Tutira: desecration of God’s earth dubbed as improvement?

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. 

Guthrie-Smith and his partner purchased the lease for Tutira in 1882. At the time it was a under-developed, bracken-covered 8100-hectare sheep station. In 1903 Guthrie-Smith took sole control of Tutira, which had by then become a profitable enterprise running 32,000 sheep.

After the First World War he concentrated on writing Tutira, an astoundingly comprehensive book that would bring together 40 years of collected records and observations, notes and anecdotes. It covered all aspects of natural history: geology and soils; erosion, subsidence and catchment flows; rainfall statistics and seasonal weather patterns; the formation and siltation of lakes and wetlands.

But perhaps more than anything else, the work is significant and ground-breaking for Guthrie-Smith’s questioning of whether his achievement was truly “improvement”; this not only called into question six decades of his own back-breaking work to develop the land, but also the prevailing beliefs about the seemingly incontrovertible moral and economic good of transforming the forested lowlands and hill country into productive pasture.

In one of his most-quoted statements, Guthrie-Smith asks “Have I then, for sixty years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?”. Guthrie-Smith also pondered his “contribution towards more quickly melting New Zealand through erosion into the Pacific” as well as the displacement of New Zealand’s indigenous plants and animals through “my substitution of domestic breeds of animals for native lizards and birds; my substitution of one flora for another” and the insidious spread of less deliberately introduced plants and animals. Showing remarkable insight into New Zealand’s less recent environmental history, Guthrie-Smith also painstakingly traces the evidence of primeval forest cover, outlining the shapes of ancient tree-trunks preserved in bogs on his land.

Herbert Guthrie-Smith died on 4 July 1940 at Tutira, after completing revisions and additions for a new edition of the book. The 810 hectares that remained of the station were left in trust to the New Zealand public as an educational and recreation reserve. Today, Lake Tutira is the site of a camping ground under Department of Conservation management, and is a popular destination for trampers.

Tutira can be read on-line at the NZ Electronic Text Centre (Victoria University Library), click here to view.

Photo top left: William Herbert Guthrie-Smith on his sheep station at Tutira. The effects of erosion, about which he wrote in great detail, can be seen on the hills in the background. Photograph taken circa 1939 by John Dobree Pascoe. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ID PAColl-3060-064. Above right: Cover of the 1999 edition. Testament to the acclaim that this book has earned is the fact that the work has been republished in the Weyerhaeuser Series, under the editorship of William Cronon, one of the world’s leading environmental historians. Bottom: Lake Tutira today.

2 thoughts on “Tutira: desecration of God’s earth dubbed as improvement?

  1. Colin February 22, 2011 / 6:11 pm

    Hi Cath:

    Thanks for the rich post on Tutira. It was a great post.

    I found Guthrie-Smith’s book while shelf-surfing in the university library, and it changed the ways in which I approached my project. I love his nuanced writing, especially on the ways in which the movement of weeds kept pace, and over ran, the additions that he made to his property.

    I really wish that more professors teaching environmental history put the book on their reading lists. It’s such a fabulous book.


  2. envirohistorynz May 15, 2011 / 3:52 pm

    Last week, I drove past Tutira on my way to a meeting about a proposed government biodiversity policy, fittingly enough. It was the first time I had seen Tutira, and though I wasn’t able to stop at take any photos, I felt a little like I had partaken in an (albeit entirely accidental) pilgrimage to a significant (almost sacred) place in NZ’s environmental history, and also its environmental awakening.
    However, ironically, Tutira, which encompasses large areas of hill-country with regenerating bush, was completely surrounded by a scene of devastation; the heavy rains of two weeks before had brought down entire hillsides, gauged massive fissures through farms, blocked roads in countless places and swollen rivers with soil and silt. See for example, these photos: http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=34269
    Sadly, this is the consequence of the deforestation of hill country for conversion to pasture that Guthrie-Smith later lamented in his most famous musing “Have I then, for sixty years desecrated God’s earth and dubbed it improvement?” While he learnt through this bitter experience, and set about to make remediation, it appears that the rest of us are yet to learn this lesson.

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