Decisions made by men more than a century and a half ago led to me facing an unpleasant ethical dilemma a few days ago.
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or just come along on the night.
I 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.
A new issue of ENNZ: Environment and Nature New Zealand is now out!
Vaughan Wood, “Editor’s Introduction”
Linda Tyler, “Illustrating the Grasses and the Transactions: John Buchanan’s Development of Technologies for Lithography in Natural History”
Julia Wells, “A Physician to the Sultan’: The East African Environment in the Writings of a New Zealand Doctor”
Vaughan Wood, “The History of the Phormium Flax Industry in Canterbury”
Paul Star, “Review: Alan F. Mark, Standing My Ground: A Voice for Nature Conservation”
Vaughan Wood, “Recent Publication: Neville Peat: Stewart Island: Rakiura National Park”
Release in November 2016
From cover: New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history explores the relationship between New Zealanders and our rivers, explaining how we have arrived at a crisis point, where fresh water has become our most contested resource and many rivers are too polluted to swim in.
Environmental historian Catherine Knight reveals that the tension between exploitation and enjoyment of rivers is not new. Rivers were treasured by Māori as food baskets and revered as the dwelling places of supernatural creatures. But following European settlement, they became drains for mining, industrial waste and sewage, and harnessed to generate power and to irrigate farmland. Over time, the dominant utilitarian view of rivers has been increasingly questioned by those who value rivers for fishing and canoeing as well as for ecological, spiritual and cultural reasons. Today, the sustainable use of rivers is the subject of hotly contested debate.
Thoroughly researched and richly illustrated, New Zealand’s Rivers is an accessible and compelling read for all New Zealanders, including anglers, kayakers, farmers, environmental practitioners, policy-makers, students and anyone with an interest in our environment and history.
‘… an important book that should be read by all New Zealanders interested in the future of the country …’ Professor Tom Brooking, University of Otago
‘… informs a New Zealand response to a world concern for the natural freshwater environs: what they were, are now and how they should be for our successors.’ Sir Taihakurei Durie, Chair, New Zealand Maori Council
For more information about the author, go to www.catherineknight.nz
Some envirohistory NZ followers may have noticed I haven’t written a post for an awfully long time. Ironically, that is because I have been too busy writing – my second book, which is due to be released later this year. The book is an environmental history of rivers in New Zealand, and should prove very topical, given the lively debates around fresh water and its management in our country. (More information on the book coming soon.)
I will also continue to blog about environmental history, among other things, but on my new website www.catherineknight.nz My new website will also link to envirohistory NZ, so all past blogs will still be accessible. I will also be reblogging some of my old posts on the www.catherineknight.nz blog.
So, this is not goodbye, it is see you soon (I hope)!