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.

New book: New Zealand’s Rivers

Rivers coverRelease 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

Download New Zealand’s Rivers order form

For more information about the author, go to www.catherineknight.nz

envirohistory NZ lives on! (but somewhere else)

frogSome 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)!

Ravaged Beauty receives award

coverOn Wednesday night, I received an award from the Palmerston North Heritage Trust for my book Ravaged Beauty: an environmental history of the Manawatu.

From the Heritage Trust’s media release:

“Environmental historian Catherine Knight has won the Palmerston North Heritage Trust’s inaugural award for the best work of history relating to the Manawatu. Ravaged Beauty: An Environmental History of the Manawatu was described by co-judge Jill White as an outstanding winner from the 2013-14 publications considered. Continue reading

Environmental history and social justice – is there a link? The case of Nauru

nauru islandHuman rights abuses in Nauru are currently under scrutiny by the United Nations and other organisations. We in New Zealand have also expressed our concerns – and with good reason.

But it makes me wonder, how much responsibility does New Zealand have to share in what is, without question, an unacceptable situation? We were responsible for systematically abusing Nauru’s environment for decades, leaving it in ruins. Indeed, without Nauru’s phosphate resources, it is questionable that the ‘pastoral revolution’ in New Zealand, on which our economy depends, would have even been possible. Continue reading

Scandinavian axemen, Maori gardening and forgotten streams of Christchurch

Young Maori girl at Te Ariki Pa. Shows her standing alongside a vegetable garden and a whare. Photograph taken in the 1880s by the Burton Brothers.

Young Maori girl at Te Ariki Pa, near Lake Tarawera, Bay of Plenty. Shows her standing alongside a vegetable garden and a whare. Photograph taken in the 1880s by the Burton Brothers. Alexander Turnbull Library ref. 1/2-004619-F.

In anticipation of my talk on Friday, I thought I would gain some insights into envirohistory NZ’s most popular posts. Fittingly, given that my talk is in the Manawatu, the most popular post (by far) has been The Scandinavian settlers of the Manawatu.

The next most popular posts have been Maori gardening in pre-European NZ and Earthquake reveals the forgotten streams of Christchurch.

Perhaps you might want to check them out.