‘Playing god’ – 1837 and 2017

bait station kanukaDecisions made by men more than a century and a half ago led to me facing an unpleasant ethical dilemma a few days ago.

That is, should I subject animals to an untimely but rapid death, or a prolonged and (I can only imagine) painful one? The animal I am talking about is the Australian brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula),  introduced to New Zealand in 1837 for the fur trade. And it was a decision I was confronted with when I approached the regional council to have bait stations installed on our land, which borders a gully of beautiful regenerating forest.

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Autumn in the Pohangina Valley

pin oakIt was mid-autumn when we moved to our new home in the Pohangina Valley, and the valley has been ablaze with autumn colour – one of the advantages of living in a colder climate where seasons are more delineated.

This has been one of my favourite scenes: a vista from our drive, across the farmer’s paddock out to the Ruahine Range. I love the vibrant contrast of colour: the red of the solitary pin oak, the green of the pasture and bush, against the backdrop of blue-tinged mountain range.

This post was first published on www.catherineknight.nz

See also: The influence of seasons on culture and environmental perceptions; More about seasonal change (fungi)

Life changes

tree houseAbout three weeks ago my family and I made a very big life change. We moved from comfortable, convenient, leafy suburbia on the Kapiti Coast to a 7-acre block of land in rural Manawatu. This involved moving ourselves out of our 213 m2 4-bedroom, double-garaged home into a garage-less house of exactly half that size.

There is a very good reason for us doing this: it wasn’t the plan.

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Did you know moreporks mewed?

baby morepork.jpegI woke up with the rain gurgling down the guttering at 5:30am this morning, made myself my customary morning coffee and sat down to do some work before the morning’s quiet was broken by the duvet-bearing preschooler sharing her first thoughts of the day with me. As I typed, my muted keyboard percussion was accompanied by a “mew mew mew” sound* from the lanky poplars that line our top paddock.

This curious mewing is the less well known call of the morepork (ruru) – the onomatopoeic “more-pork” call being the one we associate with them. (In fact, until only a week or so back I had no idea what creature this mystery call belonged to.) I am not sure what the mewing call means. I suppose, just like humans, owls would get bored with just saying the same thing over and over again (as a mother of young children, I can empathise completely), so perhaps it is just for variety – who knows? (Perhaps someone does – if so, please be in touch.)

 In any case, as far as morning calls go, I think this is up there with the best.

*You can listen here (on the excellent NZbirdsonline site) to the various morepork calls.

Image: Newly fledged young. Wellington, January 2009. Image © Peter Reese by Peter Reese

[Originally published on http://www.catherineknight.nz, 29 April 2017]

Why write about rivers?

Since New Zealand’s Rivers has been released, I have had a number of opportunities to talk to journalists and others about the book and how I came to write it. So, I thought I would document these questions and my answers in a series of posts.

One of the first questions that I have been asked is ‘What led you to write a book about rivers?’

To answer this properly, I have to go back to the motivations behind my first book, Ravaged Beauty: An Environmental History of the Manawatu. The genesis of this book stemmed from a desire to better understand the place in which I grew up, one of the most transformed landscapes in New Zealand. As such it was very much an endeavour of the heart – though this sounds a bit cliched, it was genuinely a journey of discovery for me – uncovering the layers of a landscape that had been so familiar to me, yet so unknown. But of course this book only had a limited audience because of its focus on the Manawatu – a region dismissed by many (including prospective publishers) as ‘boring’.

So for my next book I wanted to write something that would be rewarding for me as a researcher and writer but also exploring a subject that would meet a need – preferably on a national scale. So I consulted Professor Tom Brooking, one of our leading environmental historians, and he immediately suggested rivers. While there is a range of environmental history scholarship on other parts of our environment: our forests, our coasts, and our towns and cities, there is virtually nothing on rivers and other water bodies. (I should acknowledge too, there is very little about our marine environment either, but I will be leaving that to someone else.) Professor Brooking saw a real need to fill this gap in the environmental history scholarship to better inform the debates around fresh water going on today – debates that are pursued with little reference to the historical context. A notable of course exception being Waitangi Tribunal claims relating to fresh water, which are all about history. But while Maori are painfully aware of their history in relation to their tupuna awa (ancestral rivers), non-Maori New Zealanders seem to be blissfully unaware of their history.

The subject of rivers posed a challenge for me, because apart from knowledge I had gained from my research of the Manawatu, I knew next to nothing about rivers. But knowing nothing was in some senses a strength – it meant I could bring a level of objectivity that someone with a deep-seated passion for rivers (through fishing or kayaking or some other recreational interest for example) might not be able to bring to the subject.

But environmental history is also intensely interesting and thought-provoking (constantly causing us to reassess our understanding of the world) – and therefore has immense value in its own right.

 Photo: View of the Rangitikei River, taken by Maurice, cycling the infamous ‘Gentle Annie’ in 2010 (www.acta.org.nz).

New Zealand’s Rivers launch – 17 November

Only a few days to go now until the official launch of New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history, with award-winning journalist Rebecca Macfie. If you would like to join us, RSVP to universitypress@canterbury.ac.nz, or just come along on the night.

Talk: A history of the Manawatu River

ashhurst-libraryI will be doing a talk about my book Ravaged Beauty, with a focus on the Manawatu River, at the historic Ashhurst Community Library (seen here in its original form as a post office), on:

Thursday, 20th October at 7pm.

This will possibly be my last talk about my first book, which is fitting, because I lived in Ashhurst when I first conceived on the idea of doing a history of the Manawatu. I also have the last few books left, so it may peoples’ last opportunity to purchase one (at discount, of course).

Look forward to seeing some of you there. Download flyer for talk here.