years ago Herbert Guthrie-Smith chipped away at the then
widely accepted idea that the story of agriculture in New
Zealand was one of heroic progress. His classic book
Tutira argued that the countryside had paid a high
ecological price for our pursuit of export income regardless
of the consequences.
Guthrie-Smith's views are now mainstream. We no longer
subsidise farmers, large areas of high country land have been
transferred to the conservation estate and we endlessly
debate the impact of dairy farming on our waterways.
The bedding in of these new perspectives has spawned a whole
new theme of academic research, environmental history, a
field that southern scholars have dominated.
Peter Holland, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the
University of Otago and a born-and-bred southerner,
concentrates on South Canterbury and Otago in A Home in the
Howling Wilderness: Settlers and the Environment in Southern
He makes two main points in his introduction. The first is
that most settlers failed to understand that New Zealand is a
mosaic of ecologically diverse areas. Each had to be
thoroughly understood if people were to avoid creating
environmental (and often economic) disasters.
His second overriding theme is that most settlers gradually
grew more adept at detecting weather signals and at making
more balanced decisions about the use of their land.
The first chapters set out the lay of the land. The second
looks at Maori environmental knowledge, the author observing
that while settlers sought Maori advice on river crossings or
trails, few asked about the suitability of their plans for
the land they occupied.
Then Holland picks up on his theme of knowledge acquisition,
starting with wind, warmth and rain before moving to ice and
snow. Early settlers had to learn to read the land while
ignoring what they had been told before coming out here.
A group of pioneers who arrived in Otago before 1860, taken
in 1910. Back row: Mrs Begg and Mrs Douglas (descendants).
Front row: Mr Jas. Somerville (Blundell,1848), Miss
Somerville (Blundell), Mr Peter McGregor (Robert Henderson,
1858), Mr William Black (Blundell) and Mrs William
Aitcheson (Arab, 1851). Early settlers had to learn to read
the land while ignoring what they had been told before
coming to New Zealand. Photo from Otago Witness.
Pamphleteers and immigration propagandists liked to
compare New Zealand's climate to that of the Mediterranean
basin. The reality came as a rude shock to ''new chums''. No
wonder a shocked Henry Sewell described the Canterbury Plains
in 1852 as ''a howling wilderness''.
Any lingering beliefs that they were occupying a southern
Tuscany were dispelled by the stormy 1860s, which destroyed
many farms and flocks.
The process of knowledge gain was gradual, sometimes even hit
and miss. Rabbits and small birds often devastated pastures
or gardens and grain crops.
Even where introduced grasses and other plants thrived, the
livestock feeding on them could compound the surface soil,
opening pastures to invasion by weeds or to erosion. It took
a while to learn that few New Zealand soils are as fertile as
many people thought.
By analysing settlers' diaries, letters and station accounts
books, Holland draws us into the lives of these people.
We see who recorded weather conditions and why and we learn
that on some stations, rabbit control could be the biggest
single outgoing, even after the skins had been sold.
Scholarly, well researched, and jargon-free, Home in the
Howling Wilderness should be read with interest by
Dr McLean is a Wellington historian and