“Doing environmental history” on the Wairau Plain

The Wairau Plain is a triangular-shaped plain which surrounds Blenheim, wedged between mountains and hills to the north and south, and ending with the sea to the east (click here to view map). It was once an extensive swamp, fed by the Wairau River, which originates in the northern ranges of the Southern Alps, and flows north-east into Cloudy Bay, in the Cook Strait. But the swamp has long since been drained, the river controlled to flow in a more “orderly” fashion, and the land turned to agriculture, horticulture and other “productive uses” – most notably, viticulture.

But the Wairau area is also known for a dark episode in New Zealand’s history. In pre-European times, it was home to one of the South Island’s largest Maori settlements, close to the mouth of the Wairau River. It was the scene of the first major clash between Maori and European settlers over land after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, known as the Wairau Affray (or Wairau Massacre) of 1843. This clash between European settlers and Te Rauparaha and his warriors led to the death of 22 European settlers and four Maori.

Ray Craven, who is 76, has recently decided to undertake a doctorate exploring the ecological health and environmental history of the Wairau Plain. Ray’s background is in Agricultural Science (a Bachelors and Masters), which sets him up well for the multi-disciplinary approach which environmental history invites. One suspects, glancing at this work history, that it is not only his qualifications that help him see things of from varied perspectives: among other things, he has worked as a freezing worker, an educator, an operational adviser for an Indonesian agricultural project, and as an elephant supervisor for the Bullen Brothers’ Circus!

I asked Ray why he was doing a PhD at this point in his life: he responded that in part the decision was precipitated by the death of his wife Mary a few years ago. This left a huge gap in his life, and in his own words, “I am not the sort to fill such a huge gap in my life with playing bowls or pottering in the garden”. He was inspired by the example of an educational colleague, a college principal in the Hunter Valley region of Australia, who used an environmental history approach to explore “social ecological systems” of the Patterson Valley.

And why the Wairau Plain? Ray says that the area has always interested him in that, despite its isolation, the agricultural and wider community there has – in his view – been more innovative and  progressive than many regions: adopting new technologies, such as the first x-ray machine in New Zealand, and developing the only New Zealand cultivar of lucerne (a drought-tolerant plant used for stock feed). This is despite not having the benefit of the research or tertiary education presence of Manawatu and Canterbury.

However, his interest in this place is more personal than that. Ray grew up on the Wairau Plain, and his great great grandfather was one of the settlers who died in the Wairau Affray, a great grandfather arrived on the only immigrant ship to go directly to Picton (in 1875), and one of his great grand mothers was a cousin of David Herd, who is credited with being the pioneer of wine growing and production in Marlborough. So his connections are multi-faceted, just as his approach to understanding the history and development of this landscape will be.

Photo top: A watercolour of the Wairau Plain by William Fox in 1848, with the river meandering across it, hills in the distance (looking south). Four figures are visible on the hill to the left, gazing out across the plain. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref ID: C-013-004-2. Above right: Ray Craven. Above: Two views of Wairau Plain today. Top photo is a view from the south western area of the Plain, looking north – “grapes as far as the eye can see”. The bottom photo is of the north eastern corner looking south, showing the current ‘land uses’ – grapes, a wetland (being restored by a local group), a golf course and (not clearly) a number of ‘life style blocks’. Photos by Ray Craven. 

3 thoughts on ““Doing environmental history” on the Wairau Plain

  1. A tremendous article…. and our good wishes are with Ray as he continues his adventure of exploration. The result will be of great value, I believe.

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