Ngā Uruora by Geoff Park
Wellington: VUP (1995, repr 2018)
RRP: $35. Pb, 478pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
This reissue of the late Geoff Park’s 1995 chronicle of the demise of Aotearoa New Zealand’s majestic lowland Kahikatea forests is so much more than a mournful elegy. Its six sections each have a poetic title and intuitive approach that reinvigorates any prosaic associations the reader has with what was, in recent memory, unexploited wilderness. Here ‘recent’ memory is registered on a timescale where Europeans have only featured for the-blink-of-an-eye.
With Ngā Uruora, Park celebrates the thousand years in which Māori discovered Aotearoa and named, harvested, managed, sacralised and wrestled over tribal entitlements to its unique habitats. His observations are all initiated from his visits in a little canoe to the remnants of six key lowland forests. In these he registers the evidence of indigenous occupancy, taking into consideration the environmental, economic, social and spiritual life-ways of their earliest inhabitants. In his engagement with the active occupancy of these ancient sites he is frankly dismissive of conservation values that would lock away tracts of wilderness as untouched virgin territories. He advocates instead a deeply respectful rapprochement with country and it is to Tangata Whenua that he looks as repositories of knowledge and leaders of what is a paradigm of kaitiakitanga.
Most Pakeha and all Māori will have personal associations with the ancient heritage sites Geoff Park sequentially unpacks – at Hikutaia Creek on the Hauraki Plains; beside the Mokau river in Taranaki; around the Hutt Valley river and estuary at Petone; on the Horowhenua plain; and in the South Island at the Whanganui inlet across from Golden Bay and finally, by the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki.
He recognizes these as localities where Māori celebrated and actively preserved an extraordinary diversity of wildlife and vegetation. Also showing how latterly arriving Europeans then and even now, remain willfully oblivious to the irreplaceable specificities of these habitats. In particular, systematically failing to appreciate the connections between forested riverine lowlands and the mountainous uplands as essential for birds. These were imperiled from the moment they could no longer respond to seasonal forest changes by feeding between shore and mountaintop all in a day’s unimpeded flight. The European colonisers’ elimination of the extensive vegetated pathways that stretched from ocean to mountains, spelled extinction for countless interconnected plant and animal species.
The European incomers’ compensatory eye for the preservation of isolated scenic riverside picnic spots is shown by Park to be mere window dressing, masquerading (laughably) as conservation. These isolated oases could in no way compensate for wholesale habitat destruction. But the colonists came with a single-minded fixation on the installation of grid pattern pastoral farming. Park makes the point that to this day in our towns we live in the residential grids they preferred. Their sense of entitlement to drain intertidal zones and river margins – which they despised as swamps (a word whose positive associations Park is determined to reclaim) – and to clear-fell lowland forests, calling them ‘waste’ ground – went hand in glove with what is barely acknowledged even now, as the ethnic ‘cleansing’ of Māori.
Just as bird species faced extinction when they lost the rich variety of habitats they formerly occupied, so too Tangata Whenua were driven to poverty and destitution when forced to relinquish the rich diversity of linked high and lowland river and coastal resources that sustained them. Their demise was anticipated by the European colonisers with the same equanimity with which they beheld the destruction of the forests – as an inevitable aspect of ‘progress’.
But Park’s descriptions of the mosaic of interconnections found in pre-European, and even pre-Māori animal inhabitation of Aotearoa, makes visible to his reader an engagement with country that for those prepared to see what’s before their eyes, invests it with a significance beyond anything that can be recognized in terms of “capital”.
As far as my own links with the vandalized forests analyzed in Ngā Uruora are concerned, I have a family connection with the Mokau River site. Such personal connections are an innate part of Park’s tales, with a website at: ngauruora.nz where readers can lodge individual responses to his findings.
In the late 1960’s my father purchased a ramshackle bach at the mouth of the Awakino River just up the coast from Mokau. Not long after, a big storm blew up and half our section washed away. Dad had a word with someone at the council and for the next week or so a tip truck came and dumped loads of spoil at the now tidally exposed site. But the shine, along with the forest, was gone. Anyone could see that the ocean and the river would, between them, have the last word about our habitation there. We retreated from the coast. There’ll be a lot more of that with the coming ravages of climate change.
There are only a handful of women’s voices in Geoff Park’s chronicle. So as I read, it became very clear to me that if it was men who got us into this ecological mess, there is now no excuse for women not to pull their weight (if we have any ideas that will help get us out of it) – politically and in every other way – assuming it’s not too late.
It is in the last section, set at Punakaiki, that the tempo of Park’s writing becomes most urgent. Until then his tone is measured, his visions of the past, and of the sorry ecological state of Aotearoa NZ today, sounded more in sorrow than in anger. But in The Sandplain Forest chapter, there is so much dramatic outrage and suspense in his realisation of how rapacious mining capitalists are poised to decimate a national park, a reader might feel encouraged to engage mightily with the fight against the extinguishment of biodiversity that, as Park shows over and over again, follows habitat destruction as the night follows the day.
He softens his tone for those whose livelihoods are linked to extractive industries, but he makes no bones about the fact that sickening economic expedience has in a few short generations caused irreparable environmental damage to which ultimately no picturesque ‘picnic site’, and no soil-dead agricultural grid, will be immune.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP: 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’ (Genrebooks:2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/