Land slips, Kenneth Cumberland, & bitter irony

Sumner cliff slideIn 1944, Kenneth Cumberland, a recently emigrated British geographer published Soil Erosion in New Zealand, a geographical survey of what was fast becoming known as the “erosion epidemic”. Refreshingly, Cumberland does not shrink from expressing strong opinions. In the introduction to his book, he writes:

[New Zealand’s] cultural youth has been characterised to a large extent by the pioneer destruction of the resources of a little known environment…

The people of New Zealand have been reared in the midst of unnecessary losses of soil and become so accustomed to their presence as to take little heed of them. They often come to consider soil erosion as a “normal”, unavoidable occurrence…

To the newcomer the evidence of soil dissipation is frequently more apparent than to the New Zealander…[overseas experts] rarely fail to comment pointedly on the seriousness and extent of New Zealand’s soil problems.

By the 1930s, there was a growing awareness of the alarming extent of soil erosion in New Zealand, including in government quarters. However, the prevailing belief among many was that it was caused by underlying environmental factors, such as soil morphology, rather than the way we were farming the land. It took the dogged efforts of soil conservation proponents such as Lance McCaskill, and Cumberland himself, to persuade politicians and officials that it was – if not caused entirely by humans – certainly exacerbated by human actions. Their efforts led eventually to the enactment of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act in 1941.

I noted with bitter irony that when Cumberland wrote this book, he lived in Clifton, Christchurch. I can’t help wondering what he made of post-quake images of houses teetering on the edge of crumbling clifftops in the very place he once lived. In the first episode of Landmarks he made, he speaks of the human folly of siting the capital of the nation on top of a well-known fault line, but like most of us probably never considered the decisions being made in his first home in New Zealand (including building homes along cliffs). Sadly, this was quite literally a case of “Down to the sea in slips“, if ever there was one.

See also: “Down to the sea in slips”: soil erosion in New Zealand

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