I came across this photo on the Manawatu Memory Online site the other day, while looking for an image of early Manawatu history. I was immediately captivated by the image. It is the 1881 photograph of the now long-gone Awapuni Lagoon, located in what is now the south-western corner of Palmerston North city, about where the Awapuni racecourse is today [click here to view map].The lagoon is surrounded by old-growth swamp forest, probably dominated by kahikatea, matai, rimu and other lowland forest species.

The deep impression the image made on me stems from two things: one, is that it captures so evocatively the landscape that preceded the city of Palmerston North, before it was drained, cleared of forest and overlaid with a orderly grid pattern of streets, railways and buildings. The city and its environs is now virtually devoid of remnant forest, so this invaluable glimpse of its past is unrecognisably different from the urban and primarily exotically vegetated landscape of today.

But the second reason is much more personal, and cuts to the heart of why I think environmental history is so important and so relevant to all of us. I lived my teenage years at the northern perimeter of this ancient lagoon, on Maxwells Line, but never in all the time I lived there knew of its existence, or its significance to Maori of the area before Europeans arrived. This strikes me as both sad and strange, but not unusual. Now, more than two decades later, I am beginning to understand some of this history. More importantly perhaps, I have come to the realisation that understanding the environmental history of the place that one lives or comes from brings so much more meaning to the landscape – even one that has been transformed beyond recognition – and our relationship with it.

Awapuni Lagoon was one of five naturally formed lagoons in what was to become the city Palmerson North when Europeans first settled the district. The name awa-puni, meaning “blocked up river”, described exactly its nature, an ox-bow or cut-off river bend. It was a favourite picnic and leisure spot for settlers of the late 19th century, but was later drained to make way for more “productive” land uses.

In his Centennial History of Palmerston North, C.G. Petersen provides some background to why, despite their obvious amenity for these early settlers, these lagoons were inevitably drained and the surrounding forests cleared:

“Until 1870 the native duck and pukeko haunted undisturbed the shallow lagoons and the wild pig had undisputed possession of the public square. The only means of access to the isolated forest clearing [Papaioea] was by way of a long river journey in Maori canoes, the solid block of heavy bush forming an effective barrier to land transport. When in seasonal flood the river overflowed its banks, the riverine flats and low swampy basins were flooded, even foot travel becoming impossible. Owners of land in Palmerston [as it was then called] found they could put it to no use until an effective link with civilisation was established.”

Of the five lagoons, only Hokowhitu Lagoon (later renamed Centennial Lagoon), also a natural ox-bow lake of the Manawatu River, escaped draining, though now bears little resemblance to its original forest-enclosed form [see photo right].

Photo top: Written in pencil on the old print are the words: “Awapuni Lagoon 1881. Returning to Pah from Waldegraves”. Note the old wharepuni (principal house of a village) on the right, part of the Awapuni Maori settlement between the Foxton to Palmerston North Road and the northern bank of the Lagoon. The people in the canoe are probably the Mr and Mrs W H Luxford and daughter. Second from top: A steam train crossing the railway bridge over Awapuni Lagoon. This bridge was on a railway siding off the Foxton – Palmerston North railway and ran to the Awapuni Racecourse, between 1905 – 1935. It was used for transporting race horses and race patrons to the course. Third from top: In this view across the square in 1878, the swamp forest which covered all but Papaioea, the natural clearing in the forest when the area was surveyed by Europeans, is still visible. People and horses and carts make tracks across to the southern part of The Square. A train crosses the Square into Main Street (in the centre of the photograph). The two storey building, second from right, faces onto Coleman Place. All from Manawatu Memory Online, Palmerston North City Library. Above right: Hokowhitu Lagoon today.

Sources: Palmerston North – A centennial history (1973), by G.C. Petersen; Rivers – Our Region, Manawatu.

See also: Forest clearance in 1880s New Zealand – the views of Mrs Robert Wilson; The Scandinavian settlers of the ManawatuTotara Reserve: from exploitation to conservation; The opening up of the Manawatu – the “waste land of the Colony