Review: Kirstie Ross, Going Bush: New Zealanders and Nature in the Twentieth Century, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2008.

Paul Star

Harry Orsman, in his Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997), shows that the phrase ‘to go bush’ has been used since at least 1941 to mean ‘to leave urban life for that of the rural outdoors; to practise or revert to a rough or outdoor way of life’. This is the meaning behind the title of Kirstie Ross’ book, Going Bush, though she perhaps also wants us to keep in mind that New Zealand’s ‘bush’, its prime indigenous environment, was indeed ‘going’ when European settlers got serious about going into it for recreation or re-creation. ‘Today’, she notes, ‘environmental issues seem to proliferate at a rate inversely proportional to the amount of pristine nature remaining’ (p 168).

This, however, is not primarily a work of environmental history, but rather one of social history, about the people going bush, far more than about the bush itself. The subtitle, New Zealanders and Nature in the Twentieth Century, not only identifies the approximate time period under consideration (Ross actually begins with the 1890s), but also confirms that her subject is New Zealanders first and nature only second. ‘The overarching aim is to show how ideas about nature…have broadly shaped New Zealand society, and how Pakeha have translated the nature of New Zealand into a national culture’ (p 3). It is altogether appropriate, therefore, that this book is published as one of Auckland University Press’s ‘Studies in Cultural and Social History’.

Going Bush follows a roughly chronological sequence, and is neatly divided into four chapters sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion. Chapter One begins by discussing Arbor Day, first celebrated in 1892 and devised as an encouragement to plant trees to counteract deforestation, but concludes that it was ‘no more than a symbolic moral gesture in a land with an economy that was, first and foremost, agricultural’ (p 50). More of the chapter concerns the development of nature study as a school subject from 1905, under new regulations introduced by George Hogben as Secretary for Education. Nature classes, the school gardens that supplemented them and the emphasis given to nature in the School Journal, are presented as having a more lasting influence than Arbor Day in developing a new generation’s awareness of nature.

This is most interesting, but there is fuzziness about what ‘nature’ was studied. Ross, later in the book, appears to accept that nature is not a fixed entity, but rather ‘a cultural process…always subject to revision’ (p 165). Undoubtedly under European settlement, the distribution and constituents of New Zealand’s biota changed rapidly, and (as Ross demonstrates) Pakeha New Zealanders’ attitudes also changed towards this moving target, with greater appreciation of its indigenous elements. But since school gardening or cottage gardening soon morphed into ‘elementary agriculture’, the emphasis at this time was evidently still very much more upon exotic and/or useful plants than on native flora or the ‘pristine’ bush. There is evidence in Chapter One of a sort of nature awareness, but not of bush awareness.

In Chapter Two we learn of some Pakeha experiencing the bush as a ‘landscape for leisure’ from 1919 onwards, as members of organised tramping clubs. There is useful material on the expansion of this activity from 1932, with the introduction by the Railways Department of ‘mystery tramps’ that sometimes resulted in the pillaging of indigenous plants. Among club members, however, Ross identifies a move ‘to foster the appreciation and protection of native flora and fauna’ (p 56). Whether or not we agree that this ‘demonstration of environmental stewardship’ was stimulated by a wish from the 1920s to confirm trampers’ rights, this is a clearer indication than anything in the previous chapter of an increasing Pakeha interest in nature as expressed through the indigenous biota. By taking her account through to the passing of the Native Plants Protection Act of 1934, Ross confirms this trend.

Chapter Three focuses on the later 1930s and describes different aspects of Pakeha engagement with the New Zealand landscape. Ross links the flooding of the Esk Valley in 1938, as dramatically experienced by members of the Heretaunga Tramping Club, with growing awareness of wider environmental problems and the absence, at that time, of central government mechanisms to deal with them. She then hones in on the activities of Joe Heenan and his colleagues at the Centennial Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. In the build-up to the celebrations of 1940 they emphasised the importance of memorial tree planting, which both ‘acted as a historical marker that divided national life into the past and the future’ (p 110) and also, supposedly, fostered conservation. Ross notes, however that ‘symbolic tree planting in town parks was a futile gesture towards soil protection’ (p 123), a subject which only received constructive treatment with the Soil and Rivers Protection Act of 1941.

The fourth chapter, following on a time when ‘national security, not national parks, absorbed everyone’s attention’ (p 125), looks at the years after the Second World War when nature – though now more often described as ‘the environment’ – took its place on centre stage. Ross refers to the work of the Tourist Development Committee in the years preceding the comprehensive national parks legislation of 1952, and to the development of an infrastructure to improve access to and enjoyment of the bush. During the ’fifties, she finds, national parks became ‘an accepted part of New Zealand’s domestic life and…one of the natural habitats of New Zealand holidaymakers’ (p 155).

Given the greater numbers spending leisure time in the bush, an explanation is provided for the unprecedented degree of public opposition to government’s proposal in the 1970s to raise Lake Manapouri for a hydro-electric scheme, to the detriment of the surrounding bush. Ross states, rather simplistically, that in 1973 ‘the power of the people…triumphed over power in the park, and confirmed that New Zealand’s nature belonged to New Zealanders’ (p 158). In fact a compromise position was reached, with the level of the lake raised less than first proposed. Ross does not refer to the parallel, and unsuccessful, attempt by environmentally-conscious Australians to prevent or scale down the flooding of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder. This is one of many instances where, given the space, some comparison with settler/environment relationships overseas could have enriched Ross’s study. One endnote does at least mention the recent work by Australian author Libby Robin on How a Continent created a Nation (2007).

Starting with the evidence Ross provides from the 1930s, we begin to see not just an appreciation of and concern for the bush and concern for the bush but association of the bush with New Zealandness.  Indigenous nature was increasingly portrayed as a significant aspect of national identity, and ‘nature as national culture’ is specified as the conclusion’s theme.  Having summarily described events from the mushrooming of environmental ideas in the 1970s to the rise of the Green Party in the 1990s, Ross ends with an ironic reference to the ‘cultivated reproduction of … lost bush but association of the bush with New Zealandness. Indigenous nature was increasingly portrayed as a significant aspect of national identity, and ‘nature as national culture’ is specified as the conclusion’s theme. Having summarily described events from the mushrooming of environmental ideas in the 1970s to the rise of the Green Party in the 1990s, Ross ends with an ironic reference to the ‘cultivated reproduction of…lost bush’ that Tourism New Zealand sponsored for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2004, ‘to show the successful transformation of colony into nation, nature into culture, and that by settling and unsettling these islands we had become “ourselves”’ (p 170).

This is a book about Pakeha going bush, not about Maori going bush. Ross accepts that ‘Pakeha New Zealanders’ “proper sense of place” is now inextricably linked to debates about the legitimacy of occupation…[and that] they must define themselves in relation to another culture – not just through nature’ (p 167). This comment comes at the book’s tail end, however, and points to one of the book’s silences rather than addressing it. The occasional mention of Maori is sometimes simply used to exemplify the view that, until the end of the period, Pakeha failed to give Maori much consideration.

Another silence in this book relates to those many twentieth century Pakeha who went into the bush not as trippers or trampers, but as hunters. Ross refers frequently to what I would call the ‘forest and bird’ tradition, but has nothing on the equally significant tradition of ‘fish and game’. While hunters have, for the most part, sought exotic game like pigs and deer, they have done so within a context of indigenous nature, growing as aware of it as trampers. Indeed, while most trampers stick with the human-made tracks and signs that are, in Ross’s terms, among the most powerful indications of the claiming and occupying of recreational space, hunters move away from them to seek a different kind of ‘sign’, sometimes resulting in a deeper ability to read and understand the country’s landscapes.

Ross includes a famous photograph of Bill Parry as Minister of Internal Affairs with a rifle in his hand. She writes, however, only about his wish in 1939 to ‘democratise the scenic hinterland…[through] a scheme of state-supervised commercial tramping’ (p 88). While we learn that he evolved his plan when deer hunting, this fact is not reflected on. Thomas Donne who, as head of the Tourist Branch, impacted strongly on how New Zealanders regarded the bush at the beginning of the twentieth century, was informed by his recreational interests as a hunter. The poet Brian Turner, an influential commentator on the environment’s importance for Pakeha culture at the end of that century, experienced nature as a freshwater fisherman. Ross mentions nether Donne nor Turner. Fair enough, perhaps, in a book of only 170 pages. I am surprised, though, at the complete absence of reference to New Zealand’s extensive hunting and fishing literature (other than one line about Barry Crump), and to the role of acclimatisation society members as interlocutors between nature and culture.

Nevertheless, this book is a very useful addition to the literature on New Zealanders and nature, where scholarly attention has too often focussed on the period before the First World War without properly getting to grips with what has happened since. David Young’s history of Our Islands, Our Selves (2004) marked a significant step forward in this regard. Ross’ book takes us further, revealing new gems found within the holdings of Archives New Zealand in Wellington in particular. The text is supplemented by a stunning selection of beautifully reproduced black and white photographs and other images, almost all from North Island sources.

By exploring an area of overlap between the subject matter of environmental and social historians, Kirstie Ross has uncovered and analysed material of interest to both groups, which may help each to better appreciate the other. She has done more than this, in then turning her findings into this handsome, well-written and well-illustrated book. Going Bush will be a ‘good read’ not only for scholars, but for those many other New Zealanders who take an interest in their nature.