Cath Knight

In November 2009, with ample support from my tech-wiz husband, I launched envirohistory NZ, a website exploring New Zealand’s environmental history.

The idea for the website came from a somewhat surprising source. In August 2009, the Government announced a proposal to build an expressway through my neighbourhood – a newly established “eco-subdivision”. The eco-subdivision incorporates low-density housing, expansive parks, and wetland areas to absorb and filter stormwater. Each home also has rainwater tanks and greywater recycling systems. My husband and I set up a blogsite to inform affected residents of the implications of the expressway proposal and how to effectively participate in the decision-making process, while providing a forum for people to express their feelings about the proposal.

We were utterly overwhelmed by the popularity of the site. In only a month, the site went from absolute obscurity to the garnering of 10,000 hits from all over the world. This made me aware of the potential of the so-called “blog,” as a powerful forum to inform, share ideas and network all at once. So when the expressway saga had subsided, rather than returning to leisurely weekends in the garden, I decided to apply this newly discovered tool to a more positive and constructive application – the exploration of our environmental history.

I first became attracted to the field of environmental history after completing a masters and a doctoral thesis examining aspects of environmental management and history in Japan. This led me to reflect on New Zealand’s own environmental history and environmental management practices, with the initial presumption that “We must do things a lot better here”. Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking’s Environmental Histories of New Zealand fast became the most-read (and re-read) book on my bookshelf – and also became the inspiration for many of the earlier posts on envirohistory NZ. I suspect that like many who study environmental history, I am also inspired by particular landscapes that I have a special spiritual or emotional connection with. Totara Reserve in the Pohangina Valley of the Manawatu is one such landscape that has made me think about the way our values and environmental perceptions (in this case, of lowland forests) have changed over time (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: ‘Totara Reserve about 1915’, photo by C. E. Wildbore. Palmerston North City Library.

Figure 1: ‘Totara Reserve about 1915’, photo by C. E. Wildbore. Palmerston North City Library.

Figure 2: Totara Reserve today. Photo by C. Knight.

Figure 2: Totara Reserve today. Photo by C. Knight.

The intended audience for the site is anyone with an interest in either the environment or our history, or both – not only those with an academic interest. So, while the articles on the site are generally drawn from academic research of one kind or another, they are relatively short and written in an accessible, non-academic style, with plenty of photos – both contemporary and historical. The website is in a blog format, meaning that the homepage is comprised of a series of blog “posts” listed in sequential order, and allowing readers to comment or make contributions on each post. I also began a podcast series exploring the stories and themes on the site.

The common message behind many of the stories on the website is that to understand the environmental issues we are facing today, it is essential to understand our environmental past – the way the environment once was, the way we have transformed it, and the implications of these human interventions. New Zealanders, probably like people of most other nations, have largely come to accept as “natural” the landscape around them – only barely (if at all) conscious of the fact that only one or two hundred years ago, the landscape was a vastly different one.

Yet, as those of us who study environmental history know, this rapid environmental transformation has had significant implications, not only for wildlife and ecosystems but also for human society. For example, wetlands play a vital role regulating and filtering pollutants from water, but more than 80 per cent of these have been destroyed since European settlement. Hill country and lowland forests also play an essential role in regulating water flow, and thus mitigating the effects of heavy rainfall or storms. So while erosion, landslides and flood events – such as the Manawatu/Wanganui floods of 2004 – are becoming increasingly frequent and serious, few people make the connection between historical environmental degradation and the events we experience today. Thus, deforestation, wetland destruction, and other forms of environmental transformation are common themes explored on the website (Figure 3). Examples of posts that deal with transformation include: “This sacrifice will bring retribution – deforestation and its consequences”, “The evils of deforestation”and “From swamps to wetlands”.

Figure 3: Carting railway sleepers from Totara Reserve, Opawe Road, Pohangina Valley, about 1904. Photo by C. E. Wildbore. Palmerston North City Library.

Figure 3: Carting railway sleepers from Totara Reserve, Opawe Road, Pohangina Valley, about 1904. Photo by C. E. Wildbore. Palmerston North City Library.

However, the website is also replete with stories about achievements in our (sometimes recent) environmental history. These were often the consequence of the commitment and actions of one or two individuals, with the lesson – possibly clichéd, but nevertheless true – that one person can make a significant difference in terms of environmental and social outcomes. Stories about Christchurch’s Deans’ Bush, Wharemauku Stream in Kapiti and the Nga Manu Nature Reserve in Waikanae are good examples.

Each week, the level of interest in the site increases (with the exception of the occasional blip around events such as the Football World Cup!), and the site has now been viewed from about 70 countries. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of convening this website has been the relative popularity of individual posts – this is extremely hard to predict and a constant source of amusement (and bemusement). The post about Scandanavian settlers of the Manawatu comes in at an easy number one in terms of number of views, but that is because (as I found out from a Palmerston North city librarian), this was a topic of an NCEA assignment earlier in the year. High school students aside, the three most popular posts (in order of views) have been on the history of the radiata pine, 19th century concerns about pollution in the Manawatu River, and the advent of the lawnmower in New Zealand (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Unknown fellow pushing the handmower circa 1920, photo by Isaac Henry Bowen Jefarre. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref. 1/2-077674-G.

Figure 4: Unknown fellow pushing the handmower circa 1920, photo by Isaac Henry Bowen Jefarre. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref. 1/2-077674-G.

Conclusion

The establishment and development of envirohistory NZ has been an extremely rewarding experience, and in particular, I have been thrilled by the support extended to me by fellow denizens of the environmental history “blogosphere”, such as Dr Jan Oosthoek, convener of the Environmental History Resources website, and Dr Sean Kheraj, convener of the Canadian History and Environment website. Like the natural and physical world we live in, this virtual world has provided a whole new realm of friendship, discovery and adventure.

Further information

To find out more about the thinking behind the site, and the research it features, download the podcast interview with UK-based environmental historian, Dr Jan Oosthoek.