Did European settlers loathe the forest?

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”. In contrast to the conclusions of some of his predecessors, Paul Star came to the conclusion that, in general, early settlers did not hate the bush.

But on recently reading Canadian historical geographer Graeme Wynn’s 1977 article “Conservation and society in late nineteenth-century New Zealand”, I have come to a perhaps slightly provocative conclusion: that it was largely irrelevant what early settlers thought of the indigenous forest. Whether they liked it or loathed it, they felt they had no choice to get rid of it.

Wynn (photo right) explains that most European immigrants to New Zealand in the 19th century came seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Most were working-class, “drawn from the ranks of labourers, artisans and servants displaced and disoriented by the population explosion and rapid technological developments of the nineteenth century.” To them, he explains, “the exploitation of the New Zealand forest was a constructive rather than a destructive process; it yielded important export revenues [if only for a short time] and enhanced the value of the country by converting ‘waste lands’ into a ‘higher’ use as farms”.

For proponents of early forest conservation measures, such as Prime Minister Julius Vogel, it was a futile task to persuade the majority of the settler population of the need to preserve forest for future posterity. From the perspective of these settlers, the conversion of forest to farmland was entirely about providing for the future: for themselves, their communities, and the country as a whole. I agree with Wynn’s views on the dangers of superimposing our values and belief-systems on those who lived in entirely different conditions a century and half or more ago [view Youtube clip].

From my research of historical accounts of early settlers of the Manawatu, more than loathing or admiration, settlers perceived the forest – and its destruction – with ambivalence. And I suspect that, for this very reason, a substantial number of settlers did preserve areas of bush. However, over the decades, many of these fragments have been eaten away – sometimes literally, by stock or possums – but also by wind damage, drainage, and subsequent financial or economic pressures to make more “productive” use of land. For this reason, the rare fragments of original lowland bush that survive today are rare not only from an ecological perspective, but also for the human behaviours – courage, independent thinking, and perseverance – that they represent.

Picture: Chromolithograph by John Gully (1819-1888), 1875, Dunedin. A small clearing in dense New Zealand bush, with tree fern to the left, a young nikau with a short trunk in the centre, the drooping branches of a rimu overhanging it. The tall trees on the left are totara, with epiphytes of kiekie growing from their trunks. The red flower of the mistletoe can be seen at the top of the broken trunk to the right in the foreground.  Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID. PUBL-0010-15.

6 thoughts on “Did European settlers loathe the forest?

  1. paulknight35 July 9, 2012 / 12:29 pm

    Excellent analysis of the cultural and economic issues involved at the time. I have often wondered how N.Z. might have turned out if, instead of
    European migration with a background of pastoral farming, the migration had originated from one or more rice growing cultures.

  2. Anonymous July 11, 2012 / 11:22 am

    There was also an imperative to get your piece of land productive as soon as possible so an income could be generated. So it is a good point that how the early settlers felt about the bush is irrelevant. Good Youtube clip of a geographer in action

  3. Chris taylor July 16, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    I tried to explore how settlers viewed the New Zealand bush in the 1870s to 1900 in my MA thesis “Cultural Perceptions of the Wellington landscape”. I never really formed a tight theory to explain what happened, but once the land had basically become cleared for productive farms people developed more of an appreciation of the bush. I think people underestimate how intimidating lowland bush was as were local Maori who moved more easily through it. The nature of burning the bush has meant that there are few old trees in towns, although I doubt native trees would survive being exposed – so they can’t really be compared to old oak trees .

    • envirohistorynz July 16, 2013 / 1:00 pm

      Thank you Chris for your comment. I agree with you that the European response to lowland bush was quite complex, and not easily categorised simply as one of “fear and loathing”. I would be interested to hear more about your research, as I am sure would envirohistory NZ readers. Perhaps you could contribute a post sometime, with a synoposis of your research, or perhaps picking out some key themes from it?

      • Chris taylor July 16, 2013 / 3:26 pm

        Yes, it would be a pleasure to contribute.

        I approached my research as an Anthropologist, and spent quite a bit of my thesis talking about how Anthropologists can explore historical topics.
        I think I asked more questions than I answered.

        I’m getting back into this area again and am writing about the Cultural Construction of the New Zealand Landscape. A classically provocative Anthropological title (as Anthropologists think everything is ultimately cultural).

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