Environmental history in NZ: seven reasons why it’s important

This image taken by Charles E. Wildbore circa 1907 shows the rural mail delivery that operated in the Pohangina Valley. The background of scorched, leafless tree trunks and limbs draws the eye of the environmental historian. Palmerston North City Library, ID 2007N_Poh2_RTL_0852

This image taken by Charles E. Wildbore circa 1907 shows the rural mail delivery that operated in the Pohangina Valley. It is the background of scorched, leafless tree trunks and limbs that draws the eye of the environmental historian, rather than the mail cart or people in the foreground. Palmerston North City Library, ID 2007N_Poh2_RTL_0852

Why should we study New Zealand’s environmental history? and how is it different from “conventional” history?

These are the questions that Paul Star asks in his essay entitled Environmental history and New Zealand history, first written in 2008, but recently republished on Environment and Nature in New Zealand.

Star offers seven compelling reasons why it is important. And of course, the key difference between environmental history and history is that while people are the central players in conventional history, the relationship between people and the environment is the focus in environmental history.

But Star also argues, very convincingly, that in many ways New Zealand’s environmental history is unique – primarily in terms of the lateness of human arrival to this isolated archipelago and the rapidity of environmental change once Europeans arrived on these shores.

A "selfie" of Charles E Wildbore in his drawing room, c 1910. Palmerston North City Library, ID 2007N_Pi342_PEO_0378

A “selfie” of Charles E Wildbore in his drawing room, c 1910. Palmerston North City Library, ID 2007N_Pi342_PEO_0378

In relation to this latter point, he notes the significance of “the fact that the most dramatic time of change – the European period of the last couple of centuries – coincided with the flowering, world-wide, of written and photographic documentation.” This is an important point, and one that I have been very much aware of (and thankful for) in researching and writing my book about the environmental history of the Manawatu region (see: A racy title is one thing, but what’s the book actually about?). Indeed, scholars of the Manawatu are more fortunate than those of many other regions, thanks mainly to one man, the inimitable Charles E. Wildbore, a Pohangina Valley farmer and bee-keeper, and father of 13 children. By rights, with all that on his plate, he should not have had time to take photographs (I feel for his wife!), but luckily for us he did, and his series of photographs relating to the grass-seed industry and bush burning are some of the best examples of the photographic record of our environmental history.

Indeed, his photographs adorn the cover of Brooking and Pawson’s Environmental histories of New Zealand (2002), the work that Star notes has done more than any other work to raise the profile of environmental history in New Zealand (it was the book that led me to the “discovery” of this field too – something for which I am eternally grateful for).

Star makes useful arguments about the importance of the environmental historian’s contribution to better understanding the “now”, and avoiding historical mistakes in terms of our relationship with the environment in the future. And, working in environment policy, I understand this value first-hand. This is a short essay that is definitely worth a read.

 

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