Pinning down landscapes and identity tricky

Gavin McLean reviews Beyond the Scene

Landscape and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand

Eds: Janet Stephenson, Mick Abbott and Jacinta Ruru
Otago University Press, $45, pbk

People who work in heritage preservation know that landscapes are the trickiest things to define.

After 50 years of classification by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and by local authorities, we have a rough idea of what constitutes an archaeological site, a historic place or a historic area.

But what about a historic landscape? Or landscapes?

Beyond the Scene explores our connection with land in 12 essays.

A couple of them feature aspects of Auckland's urban landscapes, but the majority explore rural and wild landscapes.

Otago and Canterbury places predominate, although Auckland, Taranaki and South Waikato get chapters.

Nor do all dwell on the land itself.

Davinia Thornley looks at how Otago has been portrayed in films.

Lyn Carter looks at how southern rock art has travelled in the form of the artworks themselves, as well as through artistic interpretations and commercial representations.

Another landscape, still evident only in a developer's brochure, is North Canterbury's planned Pegasus Town.

Jacky Bowring contrasts the ritzy plans with Walter Buller's romantic terraforming of Lake Papaitonga more than 100 years ago.

Buller's classic Enlightenment attempts to "improve" nature with picturesque plantings and artificial water features displaced Maori and their past.

Pegasus Town's planners are no less destructive.

Bowring complains that they will effectively remove the town's past by denying its 5000 to 7000 residents a cemetery.

"To deny a small town its cemetery is to erase part of the fundament of memory."

Many of the essays take a landscape close to the hearts of their authors.

Gordon Stephenson writes movingly about the family home in rural Waikato, with its rolling downlands and distinctive rocks.

His chapter alone torpedoes Thornely's "A lack of belonging in Pakeha culture and, yes, it does come from being strangers in a strange land."

In the poem sequence "Waitaha" about Canterbury, David Eggleton observes that landscape is perceived by how we inhabit it; "landscape is as much emotional as physical".


 In fact he terms these clusters of associations "an inscape".

Janet Stephenson, writing about Banks Peninsula's Onuku and Green's Point, looks at how professionals, iwi and individual residents see places differently - "landscape is not an abstract idea, but something that is an ever-evolving experience."

That pretty much sums up the editors' findings.

They see landscape as being as much emotional as physical.

It's an enduring record of our stories and it's inherently social.

It merges time and space and is at the heart of identity (although I agree with Jacinta Ruru's warning that there are political dangers in signifying our national parks as symbols of our national identity).

For an Otago University Press publication, Beyond the Scene is relatively jargon-free and lightly annotated.

What is not so good is the lack of an index.

I know that authors can be a lazy lot at times, but surely the publisher should have stepped in to provide one to make this a more user-friendly reference work?

Dr McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.


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