The Face of Nature, an environmental history
of the Otago Peninsula by Jonathan West.
Dunedin: OUP (2017). RRP: $49.95.
Pb with flaps, illustrations and maps, 376pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
Muaupoko, the Otago Peninsula, is an ideal place for an environmental history. It is a discrete area with clear physical boundaries; its human history is available in written form (recent enough to have been kept more or less in one place) as well as oral (recent enough that descendants of Māori and Pākehā settlers are still around, telling their stories). Jonathan West’s The Face of Nature gives us a readable history for those of us new to the topic, combined with carefully presented detail for the use of scholars in the broad field.
West casts the story into three parts. ‘Part I: The Primordial Peninsula and People’ outlines the natural history of the peninsula. The first Polynesian arrivals, eventually called Waitaha, are addressed in detail in Kāi Tahu cosmology, and many surviving place names can be traced back to these first people. Their adaptation to a changing environment is part of how Polynesians became southern Māori. Changes in the animal food available, increasingly cold weather, and the developing system of property rights had resulted, by the late 18th century, in an identifiable society living in the territory called Ōtākou.
‘Part II: The World Washes Ashore’ starts when Cook’s notes (he didn’t land) suggested a use for Ōtākou in the great imperial scheme of things. Clandestine shipbuilding in Sydney provided the ships for the seal trade, wonderfully profitable until the seals were gone. Māori and Pākehā accommodated each other in various ways, given the small number of people actually involved in face to face contact, and the physical world of the Otago Peninsula – bar the introduction of Norway rats and pigs – remained much as it had been in 1770.
Enter the whalers and the establishment of the Wellers in Ōtākou; by 1840, the southern right whales were gone. Also enter (in no particular order) farms, Europeans and their accompanying mammals, more rats, more pigs, a variety of diseases, trade, towns and ports – a new kind of economy and a new way of thinking about the land/sea and its resources. And enter the New Zealand Company: in 1844 it bought the Otago Block, and later purchases meant that by 1848, the Ōtākou Māori were squeezed into a miniscule tip of the Otago Peninsula.
‘Part III: Improving God’s Creation’: This starts with the chapter ‘A Desperate Struggle: British settlement on the Otago Peninsula 1848-61’, and the attempt to build an arcadian, Presbyterian agrarian settlement. The new settlement was planned to a fare-thee-well but had too few settlers for more than a modest survival. Māori were pushed into subsistence trading, of fish and potatoes. Then came gold – and people. Destruction by ‘The Axe and the Lucifer Match: Boom-time settlement of the 1860s and 1870s’ ended with a degraded economy, a degraded environment and a degraded population. Erosion of the land and extinction of both plant and animal species were deplored but accepted as “the inevitable conditions of life and progress” (Dunedin Morning Herald, 1881; quoted on p 246).
In 1899, George Malcolm Thomson wrote: ‘A very large proportion of the indigenous flora and fauna has disappeared. The ferns and other delicate plants which formerly filled up the bush are nearly all gone, dried up and exterminated. The big trees have disappeared long ago. The undergrowth consists very largely of European plants, the birds are those of the old land, the whole face of Nature is altered’ (quoted on p 249). The final chapter looks at 1881-1900, and details this alteration. Survey and other maps show the changes on the Peninsula, not least the decline among Ōtākou Māori (also considered inevitable).
In his conclusion, West points out two twentieth-century trends which have shaped his story: ‘First, the twentieth century saw a spreading and intensifying desire to salvage the indigenous environment. … [T]he seeds of that settlement lay in the settlers’ experience of transformation in the previous century’ (p 287). And second, the decreasing economic value of the Pensinsula meant that the physical remnants of its history have not been destroyed; they remain for our notice. For good or for bad, the Otago Peninsula stands as a demonstration of what happens when people meet the land. There’s no way of knowing what will happen next.
‘Environmental history’ is a fairly new field for exploration. The phrase itself became current in the 1980s, when it seems to have edged out ‘historical geography’ as a topic. The territory it covers is huge: political history, technology, biology, economics, weather, geology, social history – most of all, the human race and our behaviour with respect to the land.
And as in many new fields, collecting an enormous amount of information poses more questions than it answers, the main one being ‘Where do we go from here?’ This book serves not only as a detailed study of what we have now by way of Otago Peninsula’s environmental history, but a possible source of inspiration for where to go next.
West and his publisher have done the next generation of workers great service by their attention to design and detail. The book is lavishly illustrated with maps, photos, artefacts. The annotation is careful and makes sources accessible. The bibliography is to die for; the index is intelligent and a pleasure to use (not just a spat-out bunch of numbers). The book is beautifully presented and is a major intellectual resource. GM Thomson would have loved it.
 https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2t40/thomson-george-malcolm and p 250 of this book.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, was published by Submarine Books Mākaro Press in 2017.