Vanishing forests: pre-European transformation of the South Island

When we encounter the extensive tussocklands of the eastern South Island [see below right], it is hard to imagine any other landscape in that place – so much a part of the “natural” New Zealand landscape have they become. Yet, as explored in a previous post What is natural? The tussocklands of Lindis Pass, this is in fact a human-induced landscape; the tussocklands have replaced podocarp and beech forest [see left] that once covered the South Island. However, this occurred long before any written history was established, and this environmental history has had to be pieced together through painstaking paleoenvironmental research.

New ground-breaking research, undertaken by an team of both New Zealand and international scientists, has determined how, to what extent, and over what time-frame large tracts of South Island forest were destroyed. Continue reading

Waitangi Park – an urban wetland recreated

With its opening in 2006, the 6.5 hectare Waitangi Park, on Wellington’s waterfront [click here to view location], became New Zealand’s largest new urban park in 100 years. Waitangi Park is near the site of the old Waitangi wetland, which was fed by the Waitangi Stream. Rich with eel, fish and shellfish, it was used for centuries by Maori for food gathering, as a source of fresh water, and as a place to launch their canoes (or waka) into the sea. Continue reading

The valley of disappointment

Today, the Petone and Lower Hutt area is an intense conglomeration of industrial, commercial and residential buildings and infrastructure – interconnected by motorways, roads and railways – concentrated within the confines of the sea to the south and the steeply rising hills of the valley to the west and east. Within this landscape of steel, glass, concrete and asphalt, it is hard to believe that only 170 years ago, this was thickly forested floodplain and estuary, rich with teeming birdlife – including the now extinct huia, and the endangered kokako. Continue reading

Eels and eeling in our environmental (and cultural) history

Eels (or more broadly, tuna) have long been important in the culture of the our islands. For Māori, not only were they an extremely important food source – particularly for those who lived inland, but they were also of great cultural value. For the European New Zealander, eels were perhaps less vital as a food source, but for much of the 20th century eeling represented what was valued about the New Zealand lifestyle – the accessibility of our outdoors for both recreation and supplementary sources of food and income. However, as the health of our environment has become eroded, so too has this ability to hunt, fish, or recreate as freely as we used to. The eel, though less charismatic or cuddly than many of its land-based counterparts, is nevertheless a powerful symbol of the impact we have had on our environment as well as traditional values.

One indication of the eel’s importance in Māori culture is the number of words that were used to describe different varieties and conditions of eel (like Inuit terms for snow): as noted by  David Young in Woven by Water – histories from the Whanganui River, ethnographer Eldson Best recorded at least 166 such words. Continue reading

Mountains, bears and conservation in Japan and New Zealand

Mountains, bears and conservation in New Zealand and Japan are topics featured in an interview with envirohistory NZ founder, Catherine Knight on the latest episode of Exploring Environmental History.

From Exploring Environmental History: “On the podcast Cath briefly talks about the origins and topics of the blog before exploring her work on Japanese environmental history. Continue reading

Impacts of the Maori on the environment

Much of the material on this site focuses on the impacts of European settlers on the New Zealand environment. But of course the environment was neither untouched nor pristine when organised European settlement began in the 19th century. As can be seen in the forest cover diagrams in the earlier post, Destruction of our forests over time, the Maori also had a significant impact on New Zealand’s forests, albeit over a much longer period of time (centuries as opposed to years). Between the beginning of Polynesian settlement in New Zealand around the fourteenth century and the beginning of organised European colonisation in the nineteenth century, it is estimated that forest cover was reduced by about half, largely through fire. Continue reading