Review: Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (Eds.), Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013). 391 pp. ISBN 978-1-877578-52-6. NZ$40.00 paperback.

Ruth Morgan1

The lands and waterscapes of Aotearoa New Zealand, their Maori and Pakeha understandings and their transformations, are the focus of Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand. Edited by Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking, this volume revises and updates their 2002 collection, Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Melbourne: Oxford University Press) as a university-level textbook. A third of the chapters and figures in this edition are new, and earlier chapters have been revisited and refreshed, ensuring that each contribution is up-to-date, relevant and advances the scholarship of the field. In this review, I will focus on the most significantly reworked chapters and sections of this collection, particularly the twentieth-century section ‘Modernising’; and ‘Perspectives’, which reflects on contemporary environmental issues and themes in environmental history.

Aside from a revised chapter on the grasslands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the first three sections of Making a New Land are largely unchanged from the earlier edition. Chapters in these sections – ‘Encounters’, ‘Colonising’, and ‘Wild Places’ – examine the interactions of Maori and Pakeha with a ‘new land’ and with each other, and the environmental impacts of colonial economies and resource management. In the first edition, geographers Peter Holland, Kevin O’Connor and Alexander Wearing examined the environmental consequences of pastoralism and farming for open-country landscapes. Over a decade later, Holland has partnered with historian Robert Peden to rework this chapter and engage with the grasslands scholarship arising from their productive collaboration with Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson in the Marsden-funded ‘Empires of Grass’ project. They show how the transformation of the open country into the ‘engine room for the country’s economic growth from the 1850s’ (p. 105) exacted a heavy toll on soil fertility and productivity well into the twentieth century.

After an exploration of the ‘wild places’ of bush, mountains and swamps, this engagement with recent scholarship on grasslands continues in the following section, ‘Modernising’, which also features a new chapter on New Zealand garden history. Historians Tom Brooking and Vaughan Wood return to ‘reconsider’ (again) the so-called grasslands revolution of the twentieth century, which was driven, they argue, by an ‘obsession with the development of grasslands at the expense of other land development strategies’ (p. 193), particularly in the North Island. Here, they explore the impact and legacy of the intensification of land use and expansion of primary production that accelerated after the Second World War. In his chapter, “The Empire of the Rhododendron”, historian James Beattie draws on the blooming literature of the mobilities and exchanges of people and plants to study New Zealand gardens in a superb example of what might best be described as the ‘new’ garden history. Continuing his important work on the Chinese environmental histories of New Zealand, Beattie complicates Crosby’s notion of ecological imperialism through his examination of the role of the Chinese as ‘agents of environmental transformation in the colony’ (p. 243).

Pawson and Brooking reserve the most dramatic make-over of the new edition for their final section, ‘Perspectives’, in which contributors focus on the cultures and ecologies of New Zealand’s post-colonial environments. These environments, Pawson argues, continue to be shaped by the ‘lasting effects of colonialism’ (p. 261). Historian Katie Pickles uses the exciting new approach of sensory history to destabilise ‘comfortable’ understandings of the relationships between people and place, and make explicit just how ‘colonialism involved engaging with the environment in profoundly sensory ways’ (p. 264). This study is especially relevant in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake as residents attempt to ‘remake a place that is situated in its locale, rather than one that adheres to an imperial mindset’ (p. 275). The following chapter, however, suggests that old habits die hard: Nicola Wheen shows the persistence of historic legislative tensions between resource protection and developmentalism, particularly in the area of water management.

These debates also have significance for Maori communities, for whom water and water resources are central to their self-definition. As historian Michael J. Stevens demonstrates in his study of Ngai Tahu, the iwi that holds mana whenua over much of the South Island, economic prosperity may come at a cost as dairying potentially threatens the ‘environmental values and traditional lifeways of Ngai Tahu families and communities’ (p. 309). In the final chapter of the collection, Danish geographer Andreas Aagaard Christensen finds continuity amongst the changes described in Making a New Land; that is, he argues, ‘the history of New Zealand was always a history of spaces and of the ability of its inhabitants to control space and resources cognitively, socially and physically’ (p. 310). Since the arrival of Maori in the thirteenth century, spatial cultures and technologies have proven central to the ways that ‘human societies have attained power over the environments of New Zealand’ (p. 325).

A great improvement to this collection has been the addition of an epilogue, in which the editors Pawson and Brooking synthesise the themes of Making a New Land and suggest areas for further research. They advocate interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the relationships between people and place over time, and make a convincing case for the role of history in environmental planning in New Zealand, particularly in the areas of water, land and environmental instability. They also engage with the challenges of doing environmental history, of the possibilities of framing ‘more optimistic stories’ that offer hope over despair, of learning the languages of other disciplines.

Although Making a New Land features contributions from the humanities, social sciences and sciences, it wears its interdisciplinarity lightly such that the collection shapes as a series of conversations about New Zealand’s past, present and future. Structured both chronologically and thematically, the chapters appear to speak to each other and to broader themes in environmental history. With rural, (sub)urban and wild landscapes well-covered, and the different experiences and understandings of Maori, Pakeha and Asians explored, perhaps a third edition might consider more closely the gender and socioeconomic differences within these groups as they relate to New Zealand environments.

In his preface to the first edition, U.S. environmental historian Richard White observed, ‘In its sweep, its curiosity, and its ambition, I do not know of an equivalent for any other country in the world’ (2002, p. iv). This collection maintains these high standards and continues the fine tradition of New Zealand environmental history pioneered by Herbert Guthrie-Smith in his 1921 study of environmental change on his Hawke’s Bay sheep station, Tutira. It is a text relevant not only to university undergraduates, who will benefit from the suggestions for further reading, but also to historians, geographers, ecologists, environmental managers and policymakers in New Zealand as well as in other contexts forged by settler colonialism. With scholarship of this calibre, it comes as no surprise that New Zealand holds a special place in the field of environmental history and will continue to do so for many years to come.


[1] Ruth Morgan is a lecturer in the history department at Monash University in Melbourne. Her book, Running Out? Water in Western Australia is due to be published by UWA Publishing early in 2015.