One of many scenes of devastation in the aftermath of Cyclone Bola.

One of many scenes of devastation in the aftermath of Cyclone Bola.

I have often wondered why I am so interested in the link between deforestation, flooding and erosion. I put it down to my love of forested environments, and therefore my interest in the history of these environments. But it has occurred to me that it is perhaps more than this – that it relates also to personal memory, of an event in the environmental history of my lifetime.

That event was Cyclone Bola, which hit the east coast of the North Island in March 1988, when I was a teenager. (more…)

When surveyors laid out the Manawatu town of Palmerston North, they were a little optimistic.

An 1878 [see left] and later 1895 survey map shows sections in the suburbs of Terrace End and low-lying Hokowhitu running right up to – and in some cases beyond – the banks of the meandering Manawatu River. However, the multitude of lagoons in the district showed that the Manawatu River must have flooded, and changed its course, many times throughout the centuries, leaving these “cut-off meander” lagoons as evidence. (more…)

Next week’s New Zealand Historical Association Conference features a special four-person panel dedicated to environmental history. The panel is entitled: “History shaping the future: how environmental history research can inform environmental policy and management”, and will feature papers by Professors Katie Pickles and Eric Pawson (both from Canterbury University), Professor Tom Brooking (Otago University) and Dr Catherine Knight (envirohistory NZ). (more…)

“Unless immediate steps are taken towards the conservation of large tracts of existing forests, and towards the re-planting” of forests “the climate, which is naturally dry, will become, year by year, more dry, until at length pastoral and agricultural pursuits … will become profitless, if not impossible.”

This was not written in 2008. Or 1988. Or even 1948. (more…)

In a recent essay published in the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand newsletter, University of Canterbury Professor of Geography Eric Pawson asks why people are becoming more – not less – vulnerable to environmental disasters. Recent events, such as the recent Canterbury earthquakes, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Victorian bushfires of 2009 have brought this question to the fore. The primary reason for this increasing vulnerability has been our growing confidence in the human ability to control nature through engineering and other means, leading us to disregard the recurrent and inevitable threat posed by natural hazards. (more…)

This signal box on the Paekakariki Railway Station platform tells of an illustrious history of a small coastal town intimately linked with the railway. The railway station dates from 1886 when the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company’s line from Wellington to Longburn was completed. The railway runs alongside the state highway, the Paekakariki to Porirua segment of which was completed nearly four decades before, in 1849. Both transport links run through a narrow corridor of flat land wedged between steep hills to the east and the sea and old dune-lands to the west [click here to view map]. The town itself lies on a narrow band of undulating dune-lands, contributing to its slightly idiosyncratic character; its name, meaning “perch of the kakariki parrot” in Maori, seems particularly apt. (more…)

It seems both ironic, yet at the same time intensely appropriate to me that New Zealand’s first major environmental publication was written by a farmer – one of the many who helped to so dramatically transform the land into the landscape we take for granted today.

Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station (1921) was written by William Herbert Guthrie-Smith about his sheep station in the Hawkes Bay [click here to view location]. In particular, he chronicled – with meticulous detail – the way he developed the land, and the implications that these “improvements” had for the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that had functioned within the landscape for thousands of years.

Tutira became an internationally acclaimed classic of ecological writing, and is generally seen as New Zealand’s first major environmentalist publication.  (more…)

“Evil” is a strong word – but when he wrote “The Evils of Deforestation” in 1909, J.P. Grossmann obviously felt strongly about the issue. He wrote: “Foremost among the inevitable effects of deforestation we must, therefore, rank floods and landslips.” He was not the first – nor the last – to express his concerns about deforestation in New Zealand. In 1877, Campbell Walker, the Conservator of State Forests had warned:

“I should view with very greatest anxiety any clearing of the hills which form the dividing range or back-bone of the island, and am convinced that it would be followed sooner or later, by the most disastrous results, both in the shape of deterioration of the climate, dangerous floods and drying up of sprints and sources of rivers.”

And in his book “New Zealand in Evolution” (1909), Scholefield states:

“In this period the denudation of the forest already had some detrimental effect on the climate here and there, and the severity of floods in the rivers was marked. With the hillsides and the upper reaches bare to the elements, the snow or rain-water passed off rapidly. The streams rose without the slightest warning, tearing down through gorges, eroding the banks, overflowing farms, and devastating the lower alluvial flats with silt and boulders. It was a very disastrous retribution for the recklessness of white man.

In this age of heightened environmental awareness, we tend to assume that our understanding of our impact on the environment has increased. These statements by our forebears a century or more ago show this is not the case – we would do well to take heed of their long-forgotten warnings…

[Photo: A late 19 century forest burn-off in Manawatu; Source: Palmerston North City Library]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 344 other followers