In 1969, geographer Paul Shepard published a monograph entitled “English reaction to the New Zealand landscape before 1850″, in which he explored the various attitudes of English immigrants towards the indigenous landscape, particularly the forest, in this early settlement period. He review of the written accounts by early settlers and observers found that the most prevalent view of the forest was negative: it was described as “dreary”, “dismal”, “gloomy”, and seen as the antithesis of civilization and morality.

Since then, a number of historians and historical geographers have explored this question further, including Jock Phillips in his 1981 paper “Fear and loathing of the New Zealand landscape”, and Paul Star in his 2003 article “New Zealand environmental history: a question of attitudes”. (more…)

Dr Catherine Knight will be presenting a talk on November 2nd about the history of Totara Reserve as part of this year’s Manawatu Local History Week [click here to download programme]. Entitled “Totara Reserve: a window into Manawatu’s environmental history“, the talk will explore how Totara Reserve was preserved initially for its timber, but within a few decades, when lowland forest elsewhere in the Manawatu had all but vanished, became a prized scenic and recreational reserve. By tracing the history of the reserve, we can better understand the changing attitudes and values of New Zealanders towards our natural heritage. (more…)

I recently sent this photo from the envirohistory NZ banner to the Stirling University Research Centre for Environmental History and Policy to be used on their related links page. When I did so, I thought it may be a good opportunity to share the “back story” of the photo.

The photo is taken by veteran photographer, Paul Knight, of a farm just north of the Horowhenua town of Levin [click here to view location]. The farm, called Nikaunui, meaning “many (or big) nikau palms” in Maori, is a large sheep and beef farm, owned by the Kilsby family,* a family with a long history in the district. (more…)

New Zealand’s tallest forest tree, the kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), once dominated the forests that covered much of New Zealand’s swampy lowland areas. Far from a solitary tree, the kahikatea groups closely with other kahikatea, intertwining its buttressed roots with its neighbours for support in the unstable swampy ground. (It is perhaps for this reason that the kahikatea has evolved with such a tall, straight trunk with no lower branches, to enable it to “huddle” with others for stability). In autumn, throughout the lowlands of New Zealand, numerous forest birds chattered noisily in its canopy, feeding on its abundant red berries. These berries, called koroī, were also a valued food source for Māori, who skillfully climbed up the smooth branchless trunks to harvest them. (more…)

Radio New Zealand’s “Country Life” programme is a favourite of mine – as a born-and-bred “townie” – I enjoy the insights it provides into living off the land – whether as a farmer, horticulturalist, or cottage industry owner. The programme also features stories which provide important insights from an environmental history perspective.

The most recent programme features a story about a southern Waikato farmer who, after growing up seeing the lowland indigenous forest around her town decimated by forestry, is covenanting 4 hectares of remnant bush on her farm in Mamaku [click here to view location] to ensure its future preservation. The bush is dominated by tawa, rimu and kahikatea, and is one of the last surviving remnants on this ignimbrite plateau which was once covered in dense forest. (more…)

This nature reserve, established in 1974, demonstrates the cyclical nature of our environmental history. It started with a small remnant of swamp forest that had escaped the fate of wholesale clearance suffered by all other swamp forest in the Kapiti region (and beyond).

The founders of the reserve* approached the farmer who owned the land – which was part of a sheep and beef farm at the time – about leasing the 13 hectare block which included the remnant forest. The farmer, Moss Smith, was somewhat bemused by their fervent interest in this boggy, “unproductive” piece of land, but in the end agreed to their request.

The original objective of the founders was to establish a bird sanctuary (hense the name Nga Manu – “the birds” in Maori)  – it was only later that they realised the immense significance of the area and opportunity it provided to protect the largest remnant of coastal lowland swamp forest on the Kapiti Coast. To this end, the Trust later purchased the land outright. (more…)

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