Peter Holland Home in the Howling Wilderness: Settlers and the environment in Southern New Zealand.
I first encountered Professor Peter Holland almost twenty years ago when, as an undergraduate student, he lectured me (and my class of over 200) on world bio-geography. There are a number of similarities between those lectures and this book: in the author's attention to detail and exhaustive research; in his concern with accurately mapping human ecological change; and in his grace and respect for people in the past and today. As Holland comments in the introduction, his fascination with colonial ecological change has two roots: one in the farm that he grew up on in southern New Zealand, the other in his frustration with what he saw as the all-too-easy writing off of European settlers as individuals who viewed land solely as a commodity - the latter, an argument made by the influential geographer, Andrew Hill Clark (1911-75), in The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants, and Animals (1949).
As a bio-geographer and historical geographer, it is no surprise that Holland is motivated by a driving interest in the ecological dimensions of settler environmental change. He also enquires into not just what settlers did to the land --and here, his fine-grained analysis is especially useful--but also how they made sense of it, where they got their environmental knowledge from, and how they dealt with environmental problems.
The book itself addresses each of these questions in turn over the period from 1850 to around 1900. Chapters focus on colonial society (1); sources of environmental knowledge (2); unique environmental challenges (such as snow and drought, (3); attitudes towards native plants and animals (4); introduced organisms (5); emerging environmental problems (6); agricultural life and community (7); and an analysis of settler farms as ecological systems (8).
The book makes several contributions to environmental history. First, it provides a fine-grained analysis of southern New Zealand based on exhaustive research into settler diaries. While researchers have examined several aspects of southern New Zealand's environmental history, no-one has attempted as comprehensive a geographical and historical coverage as Holland. I especially applaud his use of long-run station diaries sourced from provincial museums. Until Holland came along, many of these sources had not previously been accessed by professional historians or geographers. In this and in his methods, Holland calls to mind the fascinating micro-historical work of the late Rollo Arnold on settler culture and environmental change in New Zealand's North Island. Second, Holland is able to interweave human environmental changes with changes to climate in a way that, perhaps, no-one has done so before in this country. For example, he is able to demonstrate that, by and large, settlers experienced relatively stable climatic conditions until the 1860s, when a series of extreme weather events challenged their environmental perceptions and environmental practices. Third, Holland presents a new way of looking at settler environmental change in New Zealand by conceptualising of the establishment of farms through environmental change and the introduction of organisms as a series of ruptures to indigenous eco-systems. Settlers replaced complex indigenous eco-systems, Holland shows, with simple monocultures--a process especially prevalent on the low lands. Fourth, Holland does a fantastic job in detailing the quotidian aspects of settler life and settler environmental change: the back-breaking work of deforestation; what the labour routine of a settler looked like over a series of months or years; what stations spent their money on; the average wind direction and rainfall of particular areas. Much of this information is expressed in ingeniously designed and presented tables and graphs.
I do have a few qualms about this work, however, the main one of which relates to its audience (see below). The book as a whole fails to engage gender as a category of analysis. Scholarship overseas and in New Zealand offers models in this respect, such as the work of Katharine Raine on New Zealand colonial women garden-makers, Jock Phillips on masculinity and New Zealand settlers, and, across the Tasman, Katie Holmes' scholarship on women gardeners. Likewise, I was left unfulfilled as to the author's response to his question as to settlers' perceptions of southern New Zealand. His conclusion was that they saw the landscape as a commodity. My own research has revealed that just because settlers were changing the environment or viewed the landscape as a commodity, does not necessarily indicate that they disliked the indigenous or had no aesthetic pleasure in experiencing it. Indeed, the concepts of the sublime and picturesque were readily applicable to parts of southern New Zealand. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed Holland's detailed discussion of settler life and environmental change, I felt that the author was perhaps unrealistically seeking answers to a set of scientific questions about the precise nature of settler ecological impacts - answers that really could never be gained from primary sources. Furthermore, in places I felt the author struggled to relate settler environmental perception with environmental action, in part, perhaps, because he was restricted in his ability to access a wider secondary literature due to the requirements of the publisher. For example, regardless of whether the connection between deforestation and flooding led to settlers changing their environmental behaviour, there was considerable anxiety about this process--anxiety that generated many pages of writing and some considerable efforts to mitigate against it, through conservation, tree-planting and engineering works.
My last point relates to the nature of the publication Auckland University Press intended. While I applaud the Press for printing the book on such high-quality paper and with such care, I think they may have inadvertently done the author, and academic readers, a disservice. No doubt the publisher was motivated by the realisation--quite correctly--that this book will appeal to many readers outside academia. Possibly this motivation resulted in the removal of many of the secondary works so necessary in helping to situate what is such a fine-grained piece of scholarship in relation to its wider field. This is not a slight to the author--whose own scholarship has helped to pioneer environmental history in New Zealand--but a comment on the nature of academic publication in a very tight market. While Holland rightly mentions his debt to North American scholars such as Clark (mentioned above), and there are a scattering of references to the work of Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, a major chunk of environmental historiography is missing. Without contextualising his book in relation to other work - both recent and older--the worth of Home in the Howling Wilderness is singularly diminished. One wonders where the work is of New Zealand's other great 'eco-historian', Geoff Park, or indeed that of the great synthesiser and innovator, David Young; both, like Holland, transgressors from other disciplines into the field of environmental history, who have enriched it considerably. Likewise, one wonders where is the important southern regional work of Julian Kuzma (literature and landscape), Robert Peden (the high country) and Jonathan West (Otago Peninsula)? I would be delighted to see the author write a rich reflective piece situating his work in relation to this wider scholarship.
Notwithstanding my comments here, this is a fine work reliant on the qualities of good, old-fashioned archival labour. And, in presenting such detailed, fascinating case studies within a framework of ecological change, the author has done environmental history and historical geography in New Zealand a great service.
University of Waikato
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|Title Annotation:||BOOK REVIEWS|
|Publication:||Environment and History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2015|
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