What is natural? The case of the Christchurch Port Hills

When the author lived in Christchurch, she found that many Cantabrians would become highly impassioned with even the suggestion of a development threatening the tussocked landscape of the Port Hills. The author even struck cases where people opposed native tree-planting projects because they would detract from the “natural tussocked landscape”. Certainly, it is hard to find a Cantabrian who is not fond of the soft, light golden-tinged tussocked hills that surround Christchurch, nor one who would question the “naturalness” of this landscape.

Yet, the tussocked hillsides of which Cantabrians are so fond are not natural, but a result of human intervention over time – through fire, logging and grazing. Some of this human-caused change occurred prior to European settlement, which is perhaps why the current landscape has become so fully ingrained in the collective psyche as being both natural and beautiful.

Prior to human settlement of Banks Peninsula, tussock grassland and manuka scrub occupied only the most exposed tops of the hills. The hill slopes were vegetated with hardwoods such as lacebark, ribbonwood, tikoki and kowhai with scatterings of podocarp species. Above 500 metres, Hall’s totara, broadleaf and horopito became dominant species.

With the arrival of the Maori, both deliberate and accidental fires took their toll on the vegetation over a period of seven to eight hundred years. Even so, when European settlement of Canterbury began in the 19th century, 70 per cent of Banks Peninsula was still covered in forest. However, from the time the first sawmill was established in Robinsons Bay in 1854 until the early 1880s virtually all the commercial timber had been milled, and most of the remaining forest had been burnt away for agriculture. [This information from The Summit Road Society website].

So while the current landscape certainly looks natural and it made up predominantly of a naturally occurring species, it is very different from the Canterbury landscape prior to human settlement. In the end, the fact that a landscape is not natural should not preclude us from gaining aesthetic or spiritual pleasure from it. However, an understanding of the history of that landscape can surely only make our appreciation of it richer.

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