Review: David Young, Rivers: New Zealand’s Shared Legacy (Auckland: Random House, 2013). 240 pp. ISBN 9781775534501. NZ$59.99 hardback.

Joanne Whittle1

David Young is a professional writer in the fields of sustainability, history and environmental management. His books include the substantial Our Islands, Our Selves: A History of Conservation in New Zealand, published in 2004, and Woven By Water: Histories from the Whanganui River, a study of relations between Maori and Pakeha on and around that river. In his new book, Rivers: New Zealand’s Shared Legacy, Young takes us with him on an engaging series of journeys in and around eleven extraordinary New Zealand rivers. It offers a revision and significant update of Young’s earlier book, Faces of the River, published in 1986. The first edition provided one of the few collective descriptions of the country’s waterways, and this book provides an equally valuable and highly readable series of expansive essays that reflect the author’s deep appreciation of, and feeling for, these rivers. Before detailing what Rivers is about, it is important to note what it is not. It does not purport to be an ecological textbook and it is light on statistics and figures (although it does provide a useful appendix of the ‘vitals’ on the country’s major rivers). Nor is it a visitor’s guide or a coffee table book of the ‘New Zealand beautiful’ variety; we are being taken on a series of vigorous journeys, and we can expect to get our feet wet. And it will certainly do little to buttress New Zealand’s dubious ‘100% Pure’ branding. As Young points out in his introduction, it can no longer be assumed that our waterways are safe and healthy to swim in. On our journeys Young not only expects us to get wet, but warns us that we can also often expect to get dirty.

The book is very much a narrative of individuals and communities whose lives are entwined with the rivers where they dwell, work and play. Young’s rivers therefore tell us something about ourselves, now and in the past. Each river story has its own central thread or theme, suggested as much by landscape and history as by hydrography. The Rakaia is a tale of irrigation and salmon fishers; the story of the Manawatu is dominated by flooding, runoff and some disturbing statistics (an average flow the equivalent of a 5-tonne truckload of dry soil is carried into the river every two minutes due to runoff into its tributaries), while that of the West Coast’s Taramakau is shaped by the history of alluvial gold mining and dredging. Rivers like the Rangitikei and the Motu are described from the ‘wet seat’, from the point of view of canoeists and various paddlers on, in and at times under the water.

The text meanders from topic to topic, moving from the general to the highly particular, and between present time to historical and to the geological past, in an ultimately coherent and purposeful ‘conversation’ about the rivers. Each chapter can be read quite separately but there are similarities between the stories of the different rivers, with repeated motifs of Maori connections with their rivers, and European settlement with its attendant attraction to and battle against these rivers. Other elements common across the different rivers are: hydro-electric development, which was either threat or reality on so many of these rivers; irrigation; urban and agricultural runoff; flooding and drought.

The chapters are differentiated by the unique human stories associated with the rivers. Each chapter contains contemporary descriptions, individual encounters and historical snapshots. Young revisits some of those whose stories were told in the first edition to see how their lives and their rivers have changed in the intervening period. He takes the role of story-teller, but also offers the voices of a range of other ‘river guides’ both historical and contemporary: conservation campaigners, kaumatua, fishers and hunters, farmers, kayakers, engineers and officials. To give just one example, Brian Cameron, chair of the Lower Rakaia Irrigation Committee, speaks of the despair of farmers beset by drought. Cameron gives a vivid description of sitting in the first spray of water pumped out of his new irrigation well, ‘watching the water falling upon the parched ground.’ Young quickly puts this individually sympathetic image in a wider context; nearly 60% of all New Zealand’s water for consumptive use is allocated in Canterbury, where the dairying industry has expanded enormously over the last 20 years, and there are still more eager landowners ‘hungrily’ eyeing the waters of the Rakaia.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Young is addressing his message to the locals: we who live in this country and for whom the rivers are at once an assumed birth right, a vital resource and a shared responsibility. The first word he addresses to his readers is ‘our’, with reference to the ‘deep, complex and fundamental’ national connection to the river. Rivers is as much an appeal for joint awareness and action as it is a celebration of these water bodies as fundamental elements in our landscapes. The rivers we have in common may unite New Zealanders in experience and appreciation but, as Young shows, they have very often divided people. The analysis of the ways in which people have treated that resource over time, as Young observes, provides a good picture of New Zealand society and what it values. The divisions are most clearly illustrated in Young’s coverage of the middle distance of politics and rivers from 1980s to the present. Here are competing viewpoints and standoffs, often ending in a series of clashes in resource consent hearings, Environment Court and other adversarial forums where opposing interests assert their different truths over how rivers should be utilised or preserved.

There have been enormous changes in New Zealand’s society and in its landscapes since the publication of Faces of the River, including major population increases, the growth of the national dairy herd to 6.5 million animals and the escalating impacts of climate change. In 1986 the Fourth Labour Government had only been in power for two years, the Department of Conservation (DOC) had yet to start work and the Resource Management Act (RMA) was still some years away. Young’s new book reflects the loss of the faith of the late 1980s and early 1990s that the mainstreaming of environmentalism into legislation would lead to better environmental outcomes. There has been a major shift from the assumption that central and local government had the expertise and political will to achieve these goals, and Young blames the decline of water quality around the country since the publication of his earlier book on ‘poor policy, often indifferent management and resistance to the environmental voice for change at the highest levels of government.’

Young is particularly critical of the ineffectiveness of the RMA, the so-called ‘omnibus’ integrated resource management legislation that was enacted in 1991. He argues not only that there has been a systematic failure to activate the instruments inherent in the Act that would have provided direction and certainty for water management but also that, by its very nature, the RMA encourages divisive processes that undermine its own goals. While I believe this last point is open to debate, and that there is nothing in the Act itself that precludes more collaborative, inclusive approaches, it is impossible not to feel his disappointment, and that of other commentators in the book, that the environmental promise of the late 1980s was not achieved.

The solutions to water quality problems are found increasingly in communities and iwi, in what Young calls ‘forms of collaboration around respect and reverence for water,’ and, more pragmatically perhaps, ‘through hard-scrabble negotiation and collaborative decision-making.’ His book gives examples of restoration and protection of rivers, from individual to region-wide projects, where improved water quality and instream values have been provided for, together with economic development and agricultural production. These have occurred, Young states, ‘in spite of the lack of real political commitment to the task from successive governments.’

A particular strength of the revised edition is the snapshot it provides of iwi river management and Maori connections with rivers. It introduces readers to various attempts at co-management and inclusive resource management arrangements that have become an increasingly important part of river resource management in New Zealand over the last ten to fifteen years. This reveals another major shift in New Zealand society since the publication of Faces of the River. In the late 1980s very few readers would have been familiar with terms like ‘kaitiakitanga’ in respect of resource management, or understood an argument for kinship and spiritual connections of a people with their ancestral waters. Concepts such as ‘restoration’ and ‘in-stream values’, not part of popular vocabulary in 1986, are now widely used. In the face of increasing pressure on river environments and landscapes, communities are now well placed to take an active and directive role in environmental decision-making and river management.

The majority of the photographs in the book were taken by the author’s daughter, Aliscia Young. Her photographs are illustrative and some are quite striking but they are not the most memorable scenes in the book. Young’s written descriptions of the rivers are often better at capturing the varied character of the rivers than photographs. Memorable examples include the Canterbury plains where ‘heat and wind lap at the land’ and irrigators, ‘like huge revolving clotheslines’, spray water onto pastures at a rate of 1200 litres per minute; or the ‘raging beauty’ of the Clutha: ‘this green ribbon of power as it uncoils through the harsh landscape. And when flow strikes obstructions, the opacity of its surface folds back in a show of underbelly whiteness.’ Throughout, Young’s landscapes are unashamedly anthropomorphised; weather is ‘uncompromising’, water ‘rages and strikes’ the shore, salmon ‘plough provocatively’ up the river, and stop banks are found ‘running in terror along the riverbank’.

Each chapter is supported by a serviceable if Spartan map of the main course of the river, major tributaries and settlements. The maps are satisfyingly free of the distraction of state highways, the usual reference points for New Zealanders moving about their country, and thus remind readers of a different way of navigating – and comprehending – the geography of New Zealand. The main text is also broken by insert boxes about particular historical events or interviews with influential individuals. One includes a farmer’s pithy recollection of the dangerously aged totara suspension bridge over the Rangitikei ‘as brittle as a carrot’, which later collapsed and caused a truck to plunge into the river, drowning the driver. Another provides a vignette of the experiences of Ken Smith who had the nerve-racking and never-ending task of painting railway viaducts like the Mangaweka and Makatote, perched high above the rivers without safety-harness or scaffolding.

This is largely a rural history with only fleeting visits to large towns or cities. There still remains plenty of scope for historians to explore the role that rivers have played and continue to play in the making and meaning of New Zealand’s urban environments. Young’s portrayal of the attitudes of early European settlers toward their adopted environment are sometimes over-generalised and do not reflect recent work by environmental historians, such as James Beattie and Paul Star, who offer a much more nuanced perspective on European attitudes to the New Zealand forest. There is a small bibliography for each chapter but no footnotes, which was frustrating at times when I wanted to know the sources of particular quotes or statistics.

At some points Young can be caught contradicting himself. He criticises the effects of current irrigation schemes as ‘extreme engineering’ and ‘inappropriate’ and describes their negative effects on the ecological health of rivers. In other instances however, for example in the case of the Clutha River, farmers and orchardists are portrayed as the victims of big government-driven development and Young criticises the design of the Clyde Dam for not giving higher priority to providing local growers with irrigation water. It is in ambiguities like these that the fascination and veracity of environmental histories can be found. Young recognises these ironies himself, as when he describes how the remnants of the violent process of gold mining on the Clutha in the nineteenth century have come to be treasured as historical landscapes. Here the ‘intervention in nature is old enough to be picturesque.’ Given enough time, these highly modified human landscapes may even come to seem ‘natural’.

Young is determinedly hopeful, if anxious, about the ability of New Zealanders to restore and protect their rivers into the future. Rivers is not simply a story of environmental decline from pristine to fatally compromised, and it is not just a call to action on river protection. It highlights the better understanding and greater range of tools now available to achieve solutions. It provides many positive examples and some light moments among the sobering facts about the state of our rivers, and its lavish descriptions will make us look again at rivers we thought we already knew. Hope particularly lies in the growing number and effectiveness of community-driven, collaborative resource management initiatives and iwi co-management arrangements, supported by good science and matauranga. As the examples in Rivers show, there ‘is no reason why rivers should divide us, and every reason why they should bring us together.’


[1] Joanne Whittle is Research Officer with the Southland Institute of Technology Research Institute in Invercargill.