Outstanding achievement or pitiful war? Janet Hunt

Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand
Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877578526

Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand is a revised, expanded and renamed edition of Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Oxford University Press, 2002). The new title is both more inviting and in keeping with an updated cover that clearly signals what is within: it is in attractive earthen tones and features William Sutton’s painting, Hills and Plains, Waikari 1956, in which the neatly segmented fields of the North Canterbury plains occupy the centre, framed at the top by tan-hued foothills and the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps and, at the bottom, by grey, featureless blocks of farm buildings. The dark shapes of macrocarpa windbreaks are conspicuous in the foreground and in the far distance. The view is devoid of indigenous vegetation, or animal or human life. It is a landscape that has been well and truly remade.

Making a New Land and its predecessor are university texts and are structured, written and presented by experts in their fields, principally for a scholarly audience, but with an eye on a second, wider, non-academic readership, those “keen to engage with good, historically informed writing on the environment”. The text is organised into five parts, charting a broadly chronological progression from “First Encounters” through “Colonising”, “Wild Places”, “Modernising” and, finally, “Perspectives”. Each of its 18 chapters is thorough and detailed, with an introductory lead-in followed by exposition broken into sub-topics and rounded by a conclusion; it is, as you would expect, meticulously researched and appropriately referenced (with one small quibble, see below).

There are, if you like, three protagonists in this story: the first, loosely encompassing the non-living elemental world of mountains, plains, rivers, lakes and seas, as well as the plants and animals that dwell on and in it, is the environment of Aotearoa New Zealand. From the moment of initial human contact and the commencement of settlement, it has been massively assaulted and progressively remade by two cultures, first by the Pacific peoples who moved here around seven or eight hundred years ago, and then, beginning a couple of centuries ago, by those who came from Europe. These two protagonists, the Māori and the European, have at times adopted similarly exploitative approaches to the land they encountered, but, more often, have contrasting attitudes to and relationships with it, whether in terms of ownership, perceptions of identity, apprehensions of space, or use of resources.

The editors of Making a New Land approach the vastness and complexity of their subject through a selection of diverse, sometimes overlapping topics, each offering a different facet or angle on the story; collectively, over the progression of the 18 chapters, they create a picture of unprecedented change, amounting to first the erasing of one environment and, then, the creation of another amidst the shreds of the first. We are taken from the earliest encounters of Polynesian peoples with their new land through the busy, astonishing years of the 19th and early- and mid-20th centuries when European colonists wrested it from their predecessors and burned, excavated, sawed and hacked the landscape into a shape not unlike the one that we in turn have inherited. Among others, there are chapters on mining, draining of swamps, the finer points of pasture grasses, global perspectives, natural hazards, garden histories, the niceties of map-making and postcolonial environments.

Many readers will use Making a New Land to refer to a particular topic of interest rather than reading it cover to cover, but one cumulative effect of doing just that is the setting in context of the events of today: the tensions between the forces of development and conservation have clearly been with us from the outset — think mining Denniston, damming rivers, high country irrigation, the dirty dairying/water quality debate, windfall logging in beech forests in the conservation estate, the use and exploitation of marine resources: each echoes and replays actions and attitudes that are deep-rooted and long-founded in our society.

As but one example, perhaps the most radical transformation in the making of the new land was the prior destruction of the bush. Chapter seven, “Destruction under the guise of improvement? The forest, 1840–1920”, illustrates the forces that required its downfall: at the outset we have Cook and Banks, who marvel at the “imence woods” and “lofty Trees” even as they also, anticipating their utility, describe them as “the finest timber”. By then, after centuries of burning by Māori, the forest had already been reduced to fifty per cent of its pre-human area. European colonists wasted no time in further reducing its extent by logging to meet the demands of a timber-hungry society and by also burning, where time and patience was short, to create pastures and farms. The realisation of the intrinsic and aesthetic value of forests was slow to come and, even then, largely motivated by the fact that the underlying terrain of upland forests was so steep and difficult that there were few alternatives. However, there were those, even then, who considered the loss and pondered its wisdom: people like the historian G H Schofield who, in 1909, described the devastation as “pitiful war”; or the prescient Herbert Guthrie-Smith who, in 1940, after a lifetime dedicated to the growing of meat and wool, queried his use of the land and asked, “Have I for sixty years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?”

This book is never going to be a light read. The essays necessarily take the long view and often compress considerable spans of time, making the text dense and demanding close, careful reading. At the same time, however, most of the writers have leavened this density by including small mentions and glimpses of individuals and their lives, further amplified by quotations (such as Guthrie-Smith’s) that contribute interesting and immediate insights. Black and white photographs, maps and diagrams also helpfully illustrate the commentary, while the “Further Reading” at the conclusion of each chapter, new in this edition, is a particularly useful addition (although it appears to come at the cost of a bibliography).

Perhaps the highest compliment to any publication is that it alters or widens its readers’ perspectives. As the editors note in their introduction, “how a chapter is read is shaped by the interests of the reader: not everyone receives the same message, as each person brings their own frame of reference to the text.” As one who grew up on a Taranaki farm where stumping was still in progress and the charred shards of forest were a scant generation or so distant, but with the contrasting luxuriance of a national park at the back door and rivers and streams that were still pristine, this was very much the case. I constantly reframed and re-evaluated my own experience and found it worth while to do so.

And, while I am not sure this book will have the wide general readership the editors and publishers hope for, it will be of immense value for all who are concerned about the state of the environment. Where we came from most definitely informs where we go – as well as what happens next.


Janet Hunt is an award-winning writer and graphic designer. Her latest book is Our Big Blue Backyard (Random House).

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Posted in History, Natural History, Review, Sociology
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