The legacy of G. L. Adkin – keen “reader of the land”

The fact that the Horowhenua district has such a rich written and photographic history, as well as ethnographic, archaeological, cartographic and geological record, is almost wholly down to one man – a Horowhenua farmer and irrepressible self-taught scholar of geology, archaeology and ethnology (as well many other subjects). Indeed many of the photographs used on this site are the work of this highly methodical and observant man who took his camera everywhere – including up the Tararuas on numerous exploratory expeditions to map, make geological observations, rescue lost trampers or simply for adventure.

George Leslie Adkin was born in Wellington on 26 July 1888, the first of seven children of William George Adkin, a draper, and his wife, Annie Denton. In 1889 the Adkins secured 100 acres in the ballot for sections in the new Levin village settlement, and in 1913 Adkin took over part of his father’s farm.  He married Elizabeth Maud Herd in 1914 and had two children, Nancy and Clyde.

While he derived his living from farming, Adkin’s real passion were his “hobbies” – photography, cartography, geology, and archaeology. Though he had no academic training, he pursued these with an academic rigour and meticulousness to rival any scholar. His work exploring Horowhenua culminated in 1948 with the publication of his magnum opus, “Horowhenua”, an account of the region’s placenames and its pre-European history.

Though perhaps a stretch to say that Adkin was an “environmentalist” in today’s sense of the word, he felt a deep connection with the land around him, and became increasingly disturbed by the threat of development to natural and archaeological features of the landscape he so loved. Though himself responsible for some early clearance in the hill country behind Levin, Adkin was quick to understand the implications of bush-clearance from the hills. From 1944 he became a prominent spokesman against further clearance of the forest of the Tararua Ranges, calling instead for the reafforestation of the “wrongly cleared, mishandled hill country”. Similarly, when the rivers of Horowhenua filled with shingle, overflowed their banks and swept away topsoil, Adkin wrote letters to newspapers, led deputations, and gave advice.

As Anthony Dreaver, author of his biography, An eye for country – the life and work of Leslie Adkin notes however, his appeals to better manage the land were based on economic rather than on aesthetic or ecological grounds, with rationale that could be understood and accepted by those who were transforming the landscape. Adkin’s argued for sustainable use, to make “…the rich, alluvial lands safe to continue their function of producing the large volumes of high-grade foodstuffs on which the prosperity of this country so largely depends.”

In essence, as Anthony Dreaver concludes, Adkin’s life-long goal was to seek to understand and preserve the land and its human associations. Our understanding of the region is certainly much richer for it.

Related posts: Lake Horowhenua and Hokio Stream – a hapu’s story; View of the Tararuas from “the land of the great landslide“; Flaxmilling in the Manawatu.

Sources/further reading: “An eye for country – the life and work of Leslie Adkin” (1997), by Anthony Dreaver; Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Photo top: G. Leslie Adkin aged 17 at Cheslyn Rise, Levin, 1905. The foothills of the Tararua Ranges are in the background. (Photo: Horowhenua Historical Society Inc.) Second from top, right: Cheslyn Rise, home of William George Adkin, Leslie Adkin’s father, 1899. Photo by Frank J. Denton. ATL 1/2-065702-G. Second from bottom, left: Maori storehouse Te Takinga at Lake Papaitonga, near Levin, 1906. Photo by George Leslie Adkin. ATL PA1-q-002-017. Bottom right: Men clearing land, Queen Street East, 1905. Photo by George Leslie Adkin. ATL 1/4-023357-G. (Last three photos not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library.)

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