totally different from those which drew pastoralists to New Zealand. His overall conclusion – that the settlers learned through bitter experience how to live in the landscape they transformed – is an inescapable result of the “prodigious experiment” he describes.

Which leads me to question whether the weight of the evidence gathered actually provides the redress Holland seeks to Clark’s stern verdict. The fact that settlers learned from experience, perceived patterns in what they experienced and modified their practices as a result doesn’t of itself absolve them from the charge that they “look[ed] on land as a commodity, as a means of earning a living”. When survival – physical and commercial – is at stake as it was, learning from experience seems an inevitable and instrumental response.

Holland finds that the documentary record provides little explicit acknowledgment of the future environmental costs settlers were storing up for themselves and that few took the long view of landscape transformation. How that could be otherwise is hard to imagine given the ecological upheaval they were causing. Where the causes of ecological trauma impact on bottom lines, they tend to be responded to. Where their impact is unremarked – as with the degradation of ground water through industrial scale nitrogen application – the case for regulation is still contested.

To accept Clark’s verdict is not to denigrate a settler class but to draw a wider conclusion about human short-termism in the face of ignorance. I was left wondering how we might assess the first human settlers on these islands who, 700 years earlier, stumbled into a landscape to which humans did not belong, and commenced the first great transformation. There is no documentary evidence of that but would the conclusion be any different – that there is nothing inherently environmentally sensitive about our species and that any feel for the land is won from experience?


Simon Upton is the OECD’s Environment Director and the descendant of mid-19th century colonists who grappled in full ignorance with the ecology of the North Island west coast.

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