The special March issue of Environment and Nature in New Zealand contains seven articles – all by graduates of Otago University’s history department (see also: In search of Arcadia?). As the editor’s introduction states, these essays represent the most concentrated research effort in relation to environmental history of any history department in the country, and are well worth a read.
In his highly informative essay about gorse, Valuable ally or invading army? The ambivalence of gorse in New Zealand, 1835-1900 Michael Bagge demonstrates that gorse is a prickly subject in more ways that one: attitudes towards the plant defy any convenient linear description. Instead, perceptions of the plant as both “useful” and as a noxious pest coexisted until surprisingly late in the 20th century.
Partly this was to do with the fact that it behaved differently in different parts of the country. For example, in the late 19th century, gorse was still seen as a useful plant in the south of the country. In Otago, gorse fences afforded shelter in a difficult climate, and in Canterbury, although gorse had become a major problem where it had got out of control, it provided one of the best hedges that could grow in the dry soil. But in the warmer, wetter northern regions its tendency to flower twice in a year made it harder to manage, lending weight to the growing criticisms of gorse as ‘a great nuisance’.
Bagge argues that the Noxious Weeds Act, finally passed in 1900, was a definitive but by no means a final point in the transition of gorse from valued plant to noxious weed. Its exemption from noxious weed status and its continued use by farmers demonstrate that positive attitudes to it still existed.
The essay includes some fascinating facts from our environmental history, such as that a government regulation introduced in the early 1850s required that Crown land leased to smallholders should be fenced using either gorse or hawthorn. And that one of the first uses of gorse in New Zealand was observed by none other than Charles Darwin, when he visited the Bay of Islands in 1835, and saw it used as a fencing plant by missionaries at Waimate.
And at least we know that, for all its vices, gorse was introduced to New Zealand for what was a very good reason at the time (to keep stock in paddocks) — unlike Caspar, a small seaside settlement in the United States, where gorse was introduced by early European settlers “for no apparent reason” (though is used to make wine today, so maybe it’s not all bad…)
This essay demonstrates how the detailed study of one subject can provide a very useful window into how our attitudes towards, and relationship with, the environment has changed over time, with insights that reach far beyond the subject itself.